Going into the 2011 season, the “who is the best quarterback in the NFC East” debate was very much alive. Tony Romo had the stats. Eli Manning had the ring. Fans, of course, were divided by team loyalty. Analysts attempted to quantify it with clutch-play and win-loss records. The only thing (a big thing) that really separated the two was a Super Bowl ring.
One year and three games later, that debate has become a bit one-sided. While Romo put together the best season of his career, Manning catapulted himself into elite status after defeating the New England Patriots and winning a second Super Bowl.
If we were to pose the question of which quarterback you’d rather have on your team, Eli or Romo, anyone that picks Romo just hasn’t been paying attention. I realize that what I am saying will be viewed as treason in Dallas, but even Cowboys fans can’t ignore the strides Manning has made in the last few years to improve his game.
That’s the true difference between these two quarterbacks: improvement. They’re both excellent passers. They’re both great at scrambling and keeping plays alive. They both have had to endure up and down seasons behind terrible offensive lines. But Manning has been able to take his game to another level, a level Romo hasn’t quite reached.
That’s not to say that if the Cowboys had somehow ended up with Manning instead of Romo that they would have been any better off. Nor is it meant to discredit Romo’s growth over the last few seasons. There’s no questioning the vast amount of improvement he has made since becoming the starter in 2006.
But if he is to attain the elite status that we all want to put him in, there are a few aspects of his game that he needs to improve on.
It’s easy to blame the quarterback for interceptions. Romo has definitely thrown some head scratchers over years. But his accuracy has never really been something that’s held him back. So when he throws an interception, it’s usually either a bad decision while he’s being hurried, or it’s because he anticipated that his wide receiver would be there.
We saw a perfect example of that early in last Sunday's game versus Tampa Bay. Romo threw a pass into a crowd of red shirts that was snagged by Aqib Talib, setting up the Buccaneers with short field position.
On the surface, it seemed like a terrible decision on Romo’s part. Upon further review, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin ended up within just a few yards of each other. The result of which was a crowded area of mostly Tampa Bay defenders. Even without knowing which play was called, it seems obvious that Bryant stopped short of his route. Ideally, he should have kept up the field forcing the cornerback, Talib, to chase him. Instead Austin’s and Bryant’s routes interfered with each other and Talib makes a great play.
How is that Romo’s fault? In this case, it’s hard to blame him for poor route-running by Bryant, but he did put the ball into a crowded area. It also points out a major deficiency in this offense. We’ve been led to believe that these are elite receivers and they probably are. But we routinely see Romo, Austin and Bryant out of sync with each other, especially over the last two games.
It’s becoming obvious that they are not on the same page. I wish I would have kept track of all the times I’ve seen Romo yelling after an incompletion because someone ran the wrong route or zigged where he should have zagged. And yes, it’s partially the receivers fault. But it’s also on Romo to fix communication problems in practice.
It’s not just with the receivers either. It’s also with the offensive line. Clearly the group hired to protect Romo and create gaps for DeMarco Murray is inferior to just about every defensive line in football. When Romo is calling out plays and changing them at the line of scrimmage, there’s an obvious communication issue that’s happening long before Doug Free is getting pushed back five yards, which is why this offense is second in the league in penalties.
Again, I’m not placing all of the blame on Romo. But the offensive sync and rhythm begin and end with the quarterback. False starts, delay of games and miss-timed routes can all be cleaned up with proper communication.
Protecting the Football
Romo has already turned the ball over five times in 2012 (three interceptions, two fumbles). Compare that to his four touchdown passes and there’s reason for concern.
We all love the Tony Romo that keeps plays alive by scrambling, looking downfield and successfully completing an unbelievable, unbalanced throw off of his back foot with linebackers in his face.
We all hate the Tony Romo that keeps plays alive by scrambling, looking downfield and successfully throwing a terrible, unbalanced interception with linebackers in his face.
Knowing when to give up and when to keep going is an impossible fine line divided by microsecond decisions. And it’s something Romo still struggles with. He has gotten better at pulling the ball down and taking the sack over the years, but he still has fumble issues. Given the untrustworthiness of his offensive line, and the sync issues with his receivers, Romo is going to have to be more conscious about protecting the ball than ever before. Five turnovers in three games is not a good start.
Winning the Big One
Winning a big game, either late in the season or in the playoffs, is more a culmination of the result of everything previously mentioned, and not so much an area Romo can improve on.
Still, the biggest knock on his game has been his inability to perform, or make up for his teammate’s poor performance, in the games that matter.
It started in the 2006 playoffs with the infamous botched snap in Seattle.
The following year he led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye, only to throw a last minute interception in the end zone to the visiting New York Giants.
In 2008 the Cowboys needed to beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the last game of the season to earn a Wild Card berth. Romo failed to throw a single touchdown and turned the ball over three times as they were completely annihilated 44-6.
In 2009, Romo finally won his first playoff game. One week later, he once again failed to throw a touchdown pass and once again turned the ball over three times in an embarrassing 34-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
In 2011, with the NFC East championship up for grabs, the Cowboys traveled to MetLife Stadium in the last game of the season to face the rival New York Giants and, well, we don’t talk about that game anymore.
His ability to pull through in must-win situations has always been criticized. The fact of the matter is, until he puts together the kind of drives that Eli Manning did in both of the Super Bowls he won, Romo will always fall short of elite classification.
Make no mistake about it, he is a terrific quarterback. There are only a handful of quarterbacks, active or otherwise, that Cowboys Nation would consider replacing him with. But he has some serious issues in his game that if he doesn’t improve on, he will continue to be second best in the division, and continue to fall short of hoisting the Lombardi trophy.