It’s Time to Stop Apologizing for Tony Romo

Every NFL fan has heard the narrative before.  Tony Romo gives games away.  He chokes.  He folds under pressure.  He cannot win when it counts.  But is it true, or do fans only remember the spectacular collapses much like poker players can seemingly recall every bad beat they have ever experienced? 

Romo is certainly a gifted passer, as evidenced by his exceptionally high career QB rating of over 95 (currently sixth all-time).  Romo has engineered an impressive 19 fourth quarter comebacks, which has enabled the Cowboys to win 28 percent of the games in which they have trailed at some point during the final 15 minutes of a game.  But how does he stack up against his peers?

For the table below, and all subsequent tables, the players included are the six NFL quarterbacks who entered the league in 2004 or later and have a minimum of 100 career starts: Jay Cutler (Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears), Eli Manning (New York Giants), Carson Palmer (Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals), Philip Rivers (San Diego Chargers), Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Tony Romo (Dallas Cowboys).

Quarterback

% of 4Q Deficits Overcome

B. Roethlisberger

31%

T. Romo

28%

E. Manning

27%

J. Cutler

24%

P. Rivers

23%

C. Palmer

17%

Based on the numbers above, it is clear that Romo can rise to the occasion when his team is trailing. Throughout Romo’s career, the Cowboys have surrounded him with exceptional talent, which has helped the quarterback amass some very impressive statistics.  Terrell Owens, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant have provided Romo with perennial All-Pro targets.  Romo has won 65 percent of his career starts that are played prior to the month of December.  So what happens to him when the game and season are on the line and the other team is the one making a push? 

A lot of people think that Romo is a victim of his team’s fame.  The Dallas Cowboys, after all, were dubbed, “America’s Team” decades ago.  Surely, the spotlight on Romo’s performance is as large as that on any NFL quarterback.  So, perhaps with more eyes watching his games than most, his failures are indeed magnified. 

Some of Romo’s negatives are well-documented.  He has a record of 12-18 in games played during December and January.  He is 0-3 in regular season finale games in which a win would put the Cowboys into the playoffs and a loss would send them home until the following season.  On top of all that, he is 1-3 during the playoffs.  That is one playoff victory in eight seasons while leading a franchise that previously had become synonymous with post-season success.  From 1966-2003, Dallas made the playoffs an incredible 27 times.  They played in eight Super Bowls during that time, winning five of them (no team won more during that span). 

Romo’s supporters are quick to point out that he does not play any snaps on defense.  He cannot possibly be responsible for the team surrendering so many points each week.  While the Cowboys rank 26th this season in total points allowed, their average ranking has been a relatively middling 19th since Romo assumed the starting quarterback duties in Dallas.  Of course there have been losses by the team that can be directly attributable to poor performances by their defensive unit but on average, there were 13 NFL teams that were fielding worse defenses than the Cowboys. 

Quarterback

Defensive Points Allowed Ranking

B. Roethlisberger

5

P. Rivers

12

J. Cutler

17

E. Manning

18

T. Romo

19

C. Palmer

20

Obviously, Roethlisberger has enjoyed the benefits of playing on a team with perhaps the best defense in the league over the course of his career.  Four times in his 10 seasons, the Steelers have led the league in defensive points allowed and were among the top three on two other occasions.  Romo has played on a team with roughly the same defensive ranking as Cutler, Manning and Palmer.  If a slightly below average defense can be blamed for Romo’s shortcomings, should it not follow that Cutler, Manning and Palmer have experienced similar breakdowns in pressure moments?    

Of Romo’s 48 NFL losses, including the post-season, the Cowboys have lost 17 in which they had held a lead during the fourth quarter.  That equates to a staggering 35 percent of Romo’s career losses.  To put that into perspective, fourth quarter collapses make up half as many of Cutler’s career losses (17 percent).  Cutler, of course, is not exactly the epitome of safe quarterback play.  Neither is Manning, who is often, and rightly, criticized for his propensity to turn the ball over.  Yet, even his fourth quarter collapses only account for 20 percent of his career losses.  Romo is over 50 percent more likely to blow any fourth quarter lead than Manning, Roethlisberger and Cutler and, by a large margin, is much more likely to have a loss be the result of a 10+ point collapse in the final quarter. 

Quarterback

% of 4Q Leads Blown

% of Losses Blown Lead 10+ in 4Q

T. Romo

21%

13%

C. Palmer

20%

4%

P. Rivers

17%

6%

E. Manning

13%

4%

B. Roethlisberger

13%

4%

J. Cutler

12%

2%

Delving further into the fourth quarter leads that Dallas has blown since Romo took over as the team’s quarterback reveals that he often has been right at the center of the team’s collapses.  The following examples point out numerous games in which a Tony Romo mistake proved to be disastrous for his team.  They do not focus on games in which Romo threw a lot of interceptions and lost, nor do they examine games in which he missed on seven of his 10 pass attempts down the stretch of a tight game.  These examples all point to much more egregious mistakes at late, very crucial stages of each contest.  Note that the Cowboys wound up losing each of the following games.

2006, Game #16 – After holding a narrow lead early in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys lose their regular season finale to the previously 2-13 Detroit Lions.  Romo loses a fumble with 4:19 left in the game, down by five points.  Although a win by the Philadelphia Eagles later in the day made this game meaningless, at the time it was played, a win would have given Dallas a chance to win the division title and avoid playing its subsequent playoff game on the road.  FINAL SCORE: Detroit 39, Dallas 31.

2006, Wild Card Game – The Seahawks take a late lead after the Cowboys blow a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.  After getting his team into position for a chip-shot 19 yard FG to win the game with just over a minute left to play, Romo fumbles the snap and is tackled short of the end zone.  FINAL SCORE: Seattle 21, Dallas 20.

2007, Game #14 – Needing only a FG to overcome a one-point deficit with just under three minutes remaining in the game, Romo throws an interception in Philadelphia territory.  FINAL SCORE: Philadelphia 10, Dallas 6.

2007, Divisional Playoff Game – Upon losing a three-point fourth quarter lead to the New York Giants, Romo proceeds to finish the game by misfiring on 11 of his final 18 pass attempts.  On the game’s final drive, he takes a critical sack, has an intentional grounding penalty, and throws an interception in the end zone with 16 seconds remaining.  FINAL SCORE: New York Giants 21, Dallas 17.

2008, Game #6 – Romo takes a sack and fumbles deep in his own territory during the opening possession of overtime against the Arizona Cardinals.  Though he recovers the fumble, the subsequent punt is blocked for a touchdown.  FINAL SCORE: Arizona 23, Dallas 17 (OT).

2008, Game #13 – Once ahead by 10 points in the fourth quarter, Dallas gets the ball back late in a tie game.  Romo proceeds to throw an interception that is returned for the game-winning touchdown with 1:40 remaining.  FINAL SCORE: Pittsburgh 20, Dallas 13.

2008, Game #15 – Early in the fourth quarter and down by nine points, Romo fumbles on third and 1 and the Cowboys are forced to settle for a FG on the next play.  Dallas would later get within two points. FINAL SCORE: Baltimore 33, Dallas 24.

2008, Game #16 – In what amounts to an elimination game in the season’s regular season finale, Dallas gets run over by the Philadelphia Eagles.  Romo winds up with only 4.7 yards per pass attempt and accounts for three turnovers (one of which is returned for a touchdown on the opening possession of the second half) in the Cowboys’ most lopsided loss in 20 years.  The Cowboys finish the season 1-3, missing the playoffs by a game. FINAL SCORE: Philadelphia 44, Dallas 6.

2009, Game #4 – After the Denver Broncos overcome a three-point deficit earlier in the fourth quarter, Dallas has three plays from the 2-yard line at the end of the game to send it into overtime.  Romo spikes the ball on the first play and throws incomplete passes to Sam Hurd on the subsequent two plays. FINAL SCORE: Denver 17, Dallas 10. 

2009, Game #9 – After the Green Bay Packers extend their lead to 10 points early in the fourth quarter, Romo takes a sack and loses a fumble with nearly 12 minutes remaining in the game.  The Packers score a touchdown two plays later.  On the following possession, the Cowboys drive to the Green Bay 1-yard line, where Romo proceeds to throw an interception, essentially ending the game. FINAL SCORE: Green Bay 17, Dallas 7.

2010, Game #2 – With 4:01 left in the game, Romo takes a sack and loses a fumble at the Chicago Bears’ 37-yard line. FINAL SCORE: Chicago 27, Dallas 20.

2010, Game #4 – Romo throws an interception on the Dallas 13-yard line with 7:30 remaining in a tie game.  The go-ahead touchdown is scored on the very next play.  Later on, with just under a minute to go, Romo throws another interception at the Dallas 40-yard line while driving for the tying touchdown. FINAL SCORE: Tennessee 34, Dallas 27. 

2010, Game #5 – With 7:33 left to play in a tie game, Romo throws an interception on the Dallas 30-yard line.  The turnover leads to the game-winning field goal.  FINAL SCORE: Minnesota 24, Dallas 21.

2011, Game #1 – A 14-point fourth quarter lead is cut in half before Romo gets the Cowboys deep into the New York Jets’ territory.  He is sacked and loses a fumble at the 3-yard line with a little less than nine minutes to play.  After the Jets tie it up, Romo throws an interception on the Cowboys’ 41-yard line with a minute remaining, leading to the game-winning field goal. FINAL SCORE: New York Jets 27, Dallas 24.

2011, Game #4 – Dallas sees a 24-point third quarter lead and 13-point fourth quarter lead trickle down to three points.  With 4:22 left in the game, Romo throws an interception on the Dallas 40-yard line, leading to the game-winning touchdown.  FINAL SCORE: Detroit 34, Dallas 30.

2011, Game #13 – Once up by 12 points in the fourth quarter, Dallas is still clinging to a five-point lead with 2:30 to play.  The New York Giants have only one time out left when Romo misses on a throw to a completely wide open Miles Austin that would have sealed the victory.  Instead, the Cowboys are forced to punt and the Giants proceed to score the game-winning touchdown. FINAL SCORE: New York Giants 37, Dallas 34. 

2011, Game #16 – Romo turns the ball over twice in a winner-take-all NFC East division title game.  The Cowboys finish the season 1-4, missing the playoffs by a game. FINAL SCORE: New York Giants 31, Dallas 14.

2012, Game #7 – After the New York Giants come back to take a five-point edge in the fourth quarter, Romo has the Cowboys in position to regain the lead.  With 1:03 remaining, Romo throws an interception at the Giants’ 17-yard line, his fourth pick of the game. FINAL SCORE: New York Giants 29, Dallas 24. 

2012, Game #16 – In yet another regular season finale elimination game with the NFC East title on the line, the Cowboys come up short.  Down by three points with three minutes remaining, Romo throws an interception on the Dallas 27-yard line.  Dallas finishes the year with two straight losses, missing the playoffs by a game. FINAL SCORE: Washington 28, Dallas 18.

2013, Game #2 – Romo gets sacked and loses a fumble at the Dallas 31-yard line, down by four points with 11 minutes to play. FINAL SCORE: Kansas  City 17, Dallas 16.

2013, Game #5 – In a matchup against one of the best offenses the NFL has seen, the Cowboys hang in to the very end with the Denver Broncos.  Romo puts up great numbers with over 500 yards passing, but again makes a crucial mistake at the most inopportune time.  With two minutes remaining in a tie game, Romo throws an interception at the Dallas 24-yard line, leading to the game-winning field goal. FINAL SCORE: Denver 51, Dallas 48.

2013, Game #14 – Leading by 23 points at the half, Dallas has its lead cut to five points late in the fourth quarter.  Romo audibles out of a running play and proceeds to throw an interception on the Dallas 45-yard line with 2:46 left in the game.  The Green Bay Packers proceed to score the go-ahead touchdown.  On the Cowboys’ ensuing possession, Romo throws yet another interception at the Dallas 32-yard line with 1:24 to play, essentially ending the game.  FINAL SCORE: Green Bay 37, Dallas 36.

Tony Romo has lost 48 games in his career (regular and post-season combined) and an astounding 22 of them appear on the list above.  In many of these games, Tony Romo was not the only reason that the Cowboys failed to win.  Yet, in each of the games listed, he made a critical mistake at a decisive point that either completely turned the game against the Cowboys or at the very least crippled his team’s chances significantly.  Note that the preceding list of games is not simply a catalog of every bad performance by Tony Romo in his career (e.g., he threw five interceptions in a game against the Chicago Bears last season).  It does not even include all of the large leads that were lost during Romo’s tenure at quarterback (e.g., Dallas recently blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead to the Detroit Lions).  Whether time is running out in a close game or in a tight season, it seems that Tony Romo is much more likely to do something to hurt his team than any other NFL quarterback. 

Is Romo’s career simply a case of taking the good (seemingly always in the game with his great comeback abilities) with the bad (feeling like no lead is safe because of so many epic meltdowns)?  The volatility in Romo’s game seems to be excessive to the downside.  Statistically, Manning has been as likely as Romo to overcome a fourth quarter deficit (27% to 28%, respectively), yet with a similarly ranked defense over the years, he coughs up late leads a fraction of the time as his rival in Dallas.  How is Romo’s 1-6 record in elimination games explained?  Roethlisberger and Manning are a combined 18-7 in the playoffs with four Super Bowl rings between them.  Rivers is an incredible 31-6 in games played in December and January.  Romo’s losses have been more than twice as likely to be a result of coughing up a 10+ point fourth quarter lead as anyone mentioned above and over six times as likely as Jay Cutler, who the media often implies is as inconsistent and unpredictable as any quarterback in the league.  It is extremely difficult to win in the NFL without a good quarterback.  Romo is a good quarterback; a very good quarterback, even.  However, it is far more difficult to win in the NFL when your quarterback gives games away as often as he does.  It is not clear as to why Romo is unable to avoid so many disastrous moments in key situations, but what is clear is that it is time to stop apologizing for him. 

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