How Fair Is Tony Romo's Reputation? Examining His Big-Game History

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How Fair Is Tony Romo's Reputation? Examining His Big-Game History
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Last week, Tony Romo signed one of the most lucrative contracts in NFL history. Yeah, that Tony Romo. The guy with just one playoff victory to his name. The guy who supposedly shrinks in big games and hides when the spotlight is directed at him. That inconsistent, mistake-prone loser who has the opposite of ice (fire?) in his veins. 

Regular readers know that I think Romo has earned an extremely unfair reputation inside and outside of Dallas, based primarily on circumstances beyond his control. In various columns, I've listed them all.

Jerry Jones, the coaching staff, the defense, the running game, the pass protection, bad luck, injuries, Celine Dion. Whether or not they're "excuses," they've all been big-picture factors. Factors which I believe the majority of fans choose to ignore because they want—they need—somebody or something to blame for the fact that, since 1996, the Dallas Cowboys haven't gotten their way. 

So I decided to go back to the beginning and work forward in an attempt to gain a better, hindsight-assisted feel for what exactly Romo has and hasn't been able to accomplish during his 10 seasons in the National Football League. 

 

2003-2005

It's all Quincy Carter's fault, you angry Romo haters. After serving as Dallas' third-string quarterback behind Carter and Chad Hutchinson, it looked as though Romo was going to be released when Vinny Testaverde and Drew Henson were added to the roster in 2004. 

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But suddenly that summer, Carter was released. Failed drug test, poor attitude. Whatever. He was gone, and the Cowboys kept their future franchise quarterback on the roster. Strong preseason performances in 2005 and 2006 elevated him to the backup role behind Drew Bledsoe, and the rest is pretty much history. 

Romo didn't throw a single pass during his first three years in the league, but everything changed when he relieved a struggling old Bledsoe in '06. 

 

2006

The undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois looked like he'd be a career backup, but then Romo got his chance in October of '06. The Cowboys had nothing to lose in a blowout victory, and he stepped in and completed two passes—one for a big gain to Sam Hurd and the other for a touchdown to Terrell Owens.

Two weeks later, he had supplanted Bledsoe. And 18 weeks later, he was taking snaps with the NFC Pro Bowl team in Hawaii. 

Overall, his first semi-season as a starter was very promising. Romo won over the fans, completing 69 percent of his passes and posting a passer rating of 110.8 in his first seven games. But some of the shine came off during the final four games of the season, with Romo turning the ball over eight times as the 'Boys finished 1-3. 

Little did we know at that point that such a dip was a sign of Decembers to come.

 

"Big" games

Dec. 10 vs. New Orleans Saints: The defense surrenders 21 second-quarter points. Romo does throw a pick leading to one of those touchdowns, but he's still tasked with having to play catch-up throughout the second half. He winds up throwing a second pick in the second half, but the Saints put 42 points up on the Dallas D. 

Dec. 16 at Atlanta Falcons: Romo posts a 113.9 passer rating and completes 11 of his 15 second-half passes as the Cowboys score 17 unanswered second-half points to beat the Falcons on the road in prime time.

Dec. 25 vs. Philadelphia Eagles: Romo has a terrible performance in a huge home divisional game, throwing two picks and completing only 14 of 29 passes. The Eagles play extremely well on defense, but it's a rookie-like performance in a 23-7 loss. 

Dec. 31 vs. Detroit Lions: Romo throws an interception and loses two fumbles as the Cowboys lose to the lowly Lions, killing a chance to win the NFC East. He still completes 72 percent of his passes, though, and the defense surrenders 39 points. In those final two games, Romo is sacked seven times.

Jan. 6 at Seattle Seahawks: This game will forever be remembered for this...

But that play had nothing to do with Romo's ability as a quarterback. People say he lost the Cowboys that game, and they have a point. But it's more nuanced than that. Keep in mind that he had played a turnover-free game to that point, putting the Cowboys in position for an upset victory on the road.

And also consider that Seattle still had about 75 seconds on the clock. The Seahawks had dashed down the field efficiently on their last two possessions and had one of the best kickers in the league. Even if the Cowboys make that field goal, there's a decent chance they still lose. 

Conclusions: People forget that Romo also completed 19 of 23 passes as the Cowboys beat the undefeated Colts in November. It was a great breakout season overshadowed by the embarrassing way in which it ended. 

 

2007

In his first full season under center, Romo threw 36 touchdown passes but also had 19 interceptions. Both remain career highs. He finished as the fifth-highest-rated passer in the NFL and had the second-best yards-per-attempt average, earning another Pro Bowl berth. 

Romo also led the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record, but the offense went cold late, failing to score more than 20 points in each of their last four games. That includes an upset divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants. 

 

"Big" games

Six of Romo's 20 total picks (including the playoffs) came in those final four games. He was the butt of many jokes for his botched hold the previous January, but this is the point at which people decided Romo the quarterback couldn't perform in clutch situations. 

Dec. 9 at Detroit: Romo completes 80 percent of his passes and posts a 110.4 passer rating as the Cowboys survive against the Lions on the road. They don't win if Romo doesn't hit Jason Witten on a 16-yard touchdown strike with 18 seconds left. The defense allows the Lions to score their third-highest point total of the season, and the Cowboys can't do anything on the ground this week or next week.

Dec. 16 vs. Philadelphia: At home and in front of new girlfriend Jessica Simpson, Romo has the worst game of his career, completing only 13 of 36 passes as the Cowboys lose 10-6. It has no bearing on the standings, but it's a bad sign. "If we go on and win the Super Bowl, the loss is a good thing," Romo said afterwards. "If we lose first round of the playoffs, the loss is not a good thing."

Dec. 22 at Carolina Panthers: Romo has a quiet but efficient game without top receiver Terrell Owens as the Cowboys win 20-13. The ground game returns, which helps. The Cowboys' finale against Washington is moot, because they wrap up the top seed in the conference.

Jan. 13 vs. Giants: After being criticized for spending Wild Card Weekend on vacation in Mexico with Simpson, Romo completes only 18 of 36 passes for 201 yards and throws a pick into the end zone with the game on the line as Dallas falls to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.

Romo doesn't lose the game (Dallas took a ridiculous 11 penalties and Romo was burned by a dropped pass in the end zone in the third quarter), but he always fails to grab it by the reins and win it.

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Conclusions: You know what they say about first impressions. Romo might have performed extremely well the majority of the time during his first two seasons, but when it mattered, he was not able to lead the Cowboys to victories. Did he receive enough support from the offensive line and the running game and, at times, the defense? No.

But great quarterbacks overcome those obstacles. 

The fact that he faded down the stretch in the Cowboys' most promising season since 1995 stuck with Dallas fans, and they still draw conclusions about Romo based on these events, despite the fact they took place half a decade ago.

 

2008

Romo was solid during the first six weeks of the season, posting a 103.5 passer rating as the Cowboys started 4-2. But then he was injured against the Arizona Cardinals, missed the next three games and wasn't quite the same the rest of the year. 

It was Romo's worst year as a pro and a true choke job for the entire team. After starting 8-4, they lost three of their four December games to miss the playoffs.

 

"Big" games

Dec. 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers: Romo completes just 19 of 36 passes and throws three interceptions, including one that turns into a game-clinching pick-six in the final minutes, as Dallas loses by seven points.

Dec. 14 vs. Giants: Romo is on point, posting a 113.7 passer rating as Dallas cruises past the defending champs. 

Dec. 20 vs. Ravens: Romo throws two touchdown passes in the final four minutes, but it's still not enough to overcome two earlier interceptions and a poor defensive performance. Dallas falls 33-24, with Romo completing just 24 out of 45 passes.

Dec. 28 at Philadelphia: Romo falls to 0-3 in his career in elimination games as the Cowboys are crushed 44-6 in the season finale. The loss isn't completely on Romo, because the D gave up 27 points before halftime, but his performance (21-of-39, zero touchdowns and three turnovers) is very poor.

Conclusions: Three seasons down and a 5-8 record in December. That's only partially on Romo, but he absolutely deserved a reputation as a poor finisher at this point in time. 

 

2009

This is the season when everything changed for Romo. He was probably one weak campaign or another failed December away from losing his job, and he finally delivered in both respects.

A key: He finally got help from the league's second-rated scoring defense and an extremely productive running game. 

According to numbers from Pro Football Focus, he was the league's third-most pressured quarterback in 2008, but Romo's pressure rate dropped off by 11 percent in 2009.

With all of that support, he flourished, posting career highs across the board. He threw only nine interceptions in 16 starts and finally came through when it mattered.

 

"Big" games

Dec. 6 at Giants: Technically another December loss, but Romo throws for a career-high 392 yards while posting three touchdowns and a 112.1 passer rating in the losing effort. The Dallas D surrenders 31 points on a rare rough day at the office. 

Dec. 13 vs. San Diego Chargers: Romo has another turnover-free game and another 112 passer rating, but Dallas falls just short against a very good San Diego team. 

Dec. 19 at New Orleans Saints: Romo's passer rating exceeds 100 for the fourth straight week as the Cowboys ruin the Saints' perfect season at the Superdome. 

Dec. 27 at Washington: Romo isn't asked to do much but holds things down as the Cowboys D pitches a shutout in an easy road victory.

Jan. 3 vs. Philadelphia: Another methodical performance from Romo, who throws two early touchdown passes while the defense gets the job done in a blowout victory to wrap up the regular season. The win gives the Cowboys the division title. 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Jan. 9 vs. Philadelphia: Romo posts a 104.9 passer rating as the Cowboys crush the Eagles in what is to this day his only playoff victory. It's also the franchise's first playoff win since 1996.

Jan. 18 at Minnesota: Romo spends the entire divisional playoff game running for his life. Ultimately, he's sacked six times and his defense gives up 34 points in a road game they probably shouldn't have been expected to win. He may have turned it over three times, but this loss was not on Romo.

Conclusions: It's funny, because Romo isn't called a winner, yet he still won two division titles in those first three seasons as a full-time starter. The Cowboys weren't supposed to beat the Seahawks on the road in Romo's first season, and that loss isn't completely on him as a quarterback anyway. To this point, the only playoff game the Cowboys have "choked" in during the Romo era was that 2007 loss to the Giants. 

When people cite Romo's inability to shine in big games, they're generally referring to moments from these first four seasons, concluding with his three-turnover performance against the Vikings in the divisional playoffs in 2009.

Since then, the Cowboys have been competitive because of Romo, rather than despite him. They've fallen short of the playoffs despite him, not because of him. 

 

2010

Tough to include this one in the big picture. The Dallas defense was an absolute disaster and, with little support, Romo was only performing at a so-so level before suffering a season-ending injury to his clavicle in Week 7. The Cowboys were 1-4 when the injury took place, and their season was doomed after that.

 

2011

Romo got back on track in 2011, finishing with the league's fourth-best passer rating despite little support from the defense, as well as the fact he played a large chunk of the season while recovering from a broken rib and a punctured lung suffered in Week 2. 

The offensive line really began taking a turn for the worse this year, with Romo taking a career-high 36 sacks. 

 

"Big" games

Dec. 4 at Arizona Cardinals: Romo throws for 299 yards and completes 67 percent of his passes in a turnover-free affair, but they lose in overtime. This is on head coach Jason Garrett, who iced his own kicker before what would have been a game-winning field goal at the end of regulation. 

Dec. 11 vs. Giants: Romo posts the sixth-highest passer rating of his career, but the defense gives up 37 points, choking on a 12-point lead inside of five minutes to hand the game to New York. Once behind late, Romo leads the 'Boys down the field in swift fashion in the final minutes, setting up a 47-yard field goal to force overtime...but that is blocked by Jason Pierre-Paul.

Dec. 17 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The team finally gets out of its quarterback's way, as Romo posts a 133.9 rating in a blowout victory over the Bucs.

Dec. 24 vs. Philadelphia: Romo is forced to leave after suffering a hand injury in the first quarter. The Cowboys lose.

Jan. 1 at Giants: The Cowboys drop another elimination game with Romo at the helm, but it shouldn't have come to this. They should have beaten Arizona and New York in December and locked up the division well before this. Despite playing after taking a pain-killing shot in his bruised throwing hand and being hammered from start to finish by New York pass rush, Romo completed 29 of his 37 pass attempts in the losing effort.

Conclusions: He was lights-out during his final four complete games, but the Cowboys managed to win just one of them. No way you can pin either of those first two December losses on Romo, though. He was victimized in both cases by a snakebitten team. 

 

2012

While the defense was better on paper, Romo received little support again in 2012. Dallas once again surrendered 36 sacks, tying a career-high for Romo from the previous season, and the Cowboys' running game—impacted by an injury to DeMarco Murray—had the second-worst yard-per-attempt average in the NFL. 

What hurt the most was that the D was ravaged by injuries. According to the Dallas Morning News, only two teams lost more starter games to injury than the 'Boys did in 2012.

 

"Big" games

Dec. 2 vs. Philadelphia: The defense gives up 33 but Dallas scores 38. Romo posts a near-perfect 150.5 passer rating in the victory. 

Dec. 9 at Cincinnati Bengals: Dallas struggles for much of the day against a stingy defense on the road, but Romo leads them on two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to eke out a one-point comeback victory.

Dec. 16 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers: Romo again has a huge day on the stat sheet, completing over 70 percent of his passes and posting a 111.3 passer rating as the Cowboys survive another close game. 

Dec. 23 vs. New Orleans: Romo throws four touchdown passes to go along with zero interceptions, but the depleted defense surrenders 34 points and the 'Boys lose by a field goal. 

Dec. 30 at Washington: That same D gives up 28 as Dallas struggles to stay with Washington in a do-or-die finale with the division title on the line. Romo has a poor outing, throwing three interceptions.

One pick came on a bad route and the other came in desperation mode, but those who oppose Romo will say that all that matters is that he turned it over three times.

Those opponents will also fail to recognize the irony in the fact they often say numbers don't matter when they're used to prop Romo up. If we're responsible for looking beyond the good numbers, than the intangible circumstances must also be considered when discussing the bad ones.

Conclusions: A lot of people want to blame Romo for those three interceptions in the finale, but the reality is that the Cowboys wouldn't have been close to alive in that game if not for the performances Romo put up throughout the year. He could have been better against Washington, but the 'Skins were the better and healthier team, and Romo was desperately trying to overcompensate. 

Eli Manning didn't choke this season, but that's because he wasn't even good enough at regular times to earn the right to choke in big moments. I don't think Romo choked, but I do think he failed to completely make up for the fact his team had no business playing for a division title on that final Sunday night of 2012. 

Is it fair to pin that on him? I don't think the Cowboys beat the Redskins in that game with any non-future Hall of Famer at quarterback. 

 

The Bottom Line

We lose sight of the fact that Romo is usually the kind of athlete we root for. Passed on 262 times in the 2003 draft. Rose from out of nowhere to become the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Statistically, he's one of the best in the game.

Is he a risk-taker who sometimes gets burned? Absolutely, but his all-or-nothing style is what we usually wish to see from our favorite athletes. 

Romo never had a chance to have growing pains as a starter. The most pressure-filled sports job in the country was thrown at him without much notice, and he did a very good job the majority of the time before shrinking in the big moments. 

Excuses are annoying, but sometimes they have merit. Romo hasn't been in the right place at the right time just yet, at least on the field. The stars haven't aligned for him. He's the most accomplished quarterback in the league without a championship.

That was on him early in his career, because he didn't know how to handle the December and January pressure. Now, though, he's been let down time and again by those surrounding him. That's the excuse for the last two disappointing seasons, and I believe it's an acceptable one. 

"Your legacy will be written when you're done playing the game," Romo said after that most recent heartbreaking loss to the Redskins. And that's what I'm preaching here. 

But time is running out. The Cowboys look very good right now. They've drafted well in recent years and are relatively stacked on both sides of the ball. If they can stay healthy this year and do a better job in pass protection, Romo won't be able to blame a lack of playoff success on anyone but himself. 

Maybe I'm more patient than the majority of Cowboys fans, because I'm not a restless fan who was spoiled by the dynasties that dominated previous decades, but I believe in Tony Romo. I'm giving him one more year to prove that he has what it takes. I'm letting the stars align. 

It's possible that things never come to fruition for Romo and this generation of Cowboys, in which case I'll have to deduct points against him and his teammates' legacies. But that won't mean he wasn't a great quarterback.

If anything, it'll only mean he's truly one of the most underrated players in NFL history. 

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