Fact or Fiction for Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Tony Romo

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 10, 2013

Tony Romo "lost" another December football game Monday night. 


Yeah, we had to get to that one right away. Because individuals don't lose games in team sports in the first place, and Monday's 45-28 Dallas Cowboys loss to the Chicago Bears was almost entirely on the defense, not the quarterback.

Romo was no more responsible for that loss than swing tackle Jermey Parnell, who played just a single snap. The offense scored 28 points and avoided turnovers, but it possessed the ball for only 23 minutes and 16 seconds as the defense got trounced.

With a backup quarterback running the show, the Bears were able to convert eight of their 11 third-down attempts while totaling 33 first downs and scoring on every single drive.

Romo posted a passer rating of 109.2 in the losing effort, throwing three touchdown passes along the way. He wasn't great, but the focus was on the running game and that was successful. They moved the chains and scored four touchdowns, which should have been enough to win. 

That leads us, though, to all of the other real and perceived myths or realities that surround one of the game's most enigmatic players.

Taking a page from NFC West lead writer Tyson Langland's book after he played a similar game with Colin Kaepernick last week, let's determine what is fact and what is fiction regarding the face of America's Team.


Romo isn't mentally tough: Fiction

This, of course, is as far from tangible as you can get.

I'm no shrink. In fact, I don't even play one on TV. But not even Dr. Jennifer Melfi could say for sure whether Romo lacks the mental toughness to be a successful NFL quarterback—or at least one who wins Super Bowls.

We know he's physically tough. Even his harshest critics won't dispute that considering some of the beatings he's taken over the years. Hell, he spent a large chunk of the 2011 season gutting it out despite a busted rib. And just last month he put together a top-notch performance against Oakland despite being so ill he needed an IV

But what about his mental strength? Romo does seem to fall into ruts that we rarely see from studs like Tom Brady, Peyton ManningDrew Brees or Aaron Rodgers.

Romo, for example, is the league's only active quarterback with two five-interception games on his resume. One took place in 2007 against the Bills, and the second came in Chicago last season...

He also had a four-pick game against the Giants last year, and Cowboys fans will never forget that three-interception second half in a collapse against Detroit in 2011.

But this is still fictional because we've overanalyzed a few specific incidents and extrapolated far too much. The reality is that Romo has had to be mentally tough to survive the amount of unfair criticism he's taken in Dallas. 

A Redditor named Iknowyougotsole made a really strong argument earlier this year for why Romo should actually count mental toughness as an asset:

It just dawned on me the other day that Tony Romo's got to be the most mentally tough player in the NFL. Let's be honest, if you had a predatory media that salivated over the chance to blow your next mistake out of proportion, that constantly does whatever it takes to remind people at how much of a "choker" you are, if every week you had millions of fans hate you for no real reason except to hate you and root for your downfall then you probably would've broken by now. Now let's compound that with the fact you've been surrounded by inferior coaching, never had a thousand yard back and the fact that you play for a dysfunctional organization and it's just all bad. Romo carries all that weight over his shoulders week in and week out without it phasing his play one bit.

Remember: Romo wasn't even drafted out of Eastern Illinois. He's the highest-rated undrafted quarterback in the history of the NFL and the only quarterback in NFL history with more than 200 touchdowns and fewer than 100 interceptions.

Highest-Rated Undrafted Quarterbacks in NFL History
RatingWinsTD-INT Ratio
1. Tony Romo96.062204-98
2. Kurt Warner93.767208-128
3. Jeff Garcia87.558161-83
Pro Football Reference

If you can come out of nowhere to win the most coveted job in North American professional sports and then put up consistently superb numbers despite the inexplicable intense spotlight for nearly a decade, you've got some mental toughness. 


Romo is prone to making terrible decisions: Fact

Although his broad turnover rates and totals are fairly low, Romo's gunslinger mentality sometimes bites him in the behind. And sometimes, he just commits head-scratching mistakes in important moments. 

There was that game-icing pick against the Jets in 2011, which appeared to be nothing other than a brain fart: 

And an eerily similar play against the Steelers in 2008:

And don't forget about that fateful final play in last year's season finale against Washington, when he simply failed to see Rob Jackson on what could have been the game-winning drive:

"I feel as though I let our team down," Romo said regarding that pick, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). And he's exactly right. That has happened more often than it has to the majority of the game's elite quarterbacks. 

Not all of his strange decisions end up costing him, but they're still problematic. A recent example came in Week 1 this season when, for no apparent reason, he threw a pass right into Terrell Thomas' gut despite staring the blitzing cornerback down before the snap:

Fortunately for Dallas, Thomas dropped it.

Of note: All of those plays, as well as his game-clinching interception to Danny Trevathan against Denver earlier this year, took place on national television. 

I do believe these incidents have been magnified by the fact Romo is the quarterback of America's Team. He plays on national TV nearly every week, and it's easier to remember gaffes because they're funny and because those who don't support him and/or the Cowboys are trying to aggrandize a narrative that was established the moment Romo botched a hold in the most crucial moment of his very first playoff game. 

Anytime Romo does something that aligns with that narrative, Twitter explodes with those who are feeding the beast.

That said, Romo has in fact committed more silly mistakes than elite counterparts like Brady, Manning (Peyton, definitely not Eli), Brees and Rodgers.

Additionally, he doesn't give up on plays very often, which has led to some phenomenal moments, as well as a lot of ugly ones. He's got some Brett Favre in him.

Cowboys fans probably admire that while also dreading it. 


Romo stinks in December: Fiction

We addressed this in an in-depth column Saturday. Romo continues to be one of the best December quarterbacks in the league. Those who believe otherwise are either stuck in 2008 or are mistaking Romo's success for his team's success (or lack thereof).

Romo During the Final Four Weeks, 2009-2013
Comp. %TD-INT ratioYPARating
Pro Football Reference

Do the Cowboys stink in December? Yes. Does Romo? Absolutely not. 

Believe it or not, that's possible.


Romo isn't clutch: Fiction

Some critics will take this a step further and claim that Romo is a choker. Regardless, they're buying into propaganda and perpetuating an age-old fallacy by linking a team's reputation directly to a star player's reputation.

If Romo is a choker, then so is DeMarcus Ware. Ware, after all, has just one playoff win. He's been on the field for every single loss Romo has ever experienced, and he's just as big a star.

"Elimination" Games Since 2006
Dallas record1-6
Romo passer rating77.1
Romo TD-INT ratio8-7
Defensive PPG allowed27.0
DeMarcus Ware sacks5.5
Ware takeaways1
Pro Football Reference

But of course, we don't link defensive ends to wins and losses, just quarterbacks.

And yes, it's true that quarterbacks impact the final result to a greater extent than anyone else on the field, but putting 100 percent of the blame on Romo and zero percent on Ware—which is essentially what has happened—is lazy and unfair.

If we're going to assign blame for losses to individual players, then the pie has to be cut up into 53 pieces of various sizes. Look at those big Dallas losses more thoughtfully and you quickly realize that Romo's piece should be a lot smaller than many of the pieces belonging to his peers.

For example, when the Cowboys lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the 2009 divisional playoffs, Romo wasn't on his game. But cornerback Terence Newman was beaten seven times on seven targets for 81 yards and the defense surrendered 34 points.

Besides, Romo stood little chance against a Minnesota pass rush that sacked him six times on 32 pressures. The pass protection that day was horrendous. Romo was pressured on 54 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

That defense also gave up 31 points in the 2011 season finale against the Giants, spoiling a performance in which Romo completed 78 percent of his passes. And a depleted defense let Alfred Morris run for 200 yards in last year's season finale loss to the Redskins

In their four "elimination game" losses since 2008, they've given up 34.3 points per game.

Those poor, stubborn fools who are entrenched in the "Romo isn't clutch" stance will tell you that Romo wilts under pressure, ignoring the fact that he possesses the highest fourth-quarter passer rating in the history of the NFL.

Oh, and there's this from Chris Chase of USA Today

Romo has a career passer rating of 93.1 in the final two minutes of a game. Fox Sports says that’s the best of all active quarterbacks and the fourth-best since 1991.

Now, simply having great fourth-quarter stats doesn't necessarily make somebody "clutch." But how about the fact that Romo has a league-high 10 fourth-quarter comebacks since the start of 2011?

Most Fourth-Quarter Comebacks Since 2011
ComebacksGW drives
1. Tony Romo1012
2. Eli Manning910
3. Matthew Stafford810
Pro Football Reference

Somebody recently suggested to me that said comeback total was only high because Romo was recovering from his own previous mistakes. I suspected that was a lazy assumption. Let's investigate.

Comeback No. 1: Romo breaks a rib against San Francisco but returns to the game and leads Dallas to an overtime victory on the road. He commits zero turnovers.

Comeback No. 2: Washington does score on the drive that follows a third-quarter Romo pick, but that is his only mistake against the Redskins.

Comeback No. 3: Romo has no turnovers and throws two fourth-quarter touchdown strikes to once again lead Dallas back against Washington.

Comeback No. 4: Romo throws two first-quarter interceptions, but Miami only manages three points off of those turnovers.

Comeback No. 5: No picks and another turnover-free game as he helps the Cowboys grind out a victory in Carolina.

Comeback No. 6: Romo fumbles on a fourth-quarter sack against Cleveland, but that doesn't lead to any points and it takes place after the comeback has been made. He again throws no picks.

Comeback No. 7: Romo has another turnover-free game and throws two fourth-quarter touchdown strikes as Dallas marches back to beat the Eagles

Comeback No. 8: Romo's lone interception comes on what is essentially a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. It has no repercussions. 

Comeback No. 9: No turnovers. DeMarco Murray fumbles inside the Pittsburgh 10-yard line early, but Romo leads them back. 

Comeback No. 10: Romo throws a fourth-quarter interception to A.J. Jefferson, but that comes with Dallas trailing and only delays the comeback by one series. And on top of that, the interception wasn't his fault. Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams took the blame

So that's a total of five picks and six turnovers in 10 games. I'd say there's very little evidence in support of a theory that Romo only makes up for his own mistakes.

Romo isn't necessarily a fabulous player in clutch moments. He's great a lot more often than he's bad in close games, in the fourth quarter and in December, but all it takes is a few screw-ups to mask all of the good.

He still tossed that pick to Jackson in the fourth quarter of last year's finale and had three picks that evening in total. He doesn't deserve the blame for that loss, but he certainly didn't gain clutch points. The same applies to that last-minute interception against Denver earlier this season. 

All in all, though, he's come up big often enough that it isn't fair to declare him to be anything resembling a choke artist.


In Conclusion

Romo's such a polarizing figure, which makes this a lot more difficult. I've published dozens of substantial pieces of analysis on his play and I've found that those who are anti-Romo are impossible to sway, while those who defend him are devout.

That's what happens when debates become somewhat philosophical and rely on both empirical and intangible evidence, all of which is weighted quite erratically depending on whom you ask. Drawing conclusions on a guy based on his team's success rate isn't fair, but only falling back on individual statistics can also be dangerous.

It's frustrating because it means we'll never reach a consensus on a quarterback like Romo. But I suppose that's what makes sports talk so compelling.


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