Fair or Unfair, the Month of December Could Make or Break Tony Romo

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 7, 2013

Nov 28, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) points at the Oakland Raiders defense during a NFL football game on Thanksgiving at AT&T Stadium. Dallas beat Oakland 31-24. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In the hyper-competitive American sports realm, there's a lot of pressure on major and minor media outlets to find and/or generate storylines and narratives. And once those themes are created by ESPN and its rivals, they often lazily push them on us well beyond their expiration date, making it extremely difficult for readers and viewers (i.e. fans) to allow their original perceptions to evolve. 

As a result, we continue to hear that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo isn't a good December quarterback. All week, we've heard that Romo chokes in the season's final month, despite the fact that, since 2009, he has the NFL's second-highest passer rating in December. 

Romo has generally been fantastic late in the season, at least in the last half-decade. But fans who rely on Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith for their sports intel can't grasp this reality: Late in seasons, Romo has been great despite the Cowboys, not vice versa. 

Sadly, these are real tweets from real people:

Actually, Andrew, he's one of the best December quarterbacks ever. And even if you pull early-January season finales into the breakdown, the important thing to remember is that, beyond his second full NFL season, Romo has typically been fantastic during the final four weeks of the year.  

In December and January since '09, Romo has 31 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions in 14 full games. And if we look at the final four weeks alone, here's how he stacks up among the best quarterbacks in the game during that stretch:

Romo during the final four weeks, 2009-2012
Comp. %TD-INT ratioYPARating
Pro Football Reference

We could ditch those January games, which actually makes less sense if you're crafting an argument that he isn't "clutch" enough, and only focus on that December stigma. But if we do that, it's only going to further help Romo's cause.

Our friends at Blogging the Boys have the proof:

Highest-rated December passers, 2009-2012
RatingComp. %TD-INT ratioYPA
1. Aaron Rodgers109.063.737-68.4
2. Tony Romo106.366.527-58.0
3. Drew Brees106.070.442-137.8
4. Philip Rivers101.564.931-97.9
5. Tom Brady100.762.837-107.8
14. Eli Manning89.56.933-217.9
Blogging the Boys

We tossed Eli "Mr. Clutch" Manning in there just to emphasis our point about flawed perceptions. 

So it's clear that Romo's December reputation isn't fair, but it didn't come out of thin air. Why was Romo labelled as a bad home stretch quarterback in the first place? Well, because he was.

In 2006, 2007 and 2008, the undrafted addition out of Eastern Illinois performed poorly in December. No doubt about it. Look at that juxtaposition:

Romo in December
Comp. %TD-INT ratioYPARating

But players naturally improve on their weaknesses, and Romo has done exactly that. He hasn't been able to shake that stigma, partially because fans are lazy and because his flaws are magnified by the Dallas spotlight, but also because the Cowboys haven't done much in December and January as a team during Romo's reign.

With Romo under center, Dallas is 24-5 all time in November but only 12-16 in December and January. And when you're the quarterback, you take almost all of that on your shoulders. Forget that the Dallas defense had the league's fifth-lowest takeaway total during that span or that the team averaged just 4.1 yards per rushing attempt and only 103 rushing yards per game during the final quarter of Romo's last three complete seasons. 

Forget that Romo threw for 392 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks against the New York Giants in December of 2009 and that Marion Barber lost a fumble and the D gave up 31 points, because all that matters is that Dallas lost and Romo was the quarterback.

Forget that he and the Cowboys won four straight December/January games that year, including two with the season on the line against the Philadelphia Eagles, because they lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoffs and because Romo blew it the year prior. 

Forget that he didn't even suit up in December of 2010 because of a broken clavicle, and push aside the fact that he posted a ridiculous 119.1 passer rating in December of 2011, despite playing with a broken rib, because Dallas couldn't hang onto a small NFC East lead and—all together now—Romo was the quarterback. And according to a twisted unwritten rule applied by pundits and ignoramuses, he's therefore responsible. 

"Don't let little things like facts and logic get in your way," wrote ESPN's Tim MacMahon of Romo's December critics earlier this week. Exactly. Don't think too much, guys. 

But reputations are reputations, regardless of whether they were born from ignorance. People will look at broad numbers from broad periods of time to uphold stigmas that should have been erased long ago. 

Romo's been a great quarterback on a so-so team, and thus he's become a victim. 

If Romo has anything to prove, it's that he's as special as the numbers indicate. To do that, he may have to lift a notoriously flat December team onto his shoulders in a do-or-die game. He hasn't been able to do that very often in his career, but maybe that's the next step in the process of eradicating that stigma. 

Unless the 'Boys really blow up in the next three weeks, he'll likely have that opportunity when Dallas hosts Philadelphia in Week 17. If he comes through there, it won't matter what happened in Weeks 14, 15 and 16. And that same rule applies if he doesn't deliver. 

If Romo either starts playing poorly now or he simply can't lift this team to a new plateau, he'll only exacerbate that reputation. In fact, a less-than-stellar December, or even a poor showing in Week 17, could bury him so deep that it'll be impossible to convert the critics in the years to come. 

I suppose the real question now is whether the Cowboys can deliver in important games, not just Romo. If they can't and Romo can't be Superman, the uproar will only intensify, and the resultant pressure on the entire organization could be crippling. 

Regardless of what happens, it'll sadly be about Romo first and America's Team second. And that'll kick in starting Monday night in Chicago


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