Is Romo Small in Big Games?
Tony Romo and the Cowboys take on the Eagles and Ghosts of Failed Playoff Berths Past on Sunday night. Right now Dallas is on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Will that change in the final three weeks? Only if Romo puts the choking chatter to rest. We take a look at whether Romo’s reputation is reality or fiction, check in with Dean Blandino and take a stab an NFL version of the college football playoff in this edition of Settle This.
As always, your input is valued so send over any queries to email@example.com.
My friend and I have 60-plus years of Cowboys “fandom” between us. He tells me my opinion of Tony Romo coming up small in big games is skewed and that statistically he’s the top NFL quarterback in fourth-quarter QBR. I say all his good play in “small” games skews his stats. If we look at his performance in must-win games (FG snap bobble in Seattle, the missed bloop pass to Austin who’s behind all his coverage, all those previous seasons where if you win that last game you go to the postseason) is it as bad as I think? When it’s all on the line, does Tony come up small or is it my imagination and the rest of the team is making him look bad (to me at least) in the big games?
Mark, Parkersburg, W.Va.
Great question, Mark, and one I think we’ll be discussing in some fashion from now until the end of the season. Truthfully, I think this question will be put to bed one way or the other this year. This is Romo’s most complete team since 2010, especially on offense. He has a great offensive line, one of the best running games in the NFL, an elite receiver in Dez Bryant and adequate other parts. There’s really no excuse for the Cowboys not to make a run, unless their defense finally falls apart. Romo should certainly make the playoffs, and win a game. If that doesn’t happen, the talk about him not being clutch will be settled forever, and not in his favor.
To answer your question I looked at two things. First, the stats. And your buddy is correct. Romo, statistically, is one of the best fourth quarter quarterbacks not only of recent years, but at least since 1991 (furthest back I could get passer rating). Aaron Rodgers (114.2), Peyton Manning (104.5) and Romo (103.3) are the best since 2011. Rodgers (102.9) and Romo (102.4) are the two top since 1991, and the next-best is Steve Young (97.9). Romo is also near the top when you look at situations where the quarterback is ahead or behind by seven points in the fourth quarter.
But like you point out, those stats could be a bit skewed by meaningless games. So I went to the tape for the final four games each of the past three seasons, when the Cowboys ended their season by losing a do-or-die finale. You could look at other big games during those seasons, but, really, this is what these guys are paid to do: deliver when the season is on the line.
Let’s break it down.
Giants 37, Cowboys 34: Dallas trailed 22-20 entering the fourth quarter, and took a 34-22 lead with two Romo touchdown passes on its first two possessions. Giants made it 34-29 when Dallas had the ball and only needed a first down to end it. That’s when the play you referenced, the “missed bloop pass to Miles Austin,” happened. After the game, Romo said Austin told him he lost the ball in the lights. There was some discussion that, due to hamstring injuries, Austin didn’t have his usual extra gear to get under it. One additional thought: I’m not sure how the Cowboys run that play, but I found it odd that Austin kept fading toward the sideline after beating the cornerback off the line. Normally receivers, once they get behind an opponent, “stack” the defender by getting back on the route directly in front of the defender so he has zero chance of making a play on the ball. This was also an example of a TV announcer setting the dialogue. “No way in the world can Tony Romo miss that throw,” Cris Collinsworth said. It’s similar to the way I felt about what Collinsworth said when Tom Brady and Wes Welker didn’t hook up on a similar pass against this same Giants team in the Super Bowl. Collinsworth said Welker makes that catch “100 times out of a 100.” That is simply not even close to true; I watched every one of Welker’s targets that season and it was not a simple catch. The Cowboys’ pass wasn’t simply a case of Romo missing Austin. It wasn’t a bad pass at all, and I’m sure somebody like Bryant makes it easily. The blame on this play was not clear to me.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? Unclear.
Cowboys 31, Buccaneers 15: Easy Dallas win.
Eagles 20, Cowboys 7: Romo was knocked out of the game with a right hand injury after the first drive. Game was largely meaningless because the Giants had won earlier to set up an NFC title game.
Giants 31, Cowboys 14: Dallas trailed 21-7 in the fourth quarter. On the first drive, Romo hit Witten on third down and the tight end came up short by a yard when he stopped and tried to bull his way for a first down. On fourth down, Romo’s sneak was halted. There wasn’t very good blocking on the play. But the Cowboys came back on a Romo touchdown to make it 21-14 with 10:15 remaining. The defense allowed the Giants to drive for a field goal that pretty much iced the game with 5:39 left thanks to a 44-yard pass to Victor Cruz on third-and-7. Felix Jones had a drop that would have given Dallas a reasonable chance to convert a fourth down on the next possession.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? No choke.
Cowboys 20, Bengals 19: Dallas trailed 19-10 entering the fourth quarter when Romo completed 6 of 8 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown with 6:44 remaining. Romo helped Dallas get into field-goal range to win the game.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? No choke.
Cowboys 27, Steelers 24: Dallas trailed 24-17 when it got the ball for the first time with 12:30 left in the game. After Pittsburgh fumbled a punt, Romo completed his first three passes for 39 yards to set up DeMarco Murray’s tying touchdown. Cowboys punted on their next possession when Romo made a poor throw on third down that caused receiver Dwayne Harris to come up short of the marker. Harris’s 39-yard punt return with less than a minute left gave Dallas the ball at midfield. On first down, Romo could have made a better throw to Austin, who tried to catch the ball backwards for some reason. On third down, Romo made another poor pass. In overtime, the Cowboys came up with an interception and Romo just had to kneel to setup the field goal.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? If Dallas had lost, would have been a choke.
Saints 34, Cowboys 31: Dallas trailed 31-17 when it got the ball in the fourth quarter. Austin had two drops and appeared to run a wrong route on the first drive. Romo led the Cowboys on two scoring drives in the final 4:45 to send the game to overtime. The third down pass in OT was a beat late to Bryant. Saints won game on next possession.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? Not a choke.
Washington 28, Cowboys 18: Dallas, with Romo throwing two early interceptions (one his fault), trailed 21-10 with 10:26 remaining. With Bryant out and Austin limping, Romo got the Cowboys to within three points with 5:50 left on a touchdown and two-point conversion. Dallas got another chance with 3:33 left but on the second play, Romo floated a pass to Murray that was easily intercepted.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? Choke.
Bears 45, Cowboys 28: Dallas got blasted in the cold despite no interceptions from Romo.
Packers 37, Cowboys 36: Dallas pushed its lead to 36-24 with 7:55 remaining on a third-down scoring pass from Romo to Bryant. With a chance to ice the game, Romo underthrew Bryant and took a sack, but atoned on third down with a conversion. However, Romo threw interceptions on the final two drives to give the Packers a victory.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? Choke.
Cowboys 24, Washington 23: Dallas trailed 23-14 heading into final quarter. The Cowboys had to settle for a field goal when Romo threw high to Bryant on the first possession. Down six with 3:39 to play, Romo led the Cowboys on a scoring drive that was capped by a 10-yard pass to Murray on fourth-and-10 with 1:08 left.
CHOKE OR NO CHOKE? No choke.
Eagles 24, Cowboys 22: Romo missed the final game to have back surgery.
That history, and last week’s blowout win over the hapless Bears, brings us current. The Cowboys, at 9-4, are tied for the third-best record in the conference but currently out of the playoffs with three games to play: at Philadelphia, home vs. the Colts and at Washington.
As far as your question, the stats certainly favor Romo. The Cowboys were 4-6 in the final-month games finished by Romo since 2010. As far as my personal “choke or no choke” tally, I have it 3-4-1: three chokes (I’m including the Steelers game Dallas won), four non-chokes, and one unclear on the Austin bloop pass.
There are a couple of other factors. Those Cowboys weren’t very strong, especially on the offensive line, and boy was I underwhelmed with Miles Austin as a No. 2 receiver. And I think some of Romo’s reputation has to do with his body language and facial expressions: He’s an easy target.
But after looking at all the evidence, I would not blame you if you were extremely uneasy entering this stretch. Even throwing out all the stuff early in his career, I’m leaning towards Romo just not being a very good quarterback in crunch time, especially when Dallas has the lead or isn’t playing with its back against the wall. But it’s not clear cut.
However, Romo can put this all to rest one way or the other in these final three games. He and the Cowboys need to win all three, and they should win all three. If they don’t and miss the playoffs, Dallas needs to find and start developing the next guy (actually, they need to do that regardless; next season Romo will be 35 with back worries).
In the Cincinnati-Tampa Bay game (two weeks ago, a 14-13 Bengals victory) the referees reviewed a play to determine there were 12 men on the field. What makes that penalty reviewable as opposed to other penalties? If the answer is that “12 men on the field is a perfectly objective call, plain to see” why can’t lining up in the neutral zone, false start, illegal shift, illegal formation, delay of game, facemask or other “plain to see” penalties be reviewed. I can appreciate the merit of getting the call correct but there are missed calls on literally every NFL play, many of them plain to see by the letter of the law. Why should this one be reviewable and retroactively imposed?
For the answer to this one, Kovacs, I went straight to guy in charge: NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino.
Here’s what he said: “Twelve-men on the field is a reviewable play because it can be determined definitively by an instant replay review if a violation occurred. The player is either on or off the field. There is no subjectivity involved in making the decision. The other examples cited involve elements of subjective judgment, and the Competition Committee has been clear in years past that these were not areas that they felt should be part of the instant replay review process. Teams may submit rules changes for consideration that may be voted on by the clubs regardless of if the competition committee supports the proposal.”
Thanks for your question, Kovacs. I’m sure this isn’t the answer you wanted, but it does make sense.
#SettleThis: If the hottest teams in the NFC (Seahawks, Packers) and AFC (Pats, Broncos) duked it out CFB playoff style who would win?
—Ananth T.K. (@ananth_tk)
Oooh, good question. And while I don’t like dealing with hypotheticals (I learned from Nick Saban that they’ll only get you in trouble), I’ll play along with this. I don’t want to get into all the tiebreakers, but let’s just say the seedings are: (1) Packers, (2) Patriots, (3) Broncos, (4) Seahawks.
That would mean Seahawks at Packers and Broncos at Patriots. Interestingly enough, these would both be rematches, and would represent the first time the quarterbacks of each of the final four teams had Super Bowl rings. How great would that be?
In the first matchup, I’m going with the Seahawks with the upset at Lambeau Field. I can’t get the season-opening beating out of my head. Yes, that game was in Seattle, but Russell Wilson played at Wisconsin, the Seahawks can run the ball well, and I think they stand the best chance at shutting down Aaron Rodgers.
In the AFC game, I’m going with the Patriots big over the Broncos. I just can’t take Peyton Manning in New England in January.
In the Super Bowl... what the heck, I’m sticking with my preseason (please ignore my wild-card picks of the Jets and Buccaneers!) prediction: Seahawks 13, Patriots 10.
WEEK 15 NICKEL PACKAGE
1. I don’t think true dual-threat quarterbacks are going to take off in the NFL until coaching staffs realize you can’t just adapt your offense by adding a couple plays based on trips to a few colleges. Head coaches need to start plucking the best and brightest head coaches/coordinators from the college ranks and tweaking their systems to the NFL. Pairing Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Geno Smith with three coordinators (Greg Roman/Jim Harbaugh, Jay Gruden and Marty Mornhinweg) who all come from old-school West Coast backgrounds is obviously not the way to go. If owners want those kinds of quarterbacks to be successful (and the pocket passer is indeed becoming extinct in college), they need to start looking at the Art Briles and Kevin Sumlins of the football world.
2. I got on that train of thought after watching Kaepernick film. He was successful heading into this season because the 49ers did a good job of adapting their offense to what he did in college. This season they tried to get him to run more of a true West Coast system, which the rest of the offense is built for, and they obviously misjudged his readiness. Kaepernick just looks like a round peg in a square hole.
3. I would not be surprised if the Broncos get knocked off by the Chargers this week. After watching some recent film, something is going on with Peyton Manning. Outside of the Dolphins’ game, Manning has not played well since the first matchup with the Chargers. Physically, he doesn’t seem right.
4. Romo, on a short week, was bad against the Eagles in the trams’ first matchup, but if the Cowboys’ defensive line doesn’t play better in this time around, it’s not going to matter. They got handled by the Eagles’ offensive line, and rather easily.
5. The Patriots’ offensive line has been back to its struggling early season ways the past two weeks, and the Dolphins put it to them in the season opener. Important for the Patriots to regain some confidence with that unit, especially left tackle Nate Solder, heading into the playoffs. Of course, the Dolphins will have to show some fight.
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