In 2012, Tony Romo played some of the best football of his 10-year career. He threw for nearly 5,000 yards, completed more than 65 percent of his passes and posted a 90.5 quarterback rating.
He did it all with a porous offensive line and a mediocre running game. Over the course of the regular season, he had five comeback victories to put the Cowboys within inches of making the playoffs.
All of that was forgotten when he was intercepted on a simple swing pass late in the Week 17 must-win game against the Redskins.
Dallas radio exploded with frustrated fans wanting to part ways with their Pro Bowl quarterback, citing that he was nothing but a choker who could never win “the big game.” Even longtime NFL personnel man Gil Brandt wrote a column suggesting that the Cowboys part ways with Romo.
Romo has failed his team in critical situations, yes. But to discount all of the good he has done for his team and to judge his career based on just a handful of plays out of thousands is simply unfair.
Of course, Romo is not the only player to fall victim to the “choker” label of someone who could never win a big game.
Joe Flacco is taking plenty of heat in Baltimore because he has not been able to reach the promised land despite making the postseason in each season of his five-year career. But if Lee Evans reels in a perfect pass from Flacco late in the 2011 AFC Championship Game, the Ravens could be reigning champions by now.
Before he won two straight Super Bowls to close out his career, John Elway was viewed as a choker who could never win a big game. Terry Bradshaw said he “he has been babied by the city, he has been babied by the coach. ... he's got to get better eventually. He's too inconsistent.”
John Elway—too inconsistent. It really is amazing what a few years can do to change perceptions.
This type of labeling is not restricted to the NFL. LeBron James was one of the most hated players in American sports before he won a championship. In just a few weeks’ time, James has gone from making commercials about “accepting his role as a villain” to laughing with his buds in a barber shop.
James grew up without a father, was raised by a teenage mom and made his own way as a basketball player. He was rushed onto the national spotlight right out of high school and took the NBA by storm in his rookie year just a few months after he got his drivers’ license.
But because he came across as self-centered in the infamous "Decision" special on ESPN, he was treated like he was some kind of criminal—until he won a championship.
When the clock struck zero in the 2012 NBA Finals, was LeBron James a better player than he was five minutes prior? Was John Elway a more skilled quarterback when he won two championships on the back of Terrell Davis?
Did Tony Romo become a worse player because he threw one untimely interception? If Peyton Manning’s Colts recovered the onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV, would he have cemented himself as a better player than Tom Brady?
Fans simply do not have time to study players closely and watch every snap to make a fair analysis. As a result, they form their opinions on players based on a few plays they make in prime-time games. They miss Tony Romo’s comeback wins earlier in the year, but they tune in to the one game where he finally cracks and makes a colossal mistake in Week 17.
In 2006, Marty Schottenheimer cemented his reputation as a coach who “couldn’t win the big one” when his 14-2 Chargers fell to the Patriots in the divisional round. Schottenheimer left the NFL with an outstanding record of 200-126-1. But all he will be remembered for is a 5-13 record in the postseason.
Postseason games are important, but is Schottenheimer a bad coach because he went to the playoffs so many times? Rather than judge his career as a body of work, we have allowed his legacy to be cemented by a few afternoons of football.
Yes, pro athletes and coaches sign up for the public criticism when they sign that multimillion dollar contract, but it does not make it fair to discount all of the good they have done on Sunday afternoon games because of one mistake made in prime time.
The truth is, these players aren’t “chokers." Fact is, it’s really, really hard to win championships in the NFL. Players like Tony Romo and Peyton Manning are knocked for having more success in the regular season compared to their playoff resume. The idea of being a great regular-season quarterback is seen as an insult rather than a compliment.
Players don’t win games. Teams do. There is a reason why teams spend millions of dollars and high draft picks on players other than quarterbacks—having a good quarterback is necessary for success in the NFL, but it is not enough to win championships.
If Ben Roethlisberger successfully conducted a comeback drive against the Packers in the 2010 Super Bowl, would Rodgers still be recognized as the best quarterback in the game? Are we now judging quarterbacks based on their defenses’ ability to hold a lead late in games?
Why do we weigh postseason outcomes so heavily in creating legacies for players and coaches? Simply put, most fans only see other teams in the playoffs or other nationally-televised games.
An average fan or local writer is not going to dig through the tape of every Cowboys game played in 2012 to get a full sense of how great Tony Romo played this year. They are going to tune in to Sunday Night Football after dinner to watch Romo make another untimely interception to confirm all of the headlines they have read before.
This is not to discount the concept of being a “clutch” player. The ability to play your best in the tensest situations is a true skill. Players like Eli Manning and Adam Vinatieri feed off pressure, and their legacies will be based off their clutch throws and kicks in a favorable manner because of how they are able to maintain a calm presence of mind in such situations.
This ability requires a certain mindset acquired with experience, and these players deserve the credit they get for playing their best when the game is on the line.
Sports media and fans have always put far too much emphasis on the outcome of games simply because of the date in which they are played on. Mark Sanchez has tied the record for the most road playoff wins in NFL history with four.
Just 24 months removed from their last postseason run, the Jets cannot wait to get rid of him. Yes, Sanchez played for the winning team on four of those games, but what does that mean for him as a player? Those games were won because of the Jets defense and running game, with Sanchez saving himself from making massive mistakes.
Is that what makes a top-tier player? Is the ability to avoid mistakes simply because the game is being played in January instead of October enough to make you considered great? Of course not.
What if Tony Romo and the Cowboys go on a Super Bowl run next year? Will all of his failures in the postseason be forgiven because he won three games in a row in January? Probably.
Postseason play should be treated like the fraction of a player's career that it is, whether the player has had success or not. A player should get credit for playing well in clutch situations, but he should not be relieved from all of his mistakes made during the regular season either.
At the same time, a great regular-season player should not be considered a failure because his success is limited to games played from September through December.
The 2011 Broncos made the playoffs despite some of the worst quarterback play this league has ever seen from Tim Tebow. However, because he was able to make a handful of throws most quarterbacks could have made in the Wild Card Game against the Steelers, he is absolved from the fact that his team was blown out by the Patriots a week later.
This irrational method of judgment is not going to go away soon because of how quick we are to label players in the country’s most popular league for our own amusement. The truth is, fans are not knowledgeable enough in the game of football to make educated judgments of these players, resulting in incorrect labels being thrown around.
Tony Romo and Joe Flacco can throw for 5,500 yards and mount 10 comeback wins next year, but none of it will matter if they make a wrong read and throw a game-ending pick-six in the playoffs. The “choker” label, as unfair and inaccurate as it is, is here to stay.