Revisiting the Eli Manning-Tony Romo Debate with 2012 in Mind
Last offseason, I made the argument on a few different occasions that Tony Romo was a better overall quarterback than Eli Manning. In doing so, I admitted that a) I don't believe in "quarterback wins," and b) I don't believe stats are the only way to measure a player's success, though I do believe they're extremely important.
Intangible factors were of course considered, as was team success. But rather than being deciding factors, as many would have liked, those were just part of the big picture. When it all came together, I gave Romo a small edge over his division rival.
With another season in the books and with no NFC East teams still alive in the NFL playoffs, I figured now would be an apt time to take a fresh look at the two 32-year-old quarterbacks.
Let's start by taking a simple look at their 2012 numbers...
They sort of flip-flopped this year, because Manning had a lot more support from his running game, while Romo's disappeared. The Giants' yards-per-carry number rose from 3.5 in 2011 to 4.6 in 2012, while the Cowboys' dropped from 4.4 to 3.6.
Romo was also pressured more often than Manning (217 pressured dropbacks to 168 pressured dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus), so that must be considered when looking at how often each quarterback was sacked.
Let's dig a little deeper with a look at their advanced numbers from this past season...
Accuracy percentage accounts for dropped passes and throwaways. Using that metric, Romo was still much more accurate than Manning overall but was actually less accurate on passes that traveled at least 20 yards. That's surprising, because Romo had the edge over Eli in that category in 2011.
However, Romo was slightly more accurate when pressured, according to PFF. He had eight touchdown passes while under pressure this season, while Manning had just three.
DYAR and DVOA come from Football Outsiders. The first gives "the value of the quarterback's performance compared to replacement level" and the second "represents value, per play, over an average quarterback in the same game situations." Romo ranked in the top 10 in both categories, three spots ahead of Manning in DYAR and four ahead of him in DVOA.
WPA and EPA come from Advanced NFL Stats. The first measures "the difference between a team's Win Probability (WP) at the start of a play and the WP at the end of the play" in which an individual player (in this case, Romo or Manning) is directly involved. The second is "the measure of a play's impact on the score of the game." Again in that case, the numbers we've listed only look at plays in which either Romo or Manning were directly involved. Romo ranked fifth in the first category and 11th in the second. Manning ranked 14th in both.
So it's safe to conclude that Romo again had a better season than Manning. He was better in the fourth quarter, better in close games and better across the board. But where does that put each for their careers? Here's the latest...
Manning has led a fourth-quarter comeback in 17 percent of the games he's started, according to Pro Football Reference. Romo, though, actually beats him with fourth-quarter comebacks in 19 percent of his starts.
What happened in 2007 isn't very relevant to how good each quarterback is right now, but the same can't be said for what happened in some of those seasons in between, say, '07 and 2012. So let's do one final comparison, this time looking only at stats from the past three seasons...
I'd like to repeat something I said last year when trying to capture Manning's legacy, and that's that we rarely judge cornerbacks or tight ends by the success of their teams. With that in mind, I hardly feel it's fair—in fact, I believe it's quite lazy—to draw conclusions about a quarterback's greatness based on the amount of playoff games won by his team.
A lot went into what the Giants did last January. Manning was the biggest factor, but the pass rush was huge, too. The point is that Manning doesn't deserve all of the credit. Obviously this'll be one-sided to a degree, but it's only fair that we look at the playoff stats, which obviously didn't change this year.
That's the major difference here. That's why Manning is locked in as the Giants' quarterback long-term while many Cowboys fans want to move on from Romo. What stands out is Romo's three-interception performance in prime time in the season finale. Despite the fact that Romo had little support from his teammates in that game, it was admittedly a poor effort.
But here's what people fail to consider: By outplaying Manning and the majority of the league's quarterbacks all season long, Romo had his team in that game. He had them alive well past their expiration date. Ultimately, his reputation would have been better off had Romo not kept his team above water long enough to finally fall short in a desperate Week 17 effort. Manning's team didn't have the injuries Romo's did, and yet the Giants had nothing to play for on that final Sunday.
Romo fell short in his final big moment, but at least he earned the chance to have that moment. Manning wasn't there in Week 17 because of all the moments in which he failed to deliver earlier in 2012. In that respect, he's no different than, say, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh Freeman.
None of those guys blew up with the season on the line because they weren't even good enough to reach the point at which the season was on the line. That doesn't make them better, but because many of us have short memories and because big moments stand out from the rest, it gives us a warped perception of how good or bad Romo is.
As a matter of fact, over the last five years, Romo has outplayed Manning in the fourth quarter in general, as well as in the fourth quarter of games that have margins of seven points or fewer.
But that doesn't make Manning a better overall quarterback.
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