‘Romo Can’t Win the Big Game’ is a Lazy Narrative

It seems that just about every NFL fan, analyst, and – if Washington Redskin Chris Cooley is any indication – player, has an opinion on Tony Romo’s quarterbacking skills. It is clear that the vast majority of those opinions are negative. However, despite the conviction with which they are delivered, they remain mere opinions. Just because they are stated as fact, in absolute terms, does not make them so. They are simply forecasts, arrived at through a combination of evidence and emotion. There is a strong likelihood that emotion has taken on a disproportionately large role in coming to these subjective conclusions, at the expense of perspective and accuracy.

One can understand how fans of the Dallas Cowboys can be emotional about this subject. Most fans use too much of their hearts, and not enough of their brains, when it comes time to critique those very same teams. The relatively little “evidence” that is gathered has been filtered through sensationalist and slanted media coverage that is shaped to draw the eye of as many viewers as possible. As a result, accuracy and long-term perspective are secondary goals for those in the sports media business. This is especially true of the outlets that are the easiest for the average fan to consume. In other words, the more patience and analytical thought that a particular subject requires, the more it is judged as uninteresting and tedious for the average customer. Whether this is truly the case, or if it is actually the mainstream sports media themselves who have created the less-than-analytical sports fan, is a fascinating chicken or egg question best saved for another day.

“Dallas Cowboys fans are sick of it. We had (Romo) on our shoulders last week. ‘Oh Tony, he’s our king!’ But now we want to stone him. I’m serious, that’s the way (fans) feel about him because you can’t trust him. I like him. Statistically, he’s great, but you can’t trust him.”

-Deion Sanders, on Tony Romo – NFL Network analyst and former Dallas Cowboys defensive back (10/2/11)

Too often we will hear an NFL commentator qualify their opinion with, “Yes, he has good stats, but…” on their way to making a seemingly larger and usually subjective point about Romo’s inability to win games. Yet not often enough do they stop to consider just what those dominant statistics may foretell. An objective viewing of these numbers, and more importantly, a comparison to his statistical peers, is quite instructive.

Although passer rating has its detractors, it also does have an undeniable degree of utility in separating good quarterbacking performance from bad. Tony Romo’s career passer rating (95.3) ranks fifth all time. The four players ahead of him are Aaron Rogers (100.5), Steve Young (96.8), Philip Rivers (96.6) and Tom Brady (95.7), and the four that fall immediately after Romo are Peyton Manning (94.9), Kurt Warner (93.7), Joe Montana (92.3) and Drew Brees (92.1). Each of those peers has won at least one Super Bowl with the exception of Rivers, who is widely considered among the best quarterbacks in the NFL today. At least half of those players are, or will be in the Hall of Fame. Romo also has the highest fourth quarter passer rating of all active quarterbacks, something that flies directly in the face of his widely held reputation as a late game choker.

One of the main criticisms of the passer rating statistic is it gives too much credit to low-risk passers who, as a result of their risk-averse ways have higher completion percentages and do not take necessary chances by throwing the ball farther down the field. It is true that Romo’s passer rating benefits from his high completion percentage. He is eighth all time in this area (64.1%), nestled in just after Rogers, Manning, and Young, and just before Rivers, Brady and Montana. However, not only is Romo one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, he is also ranks fourth all time in yards per pass attempt (8.1). Illustrative of how these elite numbers are not merely a product of the modern NFL, you can find his name listed right behind all-time NFL legends Otto Graham, Sid Luckman and Norm Van Brocklin on this list. Slotted into the fourth spot here, Romo bridges the gap between old and new, as Ben Roethlisberger, Rivers, Rogers, Young and Warner immediately follow him on this list.

Another knock on Romo is that he will kill his teams with his many negative plays. Interestingly enough, when looking at these numbers it becomes clear that the opposite is true. He is tied with Brady at 18th all time in sack percentage (4.84%), while playing behind offensive lines that have paled in comparison with the Patriots’. He is also tied with two Hall of Famers by the names of Dan Marino and Troy Aikman in interception percentage (3.0%), a fact that probably surprises many fans of the Dallas Cowboys who are also anti-Romo.

An additional negative that is ascribed to Romo is that he is one of the most erratic quarterbacks in the game. His detractors agree that he will play well for stretches, but contend that he eventually will hurt his team as much as he helps it. This is not entirely accurate. ESPN Stats & Analytics has devised a statistic that they refer to as expected points added (EPA). It measures each play and determines how many points it produces for a player’s team or how many points it prevents them from scoring. ESPN then used EPA to measure the fluctuations in a quarterback’s performance on a play-to-play basis. They then ranked the active NFL quarterbacks, from the largest amount of play-to-play fluctuation to the least. Tony Romo came in as only the 13th-most erratic on the list, behind such stars as Michael Vick (1st), Ben Roethlisberger (5th), Philip Rivers (8th) and even Aaron Rogers (9th). By itself, this does not completely refute the perception that Romo is an erratic quarterback. This analysis involves new statistics that are not widely accepted, and takes into account some subjectivity when assigning EPA as each play is analyzed. However it is another hole, albeit small, in the widely accepted narrative of Romo being inordinately erratic when compared to his peers.

Taken by themselves, these statistics do not necessarily prove that Tony Romo has been misjudged as someone who can never win a Super Bowl, or that those who have disparaged him have rushed to that severe judgment. However they should, at minimum, give pause to those who have dismissed him so definitively. Has his play resulted in such an astounding statistical anomaly that he repeatedly ranks among the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, while at the same time being unworthy of the trust of a franchise that has only one playoff victory in 15 years? Incidentally, Romo has played only four full seasons since taking over as a starter, and he quarterbacked them to that single playoff win.

“As Sunday’s 21-18 loss to Pittsburgh proved, Manning just can’t put together a consistently good game when the season gets to one-and-done.

But the blame for the loss, again, falls firmly on Manning, who once again underperformed when the season was on the line.”

-Bob Cook, on Peyton Manning – NBCSports.com (1/15/06)

One of the largest knocks on Romo is that his performance takes a nosedive when the stakes are highest. This is where we see the narrative begin to take shape. Once fans, led astray by the media, begin to latch onto a storyline about a particular player or team, on some levels it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mainstream media outlets have little motivation to dispel commonly held opinions because these narratives make their jobs easier. Everything that can loosely fit into the established narrative is quickly held up as proof that the storyline is fact, whether or not it is entirely accurate.

This phenomenon is most prevalent among high profile players and big market teams. Quarterbacks, in particular, are vulnerable to being typecast in a number of ways. If you are labeled a ‘gun slinging’ or a ‘game managing’ or a ‘mobile’ or a ‘mistake-prone’ or a ‘dink-and-dunk’ or a ‘system’ quarterback, the story almost writes itself. Everything is looked at through that previously established prism, and instances where circumstance and performance do not fit are quickly minimized or entirely ignored. It is no wonder that when most fans think of a player, they seem to remember innumerable instances where the player has reinforced the narrative, yet can only recall specifics about a fraction of these countless corresponding examples.

Tony Romo has led 11 fourth quarter comebacks and 12 game-winning drives since he’s become a starting quarterback. That certainly does not fit the narrative when it comes to his supposed late game futility, yet very few people have any idea about those contradictory performances. Why would they? Fans are still subjected to rewatching a play that occurred five seasons ago, in which Romo was not even throwing a pass, as supposed proof of his being unable to quarterback a team to a Super Bowl. In a road playoff game during which Romo had played his own position very well, he had helped put the Cowboys in position to win on a short field goal. He wound up fumbling the snap as the field goal holder, and Dallas lost the game. Yet this connection, abstract at best, is continually presented as proof that Romo does not have what it takes…as a quarterback.

When “analyzing” late game quarterbacking consists of the highlighting of how well the subject holds for a field goal, while at the same time disregarding numerous positive fourth quarter performances at the very position in question, we have officially entered the Twilight Zone. Even more amazing is the fact that usually reasonable fans accept it without question. Yet that is the reality of what a lazy, sensationalistic sports media has wrought.

“Sooner or later we’ve just got to quit guessing and assuming that this guy is the guy to get you over the hump, and say, ‘You know what? This guy is always going to be great statistically, but he’s not that guy that can take you to where you want to go.’ And that’s the Super Bowl.”

-Deion Sanders, on Tony Romo -NFL Network analyst and former Dallas Cowboys defensive back (10/2/11)

The continuous hammering home of such unquantifiable analysis by allegedly respected professional analysts has served to create an army of unthinking fans who parrot back the same vague arguments about why he has not, and more importantly, will not win a Super Bowl. This is clearly shown by phrases such as, “He lost the game with that interception” and “the loss is 100% on Tony Romo.” It sounds catchy, and is repeated often, but it is simply impossible. Football is a team game, and each game situation is unique unto itself. If not for Tony Romo’s participation in a game up until some vital play in question, the Cowboys might have been losing by three touchdowns. Then again, if not for the Cowboys’ defense playing a particular way, that point in question might not have been so important in the first place. The assigning of blame, in absolute and unqualified terms, clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding about what goes into deciding the outcome of a game. However, it is easier than delving into the details and ancillary causes of a final score. It probably is also far easier than trying to explain the Butterfly Effect to Chris Cooley.

In analyzing an outcome, the media is far more anxious to assign blame and identify a goat than it is to praise a victor. If an NFL game ends in a triumphant comeback, the first question is not, “How did they pull off that amazing feat?” The main storyline that is highlighted invariably has to do with how the losing team allowed it to happen in the first place. The losing team’s fan base wants someone to blame and the media is only too happy to oblige. Enter the scapegoat, who more often than not is a high profile player or coach. If that player or coach happened to have a direct hand in any negative plays that contributed to the changing of the game’s momentum, full and unqualified blame is assigned. Further inspection into other causes is rarely conducted, and if it is it will occur far away from any headlines. Not only is this narrative of “all his fault” a literal impossibility, it demonstrates a willingness to suspend rationality in the name of emotional incrimination. When that is the jumping off point for an analysis, is it any wonder that fans and media so often get it completely wrong?

Rare are the mentions of the poor offensive lines that he has played behind. Even rarer are those analysts who point out how the Dallas Cowboys running offense has been dormant for over a decade. Is it any wonder that the one time in Romo’s tenure as a full-time starter that they ranked in the top 10 (7th) in rushing yards per game the Cowboys went 11-5 and won their first playoff game in 15 years? Before and after that season, Romo has had to deal with rushing attacks that have ranked 13th, 17th, 21st, 16th and this year they are 25th in rushing yards per game.

Similarly, is it any wonder that the one time in Romo’s tenure as a full-time starter that the Cowboys defense ranked in the top 10 (2nd) in points allowed, they went 11-5 and won their first playoff game in 15 years? Before and after that season, Romo has had to deal with defenses that have ranked 20th, 13th, 20th, 31st and this year they’re 23rd in points allowed.

When it comes time to blast Romo, we do not hear very much about poor coaching and play calling. We do not hear very much about inexperienced and unreliable receivers running incorrect routes. We do not hear very much about injuries he has played through. It is true that we have heard about his broken ribs this season after the Cowboys won a couple of exciting games. However, how much did we hear about his injuries after they wound up losing one? Those storylines and viable alibis were not brought up because they would have gone against the grain of the anti-Romo narrative. As is typical, once the ball gets rolling, and the torches are lit, minor inconsistencies in the narrative are underreported.

“He is the 21st century symbol of big numbers in the face of futility.

He is a visible superstar who is developing a reputation as a guy who can’t get it done when it matters.

His inability to win the big one will be dissected and analyzed until next season, when he submits another big pile of statistics.”

-Jackie MacMullan, on Peyton Manning – Boston Globe (1/17/05)

Peyton Manning is going to go straight into the NFL Hall of Fame. He would have even if he had not won Super Bowl XLI, but in doing so he proved a lot of people dead wrong. Up until that point, Manning was known as an all-stats, no-substance quarterback who “couldn’t win the big one.” Manning’s Indianapolis Colts would put up eye-popping offensive numbers during the regular season only to invariably lose in the playoffs. And then they didn’t lose. There were many tangible reasons for this, from the rest of the Colts improving, to their opposition taking a step back, to just plain good fortune. What did not change much at all, however, was the quarterback. He was the same excellent player he was when he was labeled a ‘choker’ who could not lead his team to a Super Bowl. After they won, we were treated to a plethora of stories about how Manning “finally won the big one” written by many of the very same media members who had up until that point contended that he never would.

There are a very many similarities between Manning and Tony Romo, and they go beyond the faulty narrative that has to do with their inability to win big games. A quick look at a few seasons during the developmental stages of their careers shows some striking similarities. If you hold up their second, third and fourth years as starting quarterbacks, you will notice that Romo compares fairly favorably to one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. In 45 games for Romo (he missed three games due to injury during those seasons), and 48 games for Manning, Romo comes out ahead in winning percentage (.711 vs .604), completion percentage (63.0% vs 60.4%), yards per game (269.8 vs 264.1), yards per attempt (8.16 vs 7.82), TD/INT (88/42 vs 84/53) and quarterback rating (95.9 vs 91.3). The advantages in each category are mostly slight, but they do exist.

Looking at the first four playoff games of their careers, the similarities continue. Both of their teams had a 1-3 record. Manning comes out ahead in yards per game (208 vs 234), yards per attempt (7.6 vs 6.2) and TD/INT (6/2 vs 4/2). Romo had a better completion percentage (59.3 vs 57.0). Again, the differences between the two are slight, and what stand out are the similarities.

Romo has only had four full seasons as a starting quarterback. Manning didn’t win a Super Bowl until his ninth year as a starter. He was 30 years old when he won Super Bowl XLI and has since turned in four additional excellent seasons. Romo is now 31 years old. Does this quick comparison between the two prove that Romo will be as successful as Peyton Manning? Of course not, but it is another piece of tangible evidence that points to the possibility that the media has unfairly condemned Romo as someone who can never win a Super Bowl.


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(OSU won the BCS National Championship with a 14-0 record in 2002)

The history of sports, and sports media, is littered with examples of how a rush to judgment can easily backfire. From Alex Rodriguez, to Jim Tressel, to John Elway, to Steve Young, to Trent Dilfer and countless others, we have witnessed plenty of egg that unfortunately has not stuck to the faces of those who have deserved it. If it had, the current sports fan would not be as quick to jump on board another faulty narrative. Does this mean that Romo will definitely win a Super Bowl? Nobody can say that for sure, which is exactly what makes sports so worth following.

Tony Romo is quite obviously a very skilled and still-developing quarterback whose reputation has fallen victim to a number of external forces. The outsized expectations of Dallas Cowboys fans, spawned by both his statistical successes as well as their own overly entitled attitude, have clearly worked against him. Throw in an insatiable 24-hour news cycle bent on sensationalistic stories, with an infinitely more ravenous appetite for goats than heroes, and we come to a point where fans are stating with absolute certainty that Romo can never win a Super Bowl. It would be comical if it were not such a disturbing indictment on today’s sports fans and media. The only thing that is 100% certain is that anyone who says they know that he will never win a Super Bowl needs to take a step back, inhale deeply and stop kidding themselves. There have been many, and will be many more coaches and athletes that “can’t win the big one” …right up until they do.

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