Tony Romo: Reality vs. Perception Check for Dallas Cowboys' Quarterback

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor INovember 21, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - NOVEMBER 04:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys yells to the sideline against the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on November 4, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It is almost time for another set of Thanksgiving games, which means that one day a year millions of Americans who otherwise do not pay attention to the NFL will see Tony Romo probably looking as great as he usually does on the holiday.

On Thanksgiving, Romo is 5-0 with 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 115.4 passer rating since becoming the starter in 2006.

If you watched only these games like undoubtedly some of your relatives do, then you would think Romo’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.

As for real NFL fans, they continue to see what they want to see with Romo, facts be damned. No quarterback has a perception more out of sync with their reality.


The Romo Standard

No quarterback drives out more heated debate and nonsensical rhetoric than Tony Romo, who in his seventh season as Dallas’s starter has struggled to find the end zone. Other than the lack of touchdowns bringing down his passer rating, it has almost been another typical Romo year.

You would be hard-pressed to find 10 active quarterbacks—there are seven that are a lock right now—better than Romo, but some people still continue to put him down. I am sure Joe Theismann is all ready to anoint Robert Griffin III as the better quarterback after 10 starts. Griffin faces Dallas for the first time on Thursday.

Romo is judged by a different standard because of which team he plays for.

If Matt Schaub, in the same state, failed to deliver against one-win Jacksonville on Sunday, he would never hear the criticism for the two late interceptions the way Romo would. Keep in mind Schaub has never even started a playoff game, let alone won one.

Matthew Stafford—a No. 1 overall pick—has struggled as much, if not more than Romo this season, yet where are all the stories on that? Stafford has one win in his career against a team with a winning record, and that is over Seattle (6-4) in Week 8.

Michael Vick gets bigger contracts than Romo ever has, yet produces so little each season. He cannot even stay healthy let alone beat any good teams.

For years, Philip Rivers was the AFC equivalent of Romo yet never received the same denigration as Romo, because he plays out in San Diego. Lately, people are just making Rivers irrelevant, but that cannot happen for Romo while he is in the Dallas media circus.

By playing in Dallas, you get more attention and more prime time, nationally-televised games. Some of Romo’s worst moments have come in these situations for all to see, such as his worst game in 2012 against the Bears on Monday Night Football (Week 4).

When Romo threw five interceptions on a Monday night game in Buffalo in 2007 and still won, a lot of people saw that (and laughed). When Matt Ryan did it on Sunday against Arizona in a small-market 1 p.m. timeslot, it did not carry the same impact.

More people have been likely to see Romo’s biggest mistakes, such as the first two playoff losses, the pick six in Pittsburgh (2008), the fumble and interception in New York (2011), or the wild game against the Giants in Week 8 this year.

That loss to the Jets to start last season really stoked the Romo “choker” fire, but he has gone 6-6 in comeback opportunities since then. That is pretty good, given some of his contemporaries and their career records: Aaron Rodgers (5-21), Matt Schaub (8-21), Cam Newton (1-13), Philip Rivers (13-33) and Joe Flacco (8-17).

On Sunday, the Cowboys (5-5) had an exciting comeback win over Cleveland, though judging from the reaction, you would think they lost. Even when Romo fumbled in the fourth quarter with the lead, the usually excellent Scott Hanson on the NFL RedZone channel treated the play like it just lost the game for Dallas.

Check out the opening lines from the AP report of the game:

Tony Romo persevered through a career-high seven sacks, even avoiding costly mistakes that have dogged his career as he ran from constant pressure.

Just when he had Dallas in position to finish a rally and beat Cleveland, Romo lost a fumble that left the Cowboys scrambling to survive a wild ending Sunday in the first overtime game at Cowboys Stadium.

But it was a 10-point comeback win for Romo, which creates a very interesting fact that will only be valid for a limited time (perhaps until Thursday evening).

In his career, Tony Romo is 15-23 (.395) in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities. That is the exact same record as Dallas legend Roger Staubach.

You remember him, right? “Captain Comeback.” Known as one of the “most clutch players” ever.

Yet somehow, little Tony “Choker” Romo has produced the exact same record through 38 opportunities in regards to leading the team to victory when trailing by one score in the fourth quarter.

How does such a gap between perception and reality exist then?


Romo vs. Staubach: The truth

First, let me acknowledge that Roger Staubach is clearly a superior quarterback to Tony Romo. Forget the touchdowns and five-yard out routes to Jason Witten that Romo throws in this era. Staubach’s passing efficiency in his era blows Romo away, just as he does to most quarterbacks in NFL history.

What we are looking at here is the difference in perception: how Staubach can be considered such a clutch hero, while Romo is the choking dog who screws up every close game Dallas plays.

There are several factors at play here.

For starters, Staubach is viewed as a “winner”, while Romo is not. A lot of this has to do with the postseason, especially the fact that Staubach won his first Super Bowl in 1971, which was his third season in the NFL. He was 13-0 as a starter that year.

Winning a championship early in your career does a lot to excuse you from future failures, which should not be the case. But that’s how it works. 

Staubach won in 1971, with a nice assist from a defense that allowed just 16 points in the three playoff games. When Staubach won his second Super Bowl in 1977, the defense only allowed 23 points in three playoff games. That is 39 points in six games. Romo’s defense allowed 34 points to just Minnesota in 2009, but that’s a topic for another day.

Including the postseason, Staubach was 96-35 (.733) as a starter compared to 53-38 (.582) for Romo. That sounds like a huge disparity, but let’s take an eye-opening look at a defensive comparison.

Amazingly, Dallas allowed 0-7 points in 35 of Staubach’s 131 starts (26.7 percent of starts). Of course Dallas went 35-0 in those games. Romo has gone 9-0 when his team does the same, though they only do it 9.9 percent of the time.

You can see Romo actually has a better winning percentage in most of the point splits, but the distribution of games (the percentages) favor Staubach to have a superior overall record. Staubach’s Dallas teams never allowed more than 37 points in a game, while it has happened to Romo five times.

If you adjusted Romo’s record to have Staubach’s distribution of point splits matched with Romo’s winning percentage for each split, then Romo’s adjusted record would be 67-24 (.736), or roughly a hair better than Staubach’s record.

Even if you adjusted for era (the 1970s were low-scoring), the records would be much closer than they look right now. Staubach just played with far superior defenses and teams, which can also be said for Troy Aikman.

That can be further proved by seeing Romo has had a comeback opportunity the same number of times (38) as Staubach in 40 fewer starts.

So Staubach nailed down the winner reputation early, but where did the clutch identity come from?

Oh, this is a bit obvious. It was because of a brilliant performance off the bench in a big playoff game. In the 1972 NFC Divisional playoffs, Staubach came into the game with a 28-13 deficit in the fourth quarter – that was a three-score deficit back then – and led the Cowboys to a thrilling 30-28 victory over San Francisco.

Apparently it did not matter the Cowboys lost 26-3 in Washington the following week in the NFC Championship with Staubach starting the game. He won his ring a year earlier, and now had this awesome clutch performance to gloat about.

After that performance, Staubach lost his next six comeback opportunities, starting his career 2-7. That includes a playoff loss in 1973 in which Staubach threw a pick six while trailing the Vikings 17-10 in the fourth quarter.

Staubach was 2-5 in fourth-quarter comeback opportunities in the postseason. That includes both Super Bowl losses to Pittsburgh, and two upset losses at home to the Rams (1976, 1979).

But Staubach gets the pass because he won a title early, he was clutch in the playoffs early and his second memorable playoff win—the infamous “Hail Mary” to Drew Pearson in Minnesota (1975)—came before the four big playoff losses.

The memorable wins in the playoffs are what gives Staubach the reputation. His final comeback was also a legendary one. It won the NFC East for Dallas in the final game of the season after coming back from a 34-21 deficit to beat Washington 35-34.

Romo is better remembered for his gaffes and not a win over a team like Cleveland or the 2007 Lions. In fact, could that be the answer to everything? Is it all the quality of opponent and style of the comebacks?

Staubach did play tougher teams, both winning and losing to tougher teams than Romo has. Interesting that both had a better record when not at home, which could actually add to some of the Romo anxiety with the 6-12 record in Dallas.

Talking about the dramatic style, each quarterback had four comeback wins from a two-score deficit. Additionally, Staubach had nine attempts in which he turned a multi-score deficit into a one-score deficit compared to just twice for Romo.

Seven of Staubach’s happened before the 1975 season, adding to his early-career reputation for comebacks. Even if they resulted in losses, there was a building “fear” of Staubach in these situations.

One could argue Romo was more responsible for putting his team in a hole in the first place. In Staubach’s 15 comeback wins, he threw just two interceptions (all quarters combined). Romo has 15 interceptions, but still a solid 91.3 passer rating overall.

What about failed comeback losses that were really not the quarterback’s fault?

It is hard to figure that out for Staubach due to lack of available resources at this time. In terms of “lost comebacks”, games where the quarterback put the team ahead but still lost, each quarterback had three.

Dallas blew a fourth-quarter lead in 10 of Staubach’s losses, compared to 11 for Romo, who has also seen his kicker miss a clutch kick five times. That number is unknown for Staubach.

When including game-winning drives when it was only tied and no comeback was needed, Staubach’s record improves to 23-24 (.489). Romo is 16-25 (.390), so there is a bigger gap there.

The evidence does suggest Staubach deserves to be considered more clutch than Romo because of how and who he did his close wins against, but let’s not keep pretending the legend was flawless and the modern-day goober is a big choker. They are much closer than you think with the game on the line.

With one more comeback win, Romo will tie Troy Aikman for the franchise record with 16. What was Aikman’s record in opportunities? He was 16-34 (.320).

But things are not always as they seem, especially in Dallas.


Looking ahead

Thanksgiving is Romo’s—Mr. November with a 21-3 record in the month—last chance before December to shine on a big stage in an important game as Dallas is 5-5.

We all know December brings losing to Dallas, but not many understand why. This year, the schedule may actually be a benefit instead of another hindrance down the stretch, but they must win on Thursday first.

To lose on Thanksgiving and fall behind a rival, well that is just going to open up another media blitz of overreaction to a team expected to be great based on brand name rather than actual substance.

Romo was given a ton of early praise in 2006 for making Dallas relevant again, but as soon as he screwed up the hold on the field goal in Seattle, people wanted to turn on him. Many did a year later when the top-seeded Cowboys fell to the Giants in a one-and-done season.

Even though Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett and even Jerry Jones have had their critics, the focus still centers on Romo each season.

Even though the talent of the team has declined, many moves in the draft and free agency have completely backfired, the expectations still remain very high on Romo to make it all work for a Super Bowl contending season.

But year after year, who remains the favorite scapegoat when it naturally fails to materialize into a deep playoff run?

The quarterback who came from nothing, but is expected to be everything for Dallas the way their past legends never were able to do.

The quarterback who is still better than 70 percent of the starters the rest of the NFL suffers through.

The quarterback who could lead a clutch win on Thursday over Washington, but have it brushed off for the fact that “it was only Washington.” Then when you turn the channel, everything will be about how “Robert Griffin III is the next big thing!”

The reality is Dallas continues to be a “big thing” even though they do not deserve it. The brunt of that criticism will continue to fall on Tony Romo, who is the main reason they are not a 5-11 team every year like they were post-Aikman.

Perception withstanding, Romo can only do so much.


Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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