Back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys host the Detroit Lions in the House That Jerry Built for a 2015 NFL Playoffs Wild Card Weekend matchup. Luis Sotelo examines Romo’s record.
This statement has been taken as fact for nearly a decade and few people see fit to question whether it’s true. Romo is most known for a handful of plays that have either ended the Cowboys’ season or severely crippled their ability to win crucial games: the botched field goal snap in the 2006 Wild Card loss to Seattle; the interception to end a 2009 Divisional Round loss to the New York Giants; the floated and intercepted dump-off pass allowing Washington to win the NFC East in the 2012 season finale. These well-documented flubs, and others, are seen as emblematic of Romo’s professional career. Choker: The Story of Tony Romo.
This is unfortunate for a quarterback who has crafted a regular-season résumé that all but the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the league – and Eli Manning – would be jealous of. For his career, Romo has thrown for 33,270 yards (29th all time) and 242 touchdowns (t-21st), with a 97.6 career quarterback rating (2nd). Career passing statistics skew heavily towards the modern era, but it doesn’t take much to see that Romo has put together an excellent career, statistically speaking, even when compared to other recent quarterbacks. He even ranks 45th all-time with 75 wins in his career – a .610 winning percentage – despite playing for some dismal Cowboys teams. However, it is the 48 losses that have produced the most memorable moments of Romo’s career.
Question the Play Calling
This phenomenon resulted from several circumstances, including the tendency of media to rely on “storylines”. Another primary source of criticism is Romo’s gunslinging mentality. However, it should not be surprising that a guy who grew up idolizing Brett Favre would adopt that style for his own. Through coaching and experience, such tendencies have gradually been replaced by better decision-making, but bumps in the road remain. Trying to do too much has been a hallmark of Romo’s tenure, manifesting itself in forced passes that led to unfortunate events. One such example came in a Week 4 matchup against the Detroit Lions in 2011 where he threw two interceptions for touchdowns, helping the Cowboys blow a 24-point third-quarter lead.
That raises the question: Why in the world would the Cowboys throw the ball 13 times in the second half of a game in which they led by 24 points?
This game serves as a microcosm of why observers view Romo primarily as a goat: The Cowboys’ inexplicable reluctance to run the ball often forced the fate of the team onto his shoulders. Romo yielded three interceptions in all that day, with two of them thrown on the first play of a Cowboys drive.
Conventional wisdom dictates that when holding a large lead in the second half of a game, you run the ball to take time off the clock. In the span of time when the aforementioned 13 pass attempts occurred – from 12:23 remaining in the third quarter to 1:39 remaining in the fourth quarter – Dallas ran the ball only 11 times despite averaging 4.2 yards per carry on the day.
However, Romo is not blameless. Throwing three interceptions while trying to hold a lead is completely unacceptable. Even a rookie quarterback would find himself in danger of being benched after such a game. All three throws were clearly destined for the opposition: the first when Romo stared down his receiver, the second when the defender jumped the receiver’s slant route, and the third after Romo heaved the ball across the field off his back foot.
Fast forward to Week 15 of the 2013 season. The Cowboys led the Packers 26-3 at halftime but ended up losing 37-36. In the second half of that game, the Cowboys snapped 32 plays and only ran the ball eight times. Similar to the Detroit game two years earlier, the Cowboys could have run out the clock in the second half (they rushed for 132 yards on 18 carries for the game), but instead elected to throw the ball 75% of the time. Predictably, Romo threw two costly interceptions in the fourth quarter that sealed the Cowboys’ fate – with one ill-fated throw leading directly to the game-clinching touchdown. It’s this kind of late-game, late-season collapse that adds fuel to the fire of Romo’s reputation. Yet, Romo is only the most visible piece of the puzzle on a team that had been maddeningly mediocre for far too long despite Romo consistently putting up top-10 caliber statistics year after year.
A prominent characteristic of the Jason Garrett-era Cowboys has been poor defense. Since Garrett took over full-time in 2011, the Cowboys have never finished a season allowing less than 340 yards per game in a season. Despite the presence of stalwarts such as DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee, the defense struggled to keep opposing offenses at bay. No lead has ever felt safe for the Cowboys because the defense has always resembled a leaky dam. Poor drafts (2009), busted picks (Morris Claiborne), expensive free agent flops (Brandon Carr), and failed scheme experiments (Monte Kiffin) have conspired to scuttle the Cowboys’ attempts at building a defense.
It is possible, however, to win in the NFL with an average defense. The 2014 Cowboys have been able to do that, compiling a 12-4 record despite giving up an average of 22 points per game (good for 15th in the league) and 355 yards per game (19th). The most surefire way to win like that is, obviously, to outscore the opposing offense. The Denver Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in 2013 with a defense that was roughly the equivalent of the 2014 Cowboys. They did it with an offense that averaged 36 points per game and more than 450 yards per game, easily overcoming a defense that was the envy of no one. This is not a blueprint for sustained success, however, as an elite defense can and will stop any offense, which the Broncos learned in the Super Bowl, much to their chagrin.
The dirty little secret no one seems to talk about is that Romo has long been asked to do too much – indeed, too much for perhaps any quarterback. Only once since Bill Parcells left the team following the 2006 season have the Cowboys averaged more than 28 rushing attempts per game – in 2014. What this has meant is that Romo would average 35 passing attempts per game in the post-Parcells era. That comprises nearly 60% of their offensive plays over a four-year period
Even in short-yardage situations, Garrett had the Cowboys lined up in a spread formation and throwing the ball. This continued even as play-calling duties were passed from Garrett to Bill Callahan. Perhaps the Cowboys had other reasons for calling those types of plays – something beyond Garrett’s inherent pass-happy ideology.
Enter the offensive line.
Prior to drafting Tyron Smith in 2011, the Cowboys hadn’t chosen an offensive lineman in the first round of the draft since selecting Howard Richards in 1981, a 30-year span. Jimmy Johnson, whose offensive line is considered one of the best in NFL history, drafted Steve Wisniewski with the first pick of the 2nd round – 29th overall – in 1989, but never used a first rounder.
With Smith in the fold, the Cowboys proceeded to draft Travis Frederick and Zach Martin in the first round in 2013 and 2014, respectively, giving Dallas three opening-round picks on their offensive line. Lost in the post-draft discussion of how close noted football genius Jerry Jones came to picking Johnny Manziel was that the Cowboys had quietly built a reliable offensive front. They didn’t merely cobble together a front of castoffs, retreads and second-day draft picks, but instead put together a line composed of blue chip prospects able to ward off pass rushes.
This is what sets the 2014 Cowboys apart from previous iterations. No longer is Romo safeguarded by the likes of Kyle Kosier or a washed-up Brian Waters. No longer is Romo’s blindside protected by an out-of-his-league Doug Free. No longer do the Cowboys have to abandon an ineffective running game to muster any kind of offense.
The Cowboys now possess the league’s 2nd-ranked rushing attack and the NFL’s rushing champion. They now own an offensive line considered by many to be the best in the NFL. They now hold a quarterback who has to do only what is necessary to win, instead of trying to throw the entire team on his back and carry them solo. Dallas can now boast to be the 8th team in NFL history to go undefeated on the road, and the Cowboys can thumb their nose at the month of December.
Football is a team game. Quarterbacks get far too much credit when things go right, and too much blame when they do not. Romo had the best statistical season of his career in 2014. Only once as a pro has he thrown for more touchdowns (2007). Only one other time in his career has he thrown fewer than 10 interceptions in a full season (2009). He has never had a better completion percentage or quarterback rating. Yet, despite all of these accomplishments, he is not the sole reason the Cowboys are owners of a 12-4 record and the NFC East title. Why, then, should he shoulder the blame for the team’s past failures?
There’s only so much a quarterback can do with a patchwork offensive line, a shoddy running game and an average defense. If Romo’s greatest sin is that he couldn’t carry those mediocre Cowboy teams to the playoffs, that doesn’t make him a choker. That makes him human. At worst, Tony Romo has a scratchy throat, but that’s no reason to administer the Heimlich.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
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