Tony Romo's 'Icarus gene' once again pops up at the worst possible time
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?
And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.
He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,
Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned.
-- Field, Edward. "Icarus" (1950). CUNY Composers.
Few could tell you more about the metaphorical dangers of flying to close to the sun than Tony Romo. He has lived the Icarus legend on the field far too often.
No matter how often Romo tries to get past the narrative that he's a serial choker who snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, the damned narrative keeps popping up and biting him at the worst possible times. So it was on Sunday afternoon. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback set a franchise record by throwing for 506 yards and five touchdowns, but it was one play that killed him and led to the Denver Broncos kicking a late field goal to win, 51-48, in the fourth-highest scoring game in league history.
With 2:04 left in the game, the Cowboys had 2nd-and-16 at their own 14, and the game was tied, 48-48. Romo tried to get the ball out with defenders converging around him, but linebacker Danny Trevathan picked the pass off at the Dallas 24, and Matt Prater kicked the game-winning field goal a few plays later.
"We have a play where we have some seam routes going up the middle of the field," Romo said after the game. "We had seen some things on tape, and felt like we could get one ... [based on] previous two-minute, end-of-game situations. They did a good job. I didn't get as much on it as I wanted to -- I wanted to get it a foot or two more out in front. It's frustrating and disappointing."
Romo was asked if he would have been better off taking a sack in that situation, and his answer revealed that yes, he does understand situational football.
"Those plays, they happen pretty quick -- you've got to pull the trigger. If you wait for the second window ... in hindsight, I'd rather do anything but what we did there. Saying that, you're at 2nd-and-16, and if you do take a sack, you're giving the ball back with two minutes to go at the 50-yard line. A lot of things come into play."
Add in the fact that he was facing an opponent with a quarterback who can practically score at will. Still, this play led to the inevitable crush of Romo-bashing, specifically about his inability to make it count when the situations are most important. The narrative is both true and false.
Romo has an above-average DVOA (Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric) in late and close situations (any play in the second half or overtime when the score is within eight points). The 2010 season is the only exception, and in the other four seasons, Romo’s DVOA is actually higher in those situations than overall. And if you choose to argue that Romo melts under the brightest spotlights, consider that he has one of the best Quarterback DVOA rankings in nationally televised games since 2008.
However, he has an abysmal track record in "win-or-go-home" games, and the Cowboys have lost the last eight games in which he's thrown a fourth-quarter pick. It's not that Romo doesn't understand the importance of keeping things together in crunch time -- it's just that he unravels when he really needs to do anything but.
"It's just about winning and losing," he said, when asked if his stats mattered at all. "As a quarterback, you know that. You leave everything on the field just to try and win these football games, and it's disappointing when you don't. We had a chance today against as good a football team as there is, and we know that."
If anything, Romo tries to do too much at times. And the 2nd-and-16 situation, set up by the Shaun Phillips sack on the previous play, may have triggered Romo's tendency to play the hero at the worst possible time. It's a mutated tendency that some great quarterbacks have -- from Bobby Layne to Johnny Unitas to Fran Tarkenton to Warren Moon to that Brett Favre guy. Some signal-callers can't -- or won't -- listen when that little voice tells them to pull it down and live for the next play. It's pretty simple -- sometimes, thinking you can be the hero makes you the goat. The same thing that makes Romo great at times also proves to be his undoing. Icarus would be proud -- and many other great quarterbacks would understand.