Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo Among Most Underrated Quarterbacks

By Andrew Carroll
July 20, 2012 12:31 pm
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About a week ago we started this series on the NFL's most underrated quarterbacks by looking at San Francisco's Alex Smith; and next up is someone who took quite a different path to being under appreciated: the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo.

Unlike Smith, Romo was not the first overall draft pick.  In fact, he was never picked at all in the 2003 Draft, and ended up signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted rookie free agent, where he was almost cut before the season even began.

Unlike Smith, who spent his first couple seasons getting pummeled behind a poor offensive line, throwing way too many interceptions, and generally losing game after game; Romo spent all of '03, '04, and '05 on the bench behind Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe, respectively.

Finally, in '06, Romo got his first start, winning the quarterback battle between him and Bledsoe and replacing him as the starter for the final ten games of the season.  The Cowboys would make the playoffs that year and be a 19-yard field goal away from taking the lead against the Seattle Seahawks with roughly a minute to go.  

Romo, however, botched the hold (you can't make this stuff up) and, and as he scrambled left and appeared a sure-thing himself for the endzone, Jason Babineaux wrapped him up one yard short of the goal line (seriously, cannot make this up).

This was the all-too-pertinent beginning of Tony Romo's legend in the eyes of America.  Most starting quarterbacks never even have to handle a hold, and such a fate would therefore never befall them - but Romo started the season as the back-up to Bledsoe, and so it had been his duty up to that point, anyway.  The pure comic oddity of it all...

As the years went on, the Dallas Cowboys' inability to win the "big game" reflected poorly on Romo.  In the world of football, quarterbacks are judged most by the close games they win or lose and the Super Bowl rings they acquire or don't.  And when you play for a franchise as storied as the Cowboys, that criteria becomes magnified.  On top of that, the 17 weeks prior to the playoffs are quickly forgotten by a fan base, and the media, when the season ends on a sour note.  Similarly, losing late in the regular season, with playoff hopes on the line, is something people tend to remember (i.e., selection bias).  It is in these games the case against Romo is made.

Stats below courtesy of pro-football-reference:

Romo is 1 - 2 in career playoff games with a rating of 80.8, and 11 - 17  in regular season games played in December/January (ratings of 86 and 106.5, respectively).  Given that the NFL prefers to hold divisional games during the last few weeks of the season (i.e., during December/early-January), many of those 17 losses came against Romo's NFC East foes in games that helped dictate who would and would not make the playoffs.  In games against the NFC East in general (another thing people tend to remember: games against your rivals), Romo is 18 - 19 with a 90.5 rating, boasting all his least favorable stats when compared to his play against the rest of the NFC.

Still, if you average all those out, you come up with an above-average passer rating of 89.1 (math below for those wondering):

(Average rating in each category times games played in that category) added together and divided by total games played = average rating in "high-visibility" games
((80.8 times 3) + (90.5 times 37) + (86.0 times 25) + (106.5 times 3)) / 68 = 89.1 rating (record: 30 - 38)

This is eerily close to Romo's numbers in another category of games that people tend to remember: close ones.  In contests decided by seven or less points, he has amassed a rating of 89.4 and a record of 22 - 25.

If you take either of the ratings above (89.1 of 89.4), or both, it is clear that in matches where Romo's value is most measured and criticized - and most visible - he achieves a rating markedly less than his career average, but still high enough to put him among the top ten passers during most NFL seasons.  Even if that was all Romo was good for, it should be good enough to have a better record than 30 - 38 in those games.  But Romo does better than that.  For his career, believe it or not, he is the second highest rated passer of all time.  Yet, somehow, that only nets him a very pedestrian career record of 59 - 40.

Passer rating is an oft-criticized metric, and my consistent use of it here may seem curious...

SIDE NOTE:  If it bothers you that much, you may take comfort in playing around with the table here and noticing Romo is among the best all time during a quarterback's "prime" years in both AY/A and ANY/A.  And accounting for "prime" years actually hurts Romo's standing.  The reason for this is that Romo spent his first few years - a time when quarterbacks make many mistakes - on the bench.  

Also, Romo is just now exiting his "prime" years, at the age of 32, where one would expect such numbers to decline.  In other words, Romo has only ever had the opportunity to play during his peak years.  This makes his career averages appear better, so to account for that the table above only looks at other quarterbacks during similar years (notice Rodgers benefits from the same career path).  Romo's standings go up even further if you take out such age considerations.

However, as Cold Hard Football Facts has noted, passer rating is the Mother of All Stats in the NFL when you compare the two ratings of the winning and losing quarterbacks - and it is this point here we want to illuminate.  If Romo is performing among the best in his position, year-in, year-out, on a very consistent basis, even in losses and close games, then what exactly has his defense been doing against opposing quarterbacks?  The answer: not much.  Remember, if 25 of Romo's 40 losses have been within one touchdown, then while any one mistake by him is costly, so too is any one mistake by the defense (or special teams).

 

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By Andrew Carroll
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Previous Comments (2)

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21 months ago
Great article. Nice analysis. Think Romo is hated because he's a Cowboy. Everyone hates the Coyboys after all. If he was a Card, Seahawk, or even Raven people would be gushing over him.
21 months ago

Thanks, Marcus. And yes, Romo being a Cowboy has a lot to do with him being underrated, definitely.

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