Is there a chance in all the recent conversation about Tony Romo's unadulterated "un-clutchness" that people are overlooking something really important about the Dallas Cowboys quarterback? Might Romo actually be clutch?
Can that be possible? Can a player be both clutch and un-clutch at the same time? Is it possible, perhaps, that Romo is neither clutch nor un-clutch in any statistically significant way and the entire conversation about his clutchness is just a media gambit to get people talking? (How un-clutch of me to admit that.)
These are questions I sought to answer by more than just watching him throw for over 500 yards and roll up six billion points against Denver before throwing a horribly timed interception to get people—including myself—to talk about how he shrinks when the lights are brightest.
Look, we all remember Romo's gaffe in his first ever playoff game against Seattle, when he muffed the snap on a hold and failed to get into the end zone for what would have been an improbable game-winning conversion. Since that day in early 2007, Romo has worn the un-clutch moniker on his head like a Starter cap.
For a time, the un-clutch tag was warranted, especially in the postseason. The year after his holding debacle, Romo had three chances in the fourth quarter of the Cowboys' playoff opener against the Giants to come back from 21-17 down, and Dallas went punt, punt, turnover, with Romo getting intercepted to end the game and Dallas' playoff dreams for a second straight season.
In his stat-heavy career—the man has been a fantasy owner's dream at times—Romo has only taken Dallas to the playoffs one other time, winning one game and getting crushed in another in 2009.
Certainly, in the playoffs, Romo has been a tad un-clutch. Is that moniker fair, however, when it comes to the regular season? Let's look at some of the numbers.
Romo has started 99 regular-season games in his career heading into Sunday's matchup with Philadelphia for first place in the NFC East. His career record is 58-41.
Now, I will be the first to admit that quarterback record is a ridiculous statistic, as so much more goes into a victory than just the performance of the quarterback. That said, for the sake of a career baseline, it's worth noting Romo's record.
A far more telling number in terms of a player's clutchness is one's record in close games. In games decided by 16 points or fewer—two scores in the NFL—Romo's Cowboys are 42-33. That's pretty good. It gets a little less, uh, good when we look at one-score games—eight points or fewer—where the Romo-led Cowboys are just 24-25 since 2006.
That's not great. In 49 games decided by eight points or fewer, Romo has only won 24 of them. Those numbers are certainly not clutch, and they're bordering right on the edge of un-clutch.
Still, that record could be misleading. What if the defense let him down in a few of those close games? What if there were some drives that stalled by no fault of the quarterback?
What if I answer those questions for you instead of just posing them and wasting time? Okay then.
I looked at every single game Romo has played in his NFL career. For context—and because I did the math and, frankly, it fascinates me—the Cowboys have a point differential of plus-690 in Romo's wins (11.9 points per game) and a point differential of minus-377 in his losses (9.19 per).
Those numbers indicate the Cowboys often win bigger than they lose, echoed by the fact that just 24 of Romo's 58 career wins (41 percent) were within eight points while 25 of his 41 career losses (61 percent) fell within the same margin. In addition, 42 of his wins (72 percent) and 33 of his losses (80 percent) were within two scores.
Is it clutch to almost always keep the game close, or just not un-clutch to avoid getting blown out?
When I dug deeper to go year by year and game by game, the research really got interesting.
In 2006, Romo's first season at the helm of the Cowboys, the team was 3-2 in games decided by two scores or fewer and 2-2 in games decided by one score.
Of those four games, Romo was directly responsible for the loss of one—fumbling late in the fourth quarter in a 39-31 loss to the Detroit Lions, while failing on five attempts within the red zone in the game's final seconds—but also for giving Dallas a chance to win in the other three.
In the two one-score victories that year, Romo led the team from down 14 points in the fourth quarter to win one of the two, while leading the Cowboys to a game-winning field goal in a tie game in the other. (Granted, Romo was horrible in that game until the final drive, but this is a conversation about his clutchness, not his overall quality of quarterbacking.)
In the last of the four one-score games that year, Romo actually led the Cowboys into field-goal range against the Redskins, but the kick was blocked, immediately setting up a field goal for Washington to pull out the victory. Romo cannot be credited with a game-winning drive there because his team didn't win, but he certainly gave them a chance.
In 2007, the Cowboys' record in games decided by 16 points or fewer was 9-1, with a 4-1 record in one-score games. Three of those one-score victories saw the Cowboys down to start the fourth quarter, and two of those had them down by more than one score.
Romo helped the Cowboys win all three, including a game in which Romo led an 80-yard drive in just over three minutes against Buffalo to score before failing to convert on a two-point attempt, leading to a recovered onside kick and an 18-second drive to get his team into field-goal range to win.
Romo was pretty damn clutch the season after his horrible mistake in the playoffs at Seattle, with the only close loss coming against Philadelphia in a game where, admittedly, Romo was terrible down the stretch in a game the Cowboys should have won.
Three games later came playoff debacle number two.
In 2008, Romo was 6-4 in games decided by two scores or fewer, while just 2-3 in games decided by one score. Having said that, Romo was directly responsible for helping the Cowboys come back in those two close victories, while just one of the three close losses was his fault.
Romo threw a horrible game-losing pick-six against the Pittsburgh Steelers that year, as an ineffective offense contributed to Dallas coughing up a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter. Outside of that loss, however, Romo did all he could to bring Dallas back in the other close defeats. Romo led a 90-yard touchdown drive against the Redskins with seconds to go in a Week 4 loss, failing to get another chance as the Cowboys could not collect the onside kick.
In the team's other close loss that season, Romo led two fourth-quarter scoring drives to force overtime against Arizona, but after a three-and-out in the extra session, the Cowboys gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt, losing to the Cardinals after a special teams gaffe.
In 2009, the Cowboys had an incredibly close season, with a 7-5 record in games decided by 16 points or fewer and a 4-4 record in one-score contests. Romo was responsible for comeback victories in three of those four close wins, while shouldering the blame in just one of the close losses.
In fact, it wasn't even a mistake by Romo that resulted in one of the four losses, but with 1st-and-goal at the 8-yard line and down a touchdown on the road to the Denver Broncos, Romo was unable to punch his team's ticket to the end zone.
Two of the close losses that year were two-score games before a late touchdown made it cosmetically close for Dallas. The last game saw Romo and the running game secure a late fourth-quarter lead over the rival Giants before the defense gave up a last-second field goal to lose.
Romo played just six games in 2010 after getting hurt in his final start of that season. He was 1-5 in games decided by two scores or fewer, failing to win any of the five games decided by eight points or fewer.
Having said that, Romo was only responsible for one of those losses. After a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Vikings tied the game for Dallas, Romo threw an interception late that led to a Minnesota field goal, proving to be the game-winning margin.
Romo did throw a late pick in a loss to Tennessee that year, but there was less than a minute to go in a seven-point game in his own territory. And then there was the early-season loss to Washington where a holding call on the final play of the game negated a chance for Romo and the offense to tie things up.
A loss is a loss, but when it comes to clutchness, there's always more in the context than the result.
I will admit that Romo's record has been poor since the season he was injured. He is just 12-17 in one-score games since 2010, and the Cowboys are 19-19 overall since the start of the 2011 season.
And yet, there's even more context.
In 2011, Dallas was 6-6 in games decided by 16 points or fewer and 4-5 in games decided by eight points or fewer. Romo led comeback victories in three of those four wins, with the fourth coming in a game that was tied.
Two of the close losses that year were absolutely Romo's fault. He gave up an interception to Darrelle Revis in a bad loss to the Jets early in the year and had one of the worst second halves in his career against Detroit that season, throwing two interceptions returned for touchdowns and another pick that led to a Lions score. Dallas was up 27-3 and lost 34-30.
And yet, that season wasn't as bad as the close-game record indicates. In one of the other three games, the defense gave up a five-minute scoring drive to Tom Brady and the Patriots after Romo helped lead Dallas to a lead.
Against the Cardinals that season, Romo led the Cowboys on a potential game-winning drive in regulation before Dan Bailey missed a 49-yard field goal to send the game to overtime. Arizona won on the first possession in overtime.
Against the Giants a week later, Romo led the Cowboys down the field for a potential game-tying field goal that was blocked. They lost 37-34.
Is that un-clutch or unlucky?
Last season, Romo was anything but un-clutch at the end of games. (Note: It was the first three quarters when he may have had bigger issues.) Dallas was 8-7 in games decided by 16 points or fewer and 7-5 in games decided by one score. It was a heart-wrenching season for Dallas fans, that's for sure.
Of those seven wins, Romo led a comeback drive in four of them, leading Dallas to a tie in a fifth that the team won in overtime.
Of the five losses, just one was really Romo's fault late, as he threw a bad interception against the Giants. Two of the one-score losses got closer with late scores, and two featured late scores led by Romo to give Dallas a chance to win. Against Baltimore, Romo led the Cowboys to a score but failed on the two-point conversion. After recovering the onside kick, Dallas missed a game-winning field-goal try.
Later in the year, in what proved to be a pivotal loss to the Saints, Romo and the Cowboys were down 31-17 before two fourth-quarter touchdown drives tied the game, forcing overtime. After a punt in the extra session, the Saints won the game with a field goal.
That all brings us to this year, where the narrative of Romo's lack of clutchness, if you will, seems to be at a fever pitch. Dallas is 3-3 on the year and 1-2 in one-score games, with both losses coming after mistakes by Romo.
To be fair, the Chiefs loss wasn't entirely Romo's fault—and looks a lot better now than it did at the time—and the loss to Denver, while technically because of the interception he threw, is hard to pin on Romo after he put up career numbers to that point in the game.
I sought to find out about Romo's clutchness or un-clutchness, and the situations at the end of close games throughout his career indicate is certainly more clutch than people give him credit for, and he is far less un-clutch than the media narrative states.
Again, this is not a conversation about Romo's general quality of quarterbacking. He may have been terrible in half of Dallas' close games before each fourth quarter began, but if he's being called un-clutch for his late interception against Denver this season, it stands to reason that his clutch performances should be viewed independently of what he did in those games as well.
Sure, there are nine games in his career where a late mistake cost Dallas a chance to win—11 games if you include two close playoff losses—but there are nearly double the amount of games where he led his team back from being behind or tied to win.
We could do this with every quarterback in the league, and I'll bet the numbers will be similar for a lot of them. Romo just has the un-clutch narrative tied to him, even if the numbers don't support it all that well.