For whatever reason, very few us like Tony Romo. Public surveys have revealed that to be the case, but we can see it with our own eyes. We've spent thousands of words and dozens of hours defending the highest-rated active quarterback without a Super Bowl ring, and others have joined us on that soapbox, but Romo continues to take a lopsided share of the blame for the Dallas Cowboys' lack of success as a team in the ultimate team sport.
That's why Romo won't change the public's or the media's perception of him until his team can start winning games in January. Unfortunately, that means that he only controls a portion of his destiny in that regard.
So, here's what it'll take...
It will take another top-tier season on paper
Statistically, Romo is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Dating back to 2006, only four quarterbacks have posted higher passer ratings. He's got a 102.5 fourth-quarter rating since 2008 and, since he became a starter in '06, there isn't a quarterback in the world not named Manning who has registered more fourth-quarter comebacks.
His contemporary and long-term numbers continue to dominate those put up by the beloved Eli Manning, and only a quartet of active quarterbacks have "bad games" less often than he does, based on a superb study from Blogging the Boys.
Year after year, with limited support from his mediocre offensive line, his inconsistent running game and his oft-unreliable defense, Romo completes about 65 percent of his passes, posts a passer rating above 90, averages more than 7.5 yards per attempt and throws about twice as many touchdowns as he does interceptions.
So the first thing Romo needs to do in order to change the way he's perceived is to keep doing exactly what he's been doing on typical regular-season Sundays.
Could he afford to drop his interception rate? Absolutely. That total spiked from nine in 2009 to seven during a six-game 2010 season derailed by a clavicle injury. then he threw 10 in 2011, which increased to 19 in 2012, which tied a career high. That came out of nowhere, but Romo tossed three picks alone in the final game of the season, when his shorthanded team was trying to stay alive in desperation mode against the Washington Redskins.
But that begets this second caveat: Romo could afford to finish stronger. A lot has been made of the fact that the Cowboys are just 1-6 in do-or-die games with Romo under center. His completion percentage, passer rating, average and touchdown-to-interception ratio are all weaker under those circumstances, so Romo will likely have to perform better if similar situations arise late in 2013.
It will take more support
This is where Romo loses control. In that Blogging the Boys study we pointed you to above, the author ultimately compares Romo's support in good/bad games to the support Matt Ryan has received from a more talented Atlanta Falcons team during his career. The conclusion:
If Romo had Ryan's win percentage of .470 in poor games, his record would change from 2-12 to 7-7. Similarly, if Romo had Ryan's .970 win percentage in 100+ rating games, his record in those games would rocket from 37-11 to 47-1. That 15-game swing would give Romo a career record of 70-23 instead of the current 55-38. Think about that. That's the player Romo could be - with the right team around him.
With the right team around him, Romo could have a career "record"—dread that statement, but we'll suck it up for these purposes—of 70-23. That would give Romo the second-highest quarterback winning percentage in NFL history, trailing only Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
Only Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers were under pressure more often than Romo in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus, which also concluded that the Cowboys had the 10th-worst offensive line in the league in terms of pass-blocking efficiency.
The running game averaged only 3.6 yards per carry and 79.1 yards per game in 2012, ranking 31st in both categories.
The defense was one of only nine units in the league to give up 400 or more points in 2012. And since the start of 2010, they've surrendered 24.7 points per game, which ranks 24th in football during that span—just ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions.
Injuries were a big factor last season. Cowboys starters missed more games due to injury in 2012 than all but two other NFL teams, according to the Dallas Morning News, with the defense taking a particularly bad beating, as Football Outsiders details further.
You'd have to think that there are fewer than a handful of quarterbacks who could have fared as well as or better than Romo did under those extremely difficult circumstances. Essentially what we're saying here is that in order for Romo to reverse the way he's viewed, luck will finally have to be on his side. The Cowboys will have to be healthier and more productive elsewhere so that he won't be forced to carry the team on his back from start to finish.
It will take an appearance in the NFC Championship Game
Even if Romo receives more support and puts up elite numbers yet again, he won't change perceptions unless he can help the Cowboys reach a new plateau. This is a team that hasn't been to the playoffs since 2009, so simply making it could help. But if Romo can't win at least a playoff game or two in the first year of his lucrative new contract, he'll probably be looked at by many as an underachieving, overpaid 34-year-old bum.
That's right, 34 years old. Remember: Romo got a late start after going undrafted in 2003 and taking a back seat to Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe for the first three years of his career. If you exclude that first season, in which he relieved Bledsoe in October, and if you discard the 2010 season, which was virtually spoiled by a freak injury, Romo only has five full NFL seasons as a starting quarterback under his belt.
Peyton Manning didn't win a playoff game until his sixth full season and didn't reach the Super Bowl until he was a nine-year veteran. It took Fran Tarkenton 13 seasons merely to participate in a playoff game, but he'd go to four Super Bowls as an older man than Romo is now. Some guys just don't bloom as quickly.
Regardless, the pressure is on. This franchise hasn't been to a conference title game since 1995, so while this year won't be Super Bowl or bust, critics will have a hard time tolerating another season without at least a spirited run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Whether or not it's fair, quarterbacks are judged over and over again based solely, or at least primarily on their ability to win. Romo can't win without solid numbers, consistent support from his teammates and strong performances down the stretch. It might not require a dramatic rise in Romo's play for all of that to come together this year, but the result would mean a lot more positive attention and public adulation for No. 9.