How Can Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo Evolve His Game for the 2013 NFL Season?
In seven seasons as a starter, Romo has made three Pro Bowls, completed an average 64.7 percent of his passes and thrown almost twice as many touchdowns as interceptions (177 to 91). He has averaged 276 passing yards per start and 7.94 yards per attempt over the course of his career. Remarkably, he's never finished a season with a passer rating below 90.
Romo, like any quarterback, gets more credit than he deserves for wins and more blame than he deserves for losses. Even so, the Cowboys have won 55 games and lost 38 (a .591 winning percentage) with Romo under center.
Given production and results like that, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones had no problem signing the 33-year-old Romo to a six-year, $108 million contract extension this offseason.
Donovan McNabb had a problem. The former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst bashed the deal on Twitter:
Tony Romo 6 yr 55 million dollar extension. Wow really, with one playoff win. You got to be kidding me— Donovan McNabb (@donovanjmcnabb) March 29, 2013
McNabb wasn't the only one who took a dim view of Jones' massive commitment to Romo.
When Good Enough Isn't Good Enough
The Cowboys boast one of the NFL's biggest and most passionate fanbases, and expectations are astronomical. The incredible success of the '90s—three Super Bowl championships and eight playoff appearances in one decade—raised a generation of Cowboys fans who expect greatness.
Because the Cowboys have only made the playoffs four times since the turn of the millennium—though three of those were with Romo under center—there's a perception that a very good quarterback like Romo isn't good enough to lead the Cowboys, let alone be handed a nine-figure contract that all but guarantees him a starting job for as long as he plays.
It's obvious from this chart: Romo has outproduced quarterbacks like Stafford, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Matt Schaub over the last three seasons, and his salary is consequently—and appropriately—higher.
What Romo Does Well
Just how does Romo get it done?
To start with, he's got good size (6'2", 236 pounds). You won't hear anyone call Romo a "dual threat," but he's a much more gifted athlete than most realize. He is very agile and can give escape artists like Ben Roethlisberger a run for their money:
Romo's best attribute is his arm. He doesn't have cartoonish arm strength; he can't throw it through the uprights from the 50-yard line on one knee like Kyle Boller. Still, even with his relatively quick release, Romo can put plenty of zip on any NFL throw.
When Romo has time to set up, his field-reading is very good, and his accuracy is excellent. He's especially lethal when throwing vertical routes down the seam or sideline. Watch Romo go through his progressions then rifle this ball down the hash marks right into Dez Bryant's breadbasket:
It's this kind of placement and accuracy that lets Romo get the most out of weapons like Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. When a quarterback places a ball so well that a receiving sprinter just has to turn his head and open his hands, that receiver can do major after-the-catch damage.
Choke Artist or Clutch Performer?
Romo played well below his career averages across his four playoff starts (59.3 percent completion rate, 208 yards per start, 6.16 yards per attempt and 80.5 passer efficiency rating). That the Cowboys won just one of those four games—and haven't had a winning regular season since 2009—has created the idea that Romo can't close out big games.
"Wins," though, is not a quarterback stat.
The efforts of two whole teams go into every game's final score. Every week of every season, an NFL team outplays its opponent but loses. The quarterback influences the game more than any other position, but W's and L's shouldn't be put solely on his shoulders.
Case in point: Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Romo's Week 6 performance against the Baltimore Ravens as his best of the 2012 season. PFF gave Romo his lowest single-game mark in Week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Yet the Cowboys lost to the Ravens when a last-second field goal sailed wide, and they beat the Bengals when a last-second field goal stayed true.
Romo co-led the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks with five, and he tied Russell Wilson for the third-most game-winning drives in 2012 with five.
His problem isn't the pressure of big games or big moments.
Problems Under Pressure
Romo's problem is the pressure of the pass rush.
His 2012 regular-season stats are similar to Tom Brady's, save that Romo threw 19 interceptions and Brady threw just eight. Why did Romo throw interceptions more than twice as often (on 2.9 percent of his attempts) than Brady did (1.3 percent)?
The difference is how they performed under pressure. PFF charts pressured and un-pressured throws, and the results are illuminating.
The rates at which Brady and Romo were sacked when pressured were almost identical—16.2 percent to 16.6 percent, respectively. Brady and Romo's pressured "accuracy percentage" (completion percentage adjusted for drops) were almost identical too: 56.3 percent to 56.7 percent.
Brady, though, threw four pressured touchdowns and just two pressured interceptions. Romo's broken-play improvising allowed him to match Aaron Rodgers for the second-most pressured touchdowns with eight, but Romo threw an NFL-worst nine pressured interceptions.
This is the next step he must take: eliminating panicked throwaways.
As Romo is 33 years old, he won't read the field any faster than he ever has, so the responsibility lies with the coaches. Head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan must make sure Romo has hot reads and outlet receivers he can dump the ball off to when the blitz comes. Better yet, Callahan should streamline the pre-snap reads and checks for Romo so he can see pressure and adjust before the ball is snapped.
The only way Romo can truly silence his critics is to lead the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl—and he'll have six seasons to try.
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