Why Tony Romo Can Win the NFL MVP Award in 2014

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Why Tony Romo Can Win the NFL MVP Award in 2014
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Vegas recently released its 2014 NFL MVP odds, and quarterback Tony Romo is at 40-1 after opening at 50-1. Those odds suggest that, if we could theoretically simulate this NFL season thousands of times, Vegas believes Romo would win the MVP once every 50 tries or so. The decline to 40-1 odds suggests that lots of bettors liked Romo at 50-1 and placed early bets on him.

Like those early bettors, I’m bullish on Romo’s MVP chances this year, at least at those kind of odds. Do I think Romo is going to win the MVP? No, he’s clearly a huge underdog. But I think he has better than a 2.4 percent chance to win, which is what the 40-1 odds suggest is the case. In comparison, Eli Manning also opened at 50-1, Philip Rivers is at 40-1 and Jay Cutler is at 20-1. Peyton Manning leads all players with 3-1 odds.

Quarterbacks win MVP awards for two reasons: they post jaw-dropping stats, and they win football games. I think the latter task is going to be the most difficult for Romo this year, but he’ll need to light up the box score to even have a chance to win the MVP.

Below, I’ve listed four reasons I think Romo has a shot to win the award in 2014—better than 40-1 odds, at the very least. In terms of his numbers, the equation is pretty simple: opportunities multiplied by efficiency. To have a shot at the NFL MVP, Romo needs to be near the top of the leaderboards in both attempts and yards per attempt.

Here’s why that can happen.

 

1. The Defense

It might seem strange to start off this argument by not even talking about Romo, but the Cowboys defense is going to play a large role in Romo’s stats this year. We know that a quarterback’s workload is highly dependent on the game script; if the Cowboys are winning late, Romo doesn’t need to pass the ball as often.

Take a look at Romo’s career winning percentage per season versus his attempts per game.

Jonathan Bales

There’s an inverse relationship; the worse the record, the more passing attempts. Based on this data, we’d expect Romo to throw 39 attempts per game if the Cowboys go 7-9, but only 35 attempts per game if they’re 9-7. The numbers are obviously more extreme with a bigger difference in record.

If the defense gives up a lot of points and forces the Cowboys to pass to catch up—as is expected—Romo will garner the attempts he needs to at least have a shot at the necessary MVP numbers. The problem is that Romo has no shot if the Cowboys lose a bunch of games, so basically we need to see a lot of shootouts with the Cowboys coming out victorious.

Is that likely? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s certainly a possibility given the nature of this defense and Romo’s high-variance play.

 

2. Scott Linehan

Will new play-caller Scott Linehan provide Romo with a career high in passing attempts? That’s tough to tell, but a career high in deep attempts seems very likely. Over the years, the Cowboys have really failed to get the ball downfield; last year, Romo ranked 18th in the NFL in passes that traveled at least 20 yards, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

With Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, the Cowboys have the personnel to get the ball downfield. With Linehan, they might finally have the coordinator as well. Speaking to Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News, Linehan said, “It’s fair to say there’s going to be some deep threat incorporated into every read. The coverage will dictate where the ball goes. But we’re going to attack all parts of the field.”

To win the NFL MVP, you need to get a little lucky, no matter who you are. The way the Cowboys called plays in the past forced Romo to be good over and over again, taking on downside without too much upside in terms of quick scores. Under Linehan, that should change, which will naturally provide Romo with a higher ceiling on his numbers.

 

3. Not Far From His Peak

Romo’s bad back is a serious concern, but his age shouldn’t be. Here’s a look at quarterback fantasy points per attempt by age.

Jonathan Bales

Fantasy points don’t necessarily equate to being a good quarterback, but they’re probably a pretty good proxy for MVP probability. Quick, name an MVP quarterback who didn’t also finish at or near the top of the league in fantasy points. You can’t. MVPs need to rack up bulk stats, and fantasy points measure that.

You can see that quarterbacks peak in their late 20s in terms of efficiency, although they can maintain a very high level of play for quite some time. The dip in the early 30s and subsequent jump in the mid-30s is likely due to the best quarterbacks remaining in the NFL while the inferior ones are forced out.

Either way, we can expect Romo’s efficiency to be somewhere around 95 percent of his career peak. That’s a really high number, suggesting that although Romo of course needs to play well to win the MVP, his chances ride more on whether or not he gets enough opportunities.

 

4. Red-Zone Weapons

One of my biggest concerns to Romo’s value this year is how much the Cowboys will run the ball near the goal line. Throwing touchdowns is obviously a huge part of winning an MVP, so MVP quarterbacks typically account for a high percentage of their team’s touchdowns in the red zone.

While running back DeMarco Murray could be Romo’s biggest competitor for scores, there’s still a lot to like for Romo near the end zone. In addition to tight end Jason Witten, second-year tight end Gavin Escobar should see more red-zone opportunities this season. The Cowboys also acquired three rookie receivers who all stand at least 6’3”, which should help alleviate some of their “Cole Beasley Syndrome.”

And then of course there’s this:

Jonathan Bales

Simply put, Bryant is the best red-zone wide receiver in the NFL.

And historically, Linehan has liked to pass the ball in the red zone and near the goal line. During his time as offensive coordinator in Detroit, the Lions threw on 63.1 percent of all red-zone plays, according to Pro-Football-Reference, and 58.5 percent of their plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line. In comparison, Dallas checked in at 56.9 percent and 53.2 percent, respectively, during that same time period.

Add it all up, and you have the makings of a player who, although still an underdog to win the MVP, certainly has the upside and supporting cast to pull it off.

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