Dallas Cowboys: Is Tony Romo The Clutchest Quarterback Ever?


The Dallas Cowboys start training camp in Oxnard, California in 20 days. Between now and then, we’re all waiting for word on defensive end Greg Hardy’s suspension and wondering whether receiver Dez Bryant will play the 2015 season under the franchise tag. Until something breaks, thank goodness for Pro Football Reference.

Today, we’ll look at how clutch quarterback Tony Romo has been during his career, in comparison to his contemporaries and some of the greats who’ve played the position.

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There are many ways to measure “clutch,” and none of them are definitive. Mostly it’s a perception, but there are some data points that can be useful in judging whether those perceptions may have merit, or whether the people who cling to those perceptions are probably delusional.

One such measurement is fourth quarter comebacks. Pro Football Reference defines these as games that featured “an offensive scoring drive in the fourth quarter, with the team trailing by one score… Only games ending in a win or tie are included.”

Tony Romo is ranked 14th all-time in fourth quarter comebacks with 24. Here is the Top 20 from Pro Football Reference:

1Peyton Manning41
2Dan Marino36
3John Elway35
Tom Brady35
5Joe Montana31
6Fran Tarkenton30
Brett Favre30
8Vinny Testaverde29
9Johnny Unitas27
10Warren Moon26
Eli Manning26
12Ben Roethlisberger25
Drew Brees25
14Tony Romo24
Dan Fouts24
Dave Krieg24
Drew Bledsoe24
18Jim Kelly22
19R. Cunningham21
Kerry Collins21

An all-time ranking in the Top 15 is impressive, but you’ll note Romo is behind contemporaries such as Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. All three were part of the 2004 rookie class, though Romo was an undrafted afterthought and his counterparts were first-round franchise centerpieces.

Still, Romo sat his first two years, started only 10 games his third season, and missed 10 games to injury in 2010. The players on this list may have amassed more comebacks than Romo, but they’ve also started many more games. So I pulled the “games started” data for each of these quarterbacks, and ranked them by the percentage of starts that resulted in a fourth quarter comeback.

The list looks a whole lot different:

1Tony Romo2412319.5%
2Joe Montana3116418.9%
3Tom Brady3520716.9%
4Peyton Manning4125616.0%
5B. Roethlisberger2515815.8%
6Eli Manning2616715.6%
R. Cunningham2113515.6%
8John Elway3523115.2%
9Dan Marino3624015.0%
10Johnny Unitas2718514.6%
11Dan Fouts2417114.0%
12Jim Kelly2216013.8%
13Dave Krieg2417513.7%
14Vinny Testaverde2921413.6%
15Warren Moon2620312.8%
16Fran Tarkenton3023912.6%
17Drew Brees2520112.4%
Drew Bledsoe2419312.4%
19Kerry Collins2118011.7%
20Brett Favre3029810.1%

Romo delivers a fourth-quarter comeback about once every five starts. There are eight Hall of Famers on this list, and four others who are sure to get there, and they’re all staring up at Tony Romo.

Pro Football Reference keeps another stat called Game Winning Drives. These are defined as “led by quarterback. Must be an offensive scoring drive in the fourth quarter or overtime that puts the winning team ahead for the last time.”

These are the ones you remember. The very definition of clutch. Romo is ranked 18th all-time in this category with 28 such drives. That’s more than Roger Staubach (23) or Troy Aikman (21). Here’s the Top 20 list from Pro Football Reference:

1Peyton Manning52
2Dan Marino51
3Tom Brady46
John Elway46
5Brett Favre45
6Warren Moon37
7Drew Brees36
8Ben Roethlisberger35
9Fran Tarkenton34
10Vinny Testaverde33
Joe Montana33
12Drew Bledsoe31
Eli Manning31
14Kerry Collins30
Jake Plummer30
16Jim Kelly29
Johnny Unitas29
18Tony Romo28
19Matt Ryan27
Brad Johnson27
Terry Bradshaw27

When we factor in the number of starts to determine the rate at which quarterbacks provide us with these classic performances, the list again looks a lot different:

1Matt Ryan2711024.5%
2Tony Romo2812322.8%
3Tom Brady4620722.2%
B. Roethlisberger3515822.2%
5Jake Plummer3013622.1%
6Brad Johnson2712521.6%
7Dan Marino5124021.3%
8Peyton Manning5225620.3%
9Joe Montana3316420.1%
10John Elway4623119.9%
11Eli Manning3116718.6%
12Warren Moon3720318.2%
13Jim Kelly2916018.1%
14Drew Brees3620117.9%
15Terry Bradshaw2715817.1%
16Kerry Collins3018016.7%
17Drew Bledsoe3119316.1%
18Johnny Unitas2918515.7%
19Vinny Testaverde3321415.4%
20Brett Favre4529815.1%
21Fran Tarkenton3423914.2%

Props to another celebrated first-rounder, Matt Ryan, for edging out the undrafted Eastern Illinois Panther, because eight Hall of Famers and four other sure-fire first balloters haven’t done it. Where is All Pro Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers on this list? He’s tied for 104th with 12 game winning drives, or 11.7 percent of his 103 starts.

These stats measure, to some degree, quarterback performance during pressure wins. As such, it’s a far from perfect measurement: Wins are a team stat, not a quarterback stat. But this data does at least suggest that the current quarterback of America’s Team does as good a job as anyone of giving his team a chance to win late in tight games.

As Romo approaches the final years of his career, do yourself a favor and don’t ask where the Cowboys will find “the next Tony Romo.”

Very likely, they won’t. This is special. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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