A Requiem for Romo
You may have heard, but the Dallas Cowboys have been kind of good at the whole football thing this season. They enter their bye week with a 5-1 record, the league’s leading rusher and a defense that has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations (they’re the only team alongside the Minnesota Vikings who have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher or receiver). The team also enters the bye with a quarterback controversy looming over the locker room…at least that’s what the talking heads would like you to think.
By any measure, rookie 4th-round pick Dak Prescott has shined and has been a crucial component to the team’s early season successes. He broke Tom Brady’s record for most consecutive passes without an interception to start a career; owns the league’s second best quarterback rating and has blown past even the most enthusiastic of forecasts.
However, much – if not all – of the “analysis” on the topic has been a study in the concept of causation versus correlation. Put simply, correlation is the extent to which two variables have a linear relationship. For example, crime correlates negatively with increased police presence; meaning that when there are more police officers on patrol, less crime occurs. Causation on the other hand attempts to explain the how or why between the given variables. For example, there exists a correlation between the consumption of ice cream in New York and murder rates, but it would be silly to imply that eating ice cream causes the increase in murders.
Which brings us back to the Cowboys’ alleged quarterback controversy. A lot of the discussion has been framed in terms of Prescott being the fulcrum leading the team to victory, a strikingly reductionist reading of the team that fails to take into consideration all the other factors contributing to the hot start. From a vastly improved secondary, to the league’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s incredible play calling, the 5-1 start has been a collective effort. If anything, the true fulcrum of the team’s success has been its all-World offensive line, which has opened cavernous running lanes for Elliott and kept Prescott upright helping the team to control the time of possession and keep the defense off the field. Other contextual details have largely been ignored as well, namely the quality of competition that the team has faced up until this point (outside of Green Bay’s 8th place standing, they have faced the 15th, 20th, 16th, 23rd and 25th ranked defenses in football). The Cowboys are winning games with Prescott, not because of him. To be clear, none of this is meant to take away from the neophyte’s success, which is unassailable; rather it’s to provide the context that has contributed to it. Prescott, whom this writer openly pined for in the build-up to the NFL draft, is clearly the future of this team and will be stewarding the next era of Cowboys football.
The operative term in that assessment is future and with good reason, that reason being that the team has a franchise quarterback with a decade of NFL experience on the roster, one Antonio Ramiro Romo. It’s difficult to pinpoint when the widely accepted notion that Tony Romo is a bad quarterback took hold, but it’s one that has followed the Mexican-American signal caller his entire career.
It has always been easier to lay blame on the quarterback who was forced to throw 35+ times per game than it is the awful defenses (from 2007-2013, the Cowboys’ defense finished 19th on average) he’s been saddled with for the majority of his career who routinely failed to get stops. In fact, outside of 2014, the only other playoff win for Romo came in 2009 when the Cowboys defense wasn’t a turnstile. It’s true that under Romo the Cowboys have missed the playoffs more often than they’ve made them, but Romo might be the only player in the league who’s derided this much without consideration of his team’s context. No matter how good a quarterback is, football is the ultimate team sport. Make no mistake, the only reason the Cowboys have even flirted with competency over the last ten years has been because of Romo.
Romo’s playoff record of 2-4 is often cited as evidence that he is bad at his job. What that figure conveniently doesn’t take into consideration is his 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio and his 10.6% sack rate during those games. The only time he had a credible offensive line in the playoffs was his stellar 2014 season when he completed 34 of 50 passes for 484 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions with an average of 9.7 yards per attempt, a figure that would be higher if the league knew what a catch actually was (Dez caught it!). For context, the league leader in yards per attempt this year is Matt Ryan with 9.4, Romo bested that and the figure should have been even higher.
Ask any casual fan what their opinion of Tony Romo is and you’re all but assured to hear them say that he’s a choke artist, they’ll run down the same list of tired platitudes about him not being “clutch”. Unfortunately for them, reality and math simply don’t agree with these hottest of takes. Since becoming a starter in 2006, the “unclutch” Romo has the most fourth quarter comebacks in the league with 25 as well as the most game winning drives with 30. He is the owner of a 23-5 record in November, the record for most games with a 135+ passer rating in a single season (6), the NFL record for most consecutive road games with a touchdown pass (41) and the highest fourth quarter passer rating in NFL history (102.9). Furthermore, his 93.1 passer rating in the final two minutes of a game is the highest among active quarterbacks and fourth all-time according to Pro Football Reference. Those assertions that Romo is a choker, as they say, look funny in the light.
Prescott has been a revelation and Cowboys fans everywhere are intoxicated (rightfully so, have you seen the kid?) with the possibility of what he can become but at the moment he remains a flawed player; one who has benefited from a healthy dose of good fortune. No rookie quarterback has ever walked into such an ideal incubator as Dak has. He has the league’s best offensive line in front of him, an incredible sidekick in Ezekiel Elliott and he’ll soon be able to once again throw passes to one of the top receiving talents in the game in Dez Bryant. This and his mobility in the read-option have helped to mask deficiencies in his game, deficiencies that will be exposed by better teams and savvier defensive coordinators than he’s faced up until now. His accuracy on deep passes is spotty – which is why teams have not been shy about loading up 8+ men at the line to stop Elliott – on the rare occasions that he does try and go deep (his percentage of throws that go 20+ yards is ~5%, a number Alex Smith would think is low). Furthermore, much of his passing yardage has come as a result of packaged plays where the receiver does a lot of the heavy lifting.
Compare that to Romo’s 11% in 2014 and you start to see why the team believes that as good as the offense is now, it can only get better with Romo. Cowboys brass know that teams won’t dare Romo to beat them the way that they’re daring Dak, they know that only the most brazen of coordinators would leave only three defensive backs to contend with Romo’s aerial assaults. So while the offense would feature less of the read-option looks that have helped the run game, it would also mean that Elliott would face less crowded lines than he is now.
As the media are quick to note, the reasons for why the Cowboys remain loyal to Romo go beyond just football. Jerry Jones has made no bones about how much he loves Tony Romo and how much he laments having wasted his best years with poorly constructed rosters. Nobody doubts for a second that Tony is firmly in the twilight of his career or that his mounting injury concerns only serve to speed up that twilight. After spending the majority of his career having to prop up bad teams while putting his body on the line, it’s no surprise that the team intends to let Romo take charge of the best team he’s ever been a part of. Romo is the owner of almost every single Cowboys passing record, the front office won’t simply jettison the person who kept them afloat for ten years is foolish, especially when they know he is still capable of playing at a high level.
Yes, the future unequivocally belongs to young Rayne Dakota Prescott, but the Cowboys as a collective entered the season with their eyes on a Super Bowl and they know that in the present moment, their celling is higher with Tony Romo, as much as the masses may hate to admit it. Consider this, Dallas has run roughshod over the league with an offense that was put together at the last minute with only two weeks of preparation; imagine for just a second what the offense that they worked on all summer will look like.
Be clear, there is no quarterback controversy in Dallas, only in the minds of [some] fans and the media who traffic in that sort of thing in this post-factual day and age. Put simply, all those imaginary discussions about divided locker rooms and the like are fiction. If there remains any doubt about this, you need only listen to Prescott himself: “This is Tony’s team. I knew that going into the situation. Everybody knew that.” Or to Bryant: “We can’t control what’s going on outside this building. Everybody wants to talk. Everybody wants to do all that say crazy stuff, but you know, people need to understand those are people just talking. You’re not hearing that from Coach Garrett or Mr. Jones or people in this building.”
Everyone loves a narrative, it’s human nature, and a feel-good story has a way of making everything better. So while it’s fun to root for the 4th-round rookie who was written off by 31 teams, his time will come and the future will belong to him before long. However, an even easier feel-good story is already in house.
What lover of feel-good stories could root against a Mexican-American undrafted free agent from a small school (seriously, what in the world is Eastern Illinois University?) who defied all the odds and went on to become the best quarterback in Cowboys’ history? What is there not to love about a person finally getting a fair shot at trying to change the tune of the unfair narrative that he’s been burdened with during his underappreciated career? The only thing that should stop Tony Romo from trying to correct the course of his career’s story is Tony Romo. If his body betrays him, the future will start ahead of schedule. After giving everything he has to the team, even putting his post-career livelihood at risk for the sake of leaving it all on the field, the wily veteran deserves the chance to lead the team he’s kept afloat for ten years. There’s no denying that the understudy has performed admirably, but the maestro still has something left in the tank and he’s more than earned the right to prove it.
Lord Romo forever!