Tony Romo is one of the most misunderstood quarterbacks of all time—someone who has played well enough to lead the Dallas Cowboys to a championship—but he’s not playing great football to start the 2013 season.
Specifically, Romo is prioritizing risk minimization over the offense, doing everything in his power to not throw interceptions.
The Cowboys have one of the game’s elite players in wide receiver Dez Bryant, and their focus should really be getting him the ball as much as possible. It’s the quality of the looks that matters most, though, and right now, Romo isn’t getting the ball to Bryant where he’s best—down the field.
Last year, the Cowboys made a very obvious effort to change the nature of their offense in the middle of the season, using Bryant downfield more and giving him opportunities to outmuscle defenders for the football.
It worked. Take a look at Bryant’s numbers before and after the change in offensive philosophy.
Games 1-6: 63.7 yards, 0.33 TDs per game
Games 7-16: 100.4 yards, 1 TD per game
And yet, through two games in 2013, Bryant has only three deep targets—lower than his rate in 2012. The New York Giants played with a safety over top of Bryant on most plays, but the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t. Romo had time to throw the football and, on many plays, a true one-on-one matchup with Bryant on the outside.
In the first half, Romo took his chances with Bryant, and it paid off. For whatever reason, though, the quarterback pulled back in the second half, failing to get Bryant the ball when it mattered most. Yes, Bryant dropped a big pass down the sideline, but that’s not a consistent problem for the receiver.
Let’s take a look at the tape.
Play No. 1
Romo went to Bryant on his very first pass of the game. The Cowboys used “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end and three receivers—and lined up in a formation called “Gun Tight End Trips Left.” Bryant was isolated to the boundary (top of your screen).
A Chiefs safety was lined up deep on Bryant’s side about 12 yards off of the ball.
Nonetheless, Romo looked right to Bryant on a back-shoulder fade. This route is impossible for a safety to stop, meaning the Cowboys can run it any time the cornerback is playing up, regardless of the deep look. Even against Cover 2, Bryant is going to win this battle all day.
By the time Bryant caught the ball, the safety was still well out of position to make a play. It was a great job by Romo of getting the ball to Bryant in a situation in which the receiver wasn’t “open” in the traditional sense.
Play No. 2
Romo hit Bryant on another deep pass in the second quarter. This time, the ‘Boys used a heavier personnel package and lined up in a tight formation, but Bryant was still isolated to the boundary.
However, the Chiefs had just one deep safety, meaning Bryant was facing true man coverage.
Knowing that, Romo immediately looked to his big-play receiver. Again, when Romo threw the football, Bryant was covered. However, with the cornerback’s back turned to the quarterback, he really had no shot to make a play on the ball.
Bryant caught the ball 20 yards downfield, making this one of his three deep targets on the year. Romo decided to lob the ball out for Bryant to run underneath, and that’s one of the freedoms the quarterback has when there’s no safety help. Had the Chiefs been in Cover 2, Romo would have needed to back-shoulder the throw.
Play No. 3
It’s always difficult to take everything in when watching a game on television, which is why NFL Game Rewind—which provided all of these screenshots—is so useful. You can view the same tape the coaches watch to see exactly what was going on during the course of a game.
That’s how we can know that Romo did indeed have opportunities to hit Bryant downfield in the second half, but he didn’t take all of them.
At the Chiefs’ 38-yard line, the Cowboys again lined up in “Gun Tight End Trips.” Kansas City also used the same Cover 2 look it gave the Cowboys on Romo’s first pass of the game.
Despite that same defense, Romo didn’t look to back-shoulder Bryant, instead opting to throw to Terrance Williams. The pass was complete, but that’s probably a sub-optimal decision in the long term. Again, any time the offense can get the ball into the hands of Bryant, it should.
It’s difficult to say how much freedom the coaches give Romo to immediately come off of his first read, but this is one of those plays in which “forcing” the ball to Bryant is probably a good idea.
Play No. 4
In the final quarter, the Cowboys lined up in a “Gun Tight End Trips Left Empty” formation. Bryant was lined up with another receiver to the boundary, and the Chiefs were in a single-high defense.
This is the same look Kansas City gave Dallas on the first half Romo-to-Bryant completion on the fade route (Play No. 2).
Bryant saw true man coverage, but this time, Romo didn’t look his way. And it wasn’t as if Bryant wasn’t really an option on this particular play, because he came flying off of the line as if he were expecting the ball. This is a situation Romo needs to exploit.
Play No. 5
In a “Gun 3 Wide Pro” look—a formation the Cowboys passed out of all 18 times they used it in 2012—Bryant was isolated at the bottom of the screen. The Chiefs showed a true two-high look.
Romo initially looked Bryant’s way, but he pulled off of him and threw a bad incompletion to tight end Jason Witten.
Although Bryant was covered on the play with a safety over top, this was really an option route on which Romo could have laid it out had a safety not been playing over the top or back-shouldered Bryant. With the cornerback having his back to Romo, the quarterback should have given Bryant a shot to make a play. Again, the safety isn’t a factor on the back-shoulder throws.
Bryant thrives downfield. Romo has the ability to get Bryant the ball downfield.
So they need to do it more often.
There are times when being predictable can really hurt an NFL offense, but this isn’t one of them. Bryant is so talented that there’s really nothing opposing defenses can do when he’s playing well. But the Cowboys have to give him his shots, especially deep.
Unless there’s a safety over top of Bryant and the cornerback is playing off, Romo can typically target Bryant without much risk. That way, the quarterback can have his “conservative cake” and eat it too.