Tony Romo: Inside Look at Dallas Cowboys QB's Value by the Numbers

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 30, 2013

Tony Romo: Inside Look at Dallas Cowboys QB's Value by the Numbers

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    Evaluating an NFL contract remains one of the more difficult and complex processes in sports today. But that never stops the court of public opinion from weighing in on the latest monstrous contract handed out to a star player.

    Perhaps the biggest example of that phenomenon happened this week.

    The Dallas Cowboys announced on Friday that they had come to an agreement with star quarterback Tony Romo on a six-year, $108 million extension with $55 million in guarantees. And as tends to happen with all things Cowboys and Romo, the Twittersphere and NFL fans across the nation went bananas with either white-hot rage or schadenfreudian glee.

    Dallas signing Romo was a rather mundane happenstance. An extension was a mere formality for months, and all it took was the hammering of a few details to get things done. What caused the reaction was the deal's details, both in length and dollar amount. 

    Former Eagles quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Donovan McNabb was the most notable face who could not hide his skepticism regarding the deal:

    Tony Romo 6 yr 55 million dollar extension. Wow really, with one playoff win. You got to be kidding me

    — Donovan McNabb (@donovanjmcnabb) March 29, 2013

    McNabb was not alone in expressing his bewilderment. The deal has more guaranteed money than Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco's new contract with the Ravens and matches Drew Brees' deal for the second-most in NFL history. (Tom Brady's $57 million guarantee is the most in history.)

    The commonality between the three quarterbacks who received those massive sums is a Super Bowl ring. Romo lacks even an NFC championship game appearance on his resume. As such, the overarching reaction was one of massive negativity.

    Most chalked it up to yet another misstep of general manager/owner Jerry Jones, with Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post perhaps summing the reactions best:

    So what would contract would Tony Romo had gotten if he had won, say, 2 playoff games?

    — Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 30, 2013

    Of course, what these opinions overwhelmingly lack is objectivity and long-term reasoning. It's easy to scoff at Romo's deal because of his playoff failures and late-game interceptions, but the only truly objective way to understand an NFL contract is by looking at the hard figures. 

    With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of Romo's new contract. We will examine how it looks in each season and also look at what to expect from the deal.

    All salary information and cap figures come courtesy of Spotrac.

Complete Contract Breakdown

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    To understand whether or not Romo's contract was a "good" deal, we must first completely understand the value of his deal—not just the reported numbers. The overall value of the deal is a reported six-year, $108 million contract with $55 million guaranteed. But by now, we all should know those reported figures are inflated in relation to the deal's real value. 

    The on-paper value of the deal is important in only the most superficial sense. NFL teams have more money than Scrooge McDuck, and we're not concerned with Jerry Jones' personal bank account. What matters—the only thing that matters—is Romo's cap figure. That's the number that helps (or prevents) the Cowboys from signing top-tier free agents and adding to the roster.

    As we can see with a complete breakdown of the figures, Romo's deal will almost certainly help and hurt Dallas over the next few seasons:

    Year Base Salary Signing Bonus Misc. Cap Hit
    2013 $1.5 million  $5 million  $5.32 million $11.82 million
    2014 $13.5 million $5 million $3.27 million $21.77 million
    2015 $17 million $5 million $3.27 million $25.27 million
    2016 $8.5 million $5 million $1.64 million $15.14 million
    2017 $14 million $5 million N/A $19 million
    2018 $19.5 million N/A N/A $19.5 million
    2019 $20.5 million N/A N/A $20.5 million

    The biggest overarching justification for Romo's contract was the money it saved Dallas in 2013. Prior to signing his new deal, Romo had a base salary of $11.5 million and carried a cap number of $16.8 million, meaning his new deal actually saved the Cowboys $5 million for 2013.

    That's no coincidence.

    Dallas, thanks to its NFL-imposed cap penalties and high-priced talent, was the most cap-strapped team in the league at the start of free agency. The Cowboys had only $102,000 in cap space prior to the Romo deal, which is barely enough to pay a team janitor. 

    With the team looking to make the signing of safety Will Allen and others official while also locking up its draft picks, clearing Romo's cap hold was critical. Essentially, it gave the quarterback 100 percent of the leverage in negotiations, leaving the Cowboys' front office little choice other than to throw a boatload of guaranteed cash Romo's way.

    Nevertheless, Romo's 2013 money is minimal, relatively speaking. He ranks just 13th among quarterbacks, even behind the Tom Brady contract everyone lauded so freely. That makes the first year of this deal nothing short of a win for Dallas, which is important, because the first year of the deal means more than any other.

    The team could very easily restructure Romo's deal by giving him more upfront money or even ask him to take a pay cut 12 months from now to save more cap space in 2014.

    Since we're not dealing in hypotheticals, though, Romo's deal veers quickly from "manageable" in the first year to an albatross in the second season. His 2014 cap figure is an NFL-high among quarterbacks at $21.77 million. His $25.27 million number in 2015 is only eclipsed by Drew Brees—whose contract will probably get renegotiated. 

    Romo takes over a $10 million drop in 2016, but the contract language is clear. Romo is saving the Cowboys a boatload of cash now, but he will cost them a yacht-load without renegotiation in the coming years. 

What Does This Deal Means for Romo and the Cowboys?

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    Other than making Romo a very rich man, this deal guarantees he will be under center in Dallas for a very long time. If he plays out all seven total seasons of the contract, that would take him through his 39th birthday and give him 16 seasons as the Cowboys' lead quarterback—more than Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. 

    Don't fret too much, though, schadenfreudian Cowboys fans. Romo almost certainly won't be with the Cowboys through the 2019 season—at least not under this deal structure. Like all NFL contracts, Romo's deal has a reported length and a true length, which in most cases comes down to how a player's value works against his dead money.

    Dead money is the cap hold placed on a player who is no longer on the roster—the money you're paying for a guy not to be on your roster. In most instances, dead money comes via previously paid signing bonuses, which are prorated over a specific length of the contract to save a team cap money. Option bonuses and roster bonuses are often treated similarly. 

    Whenever a player is cut, his dead money is charged to the team's cap for that specific season—thus accelerating its cap figure. As a result, teams will often keep underperforming players to avoid taking that surcharge, releasing them only when it makes cap sense.

    Here is a look at Romo's potential "dead" money so you get a good idea what I'm talking about:

    Year Cap Hit Dead Money
    2013 $11.82 million $53.5 million
    2014 $21.77 million $41.68 million
    2015 $25.27 million $19.91 million
    2016 $15.14 million $11.64 million
    2017 $19 million $5 million
    2018 $19.5 million N/A
    2019 $20.5 million

    Those figures mean that if the Cowboys released Romo tomorrow, they would see a $53.5 million charge on their cap—something a team hemorrhaging money can ill-afford. What it also exposes is that Romo's true contract length is only four years, not seven as the deal is superficially structured.

    If Romo's play drops off a cliff, the Cowboys could erase Romo's $19 million salary while taking only a $5 million hit, gaining $14 million in the process on their cap. Until there's a renegotiation of the deal, which would likely create more possible dead money via bonuses, those last three years are insignificant. They're there, but they can be erased with very little penalty on Dallas' end.

    Overall point: Romo will be the Cowboys quarterback at least the next four seasons, with the final three years being wholly determined by the first four. 

How Does Romo's Performance Stack Up Against His Deal?

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    Midway through the 2012 season, Romo signing a contract with $55 million in guarantees seemed laughable. He was in the midst of his worst professional campaign, having thrown 10 touchdowns against 13 interceptions in Dallas' first eight games. Many were wondering if the Romo era had finally run its course in Texas.

    It was a justifiable stance. Romo looked defeated, like a guy who could not take any more beatings or the criticisms that come with being the Cowboys quarterback. After a four-interception performance versus the Giants on Oct. 28, the message became clear: Get this guy out of here.

    Then, something miraculous happened: Romo bounced back and became arguably the NFL's best quarterback down the stretch. His second-half numbers were Tom Brady-esque—2,509 yards, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions, 98.6 quarterback rating—and he led a Cowboys team that was dead in the water to within one game of an NFC East crown. 

    Of course, in typical Romo fashion, he threw three interceptions in the division-deciding game versus Washington to the glee of his detractors. But his second-half message was just as clear as the fans' in the first half: "I'm still an elite quarterback."

    And though his game-by-game performance had heavy variance, the numbers again back up Romo's stance as a "franchise" guy. He finished as the NFL's sixth-best quarterback in Football Outsiders' DYAR metric, 10th in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) advanced quarterback rating and 13th in ESPN's QBR measurement

    While not the best or most consistent quarterback in the league, Romo far exceeded the measurements of Joe Flacco, the Super Bowl-winning "it boy" that everyone seems privy to compare his contract to.

    In fact, let's take a look at how Romo stacks up against Flacco performance-wise over the past two seasons:

    Tony Romo 2,521 91.37 67.05
    Joe Flacco 763 81.31 53.25

    The argument in Flacco's favor here is his ascent during the 2012-13 postseason and his playoff wins throughout his career. Flacco is, as the kids like to say, "clutch." He's already one of the winningest playoff quarterbacks of all time and is nearly five years younger than Romo. 

    While he had an unbelievable run last season, it also ignores the benefits Flacco has had throughout his career. Other than last season, where Flacco's playoff burst came seemingly out of nowhere and was among the best all time, he benefited from having one of the best defenses in the NFL. 

    Since taking over as the Ravens starter in 2008, Baltimore has had a top-six defensive DVOA in every season except 2012. That's not a shock, but it's indicative of the help Flacco got while developing his reputation as a "playoff winner."

    In that same time frame, the Cowboys have had a top-10 defense just twice. You'll be shocked to learn that one of those seasons, 2009, coincided with Romo's only playoff win.

    Romo has his faults, and they have come up at the worst possible time. But he's also a quarterback who has performed better in the regular season than anyone gives him credit for and hasn't gotten much help defensively. Romo's late picks play a factor, but let's not forget there are plenty of mitigating circumstances at play.

    He's a top-10 quarterback based on just about any measurement known to man. While his mere one playoff win gives concern, Romo has performed well enough to earn this deal despite his inconsistencies 

How Do Quarterbacks Age?

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    Other than his lack of playoff victories, the other overarching concern with this deal is its length. Romo will turn 33 years old in April, and if he plays out the length of his contract, he will be on the precipice of turning 40 by its expiration.

    We've already established that Romo is unlikely to play out this deal, but let's say he does hypothetically. Basic logic and past experience tells us that athletes get worse as they age, and that's especially the case for NFL players. Taking a battering for a decade-plus takes tolls we're only beginning to understand, and there is also the natural attrition that comes along with no longer being a twenty-something.

    The key to judging Romo's contract (and others like his) is understanding how much quarterbacks regress over time. Luckily, the always-brilliant Brian Burke did a study that found players like Romo—long-tenured quarterbacks who have been with a team for a decade—decline at a much slower pace than their predecessors.

    Using his adjusted net yards per attempt metric, Burke determined that quarterbacks who survive in the league age minimally—which essentially means only the good players stick around.

    To avoid survivalist bias, he then compared these aging quarterbacks to their peak form. What Burke found was that quarterback performances start declining right around age 29 and is done so over a period of seven or eight years, with only 0.5 AYPA being lost in that span.

    More interestingly, Burke found that the downtick usually isn't all that slow. Generally speaking, older quarterbacks tend to have one final, wretched season and then hang it up. Think Brett Favre's last season with the Vikings for a frame of reference.

    Under that premise, it's hard to say Romo's career in Dallas will end well. But it's also likely that he will continue performing right around his current level for at least three or four seasons—right about the time his dead money goes poof.

    And even if Romo sticks around those extra years, it will be because he earned it instead of circumstance. Either way, Romo should be a top-10 man under center for the life of this deal, barring injury. 

The Final Verdict: Is He Worth It?

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    Discussing the worth of NFL contracts—especially with quarterbacks—is among the least worthwhile endeavors in sports.

    We could almost say with virtual certainty that the Panthers giving DeAngelo Williams a five-year, $43 million deal in 2011 was going to be a miserable failure. The value of lead running backs has been shrinking in the NFL for the better part of a decade, and with it, massive guarantees for that position have by and large generated the least value.

    Last season, that proved to be the case.

    Pro Football Focus' performance-based value measurement had Williams giving Carolina $1.3 million worth of value against a $8.7 million cap hit—a loss of over $7 million. That was the third-worst rate among running backs, and Williams was one of the league's worst values overall.

    We could have told you that would happen two years ago. Quarterbacks are a different story. It's become cliched to say the league is run by quarterbacks, but like all overwrought cliches, this one is rooted in truth. Having a "franchise" guy takes on an exponentially higher value with the changing of the calendar.

    NFL quarterbacks are the embodiment of Kanye West's classic "having money's not everything—not having it is" line. A franchise quarterback won't win you a Super Bowl by himself, but not having one will make sure your team doesn't even have a chance—especially in today's NFL.

    Back to Romo's value. In 2012, Romo was "worth" $10.7 million, netting the Cowboys over $2 million of value against his $8.1 million cap hit. As one would expect from his numbers last season, most of that value was gained in the second half of the season, where Romo played like arguably the best quarterback in football.

    And keep in mind, PFF's value calculator is based only in statistics. As relatively crazy as this sounds, the security of Romo has just as much value to Dallas. He's the man keeping the franchise from another era of Quincy Carters, Drew Hensons, Drew Bledoes and all the other nightmarish predecessors who came between Romo and Troy Aikman.

    Without Romo, this is a franchise adrift without an igloo's chance in Arizona of even making the postseason. While Romo has become known for his shortcomings in the biggest moments, the alternative—irrelevance—is far worse. Essentially, Franchise Romo gives Bad Romo a chance to "come up short."

    So, in short, Romo is worth it by that standard alone. Jerry Jones isn't going to live in a world where his Cowboys aren't competitive, and Romo gives them the best chance to stay that way.

    With Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and others likely renegotiating their contract in the next 12 months, Romo's contract looks even better. By the time the second and third years come along, Romo's $55 million in guarantees will look archaic.

    The price for a franchise quarterback is going up, and the Cowboys locked theirs up at the perfect time.