Infamous for his failures in the clutch, Tony Romo worked hard to fix careless mistakes and is now changing the narrative. Here's how he's doing it, plus a note on Denver's wild win and what to watch in Week 2

By Peter King
September 18, 2015

Cris Collinsworth said exactly what I was thinking as the Cowboys exulted after their second Tony Romo-led touchdown drive in the last six minutes beat the Giants on Sunday night in Texas. “Tony Romo’s taken a lot of heat over the years for not playing in the clutch,” Collinsworth told America on NBC. “That was pretty darn strong.”

The next test for Romo and the Cowboys comes Sunday in Philadelphia. But last Sunday, there were two plays—one on each 70-plus-yard touchdown drive—that showed the maturation of Romo, and why the Cowboys, even without Dez Bryant for probably half the season now, are such a dangerous team.

First, to Collinsworth’s point about Romo. In 2012, Romo had games with five, four, three and two interceptions, and Dallas lost them all on the way to a disappointing 8-8 season. He was a great stat quarterback, but also too careless, and he knew it. Check out how his 2012 season compares to two years and a game since, including two 2014 playoff games:

2012 8-8 28 19
2013-15 22-11 72 21

* * *

The answer to his newfound productive efficiency, can be found, first, in his smart phone.

Yes, Romo’s phone. In training camp this summer, I sat with him for an hour after practice one day. Romo started the conversation—well, after riffing on Bruce Springsteen, who was playing in the background of the interview; a couple of times Romo just stopped in the conversation and sang a lyric—by showing me still photos of the throwing motions of 10 or so quarterbacks. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Blake Bortles, Ryan Tannehill, Derek Carr, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Joe Flacco … he studies them, analyzing the hand motion as the ball leaves the fingertips, which he feels is crucial to accuracy and a strong throw. Romo has become a technician of The Throw.

He thinks so many different things are important to quarterbacking proficiency, aside from three obvious ones: accuracy, quick but self-assured decision-making and a strong arm. It’s not just the cliché things, either, like chemistry with receivers, understanding the route progression on every throw or knowing the defensive players’ tendencies on a given route.

“You can teach someone footwork and teach them how to throw a football but it is very difficult to teach someone how to see things quicker,” Romo says. “That’s what separates the quarterbacks who are at the highest level.”

“One thing that used to hurt me that I’ve really worked on,” he said, “is not having reactionary throws anymore. So if things are moving too fast and you can’t see people and can’t get it to an open guy, you get the ball to the ground. Just throw at people’s feet. You see if I miss someone, a lot of times I did it on purpose just because I’m being safe with the throw because I’m under duress. Instead of forcing it, now my reactionary throw is to get rid of the ball and move on to the next play. I understand that we are explosive enough to come back on second-and-15, or second-and-10.

“I progress through a lot of people really quickly. If there is one thing that I was given a gift with, it’s spatial awareness and the ability to process information very fast. So what I have to do then, because I go through it so quickly, is to play slower. I need to get my feet back, get set, be in a stationary position and understand what I like to refer to as a balanced pocket and from there I can get through a lot of stuff with very quiet feet to minimize turnovers.”

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Spatial awareness is a newfangled term common to soccer that I’ve heard a few NFL folks use—Jacksonville, for instance, stresses it with Bortles. As defenses try to hide coverages more and more, quarterbacks have to be able to pick out coverage tendencies quickly as they process the progression after the snap of the ball on a pass play. “If you understand spatial awareness,” Romo said, “you process the coverage and leverage of the defenders and you do it all in one second.

“People talk about potential for quarterbacks, and it is one of the most overrated comments. To me, when I look at a young quarterback and a GM asks me, ‘What do you think about his potential?’ I can’t answer until I see how fast he can get through progressions. And when I say that, I mean I need to see if he understands spatial awareness and his ability to go from his third to fourth to fifth even possible guy—and how fast and long that takes him when he doesn’t know the coverage. You can teach someone footwork and teach them how to throw a football but it is very difficult to teach someone how to see things quicker. That’s what separates the quarterbacks who are at the highest level.”

Now we get to the fourth quarter Sunday night in Arlington. Giants 23, Cowboys 13. Two plays made all the difference for Romo. Start with the principle that there was no time to waste for Romo, needing two touchdowns (as it turned out) in the final eight minutes, and having to drive more than 70 yards twice, and knowing the Giants would have a clock-bleeding possession in the middle of Dallas’ two possessions.

On the third play of the first drive, Romo saw a jittery-looking, clue-giving right cornerback, Trumaine McBride, creeping in a couple of steps from his normal position. “As he was about to call for the snap, Romo stepped from the shotgun toward the line.

“BLACK MUSTANG!!” Romo called. Obviously a change in the protection. Now Jason Witten, flanked left, moved into the gap between the left tackle and guard at the snap, and here came McBride, steaming in on a blitz. He would have been unblocked. And then what? A sack, and more time off the clock? A forced fumble? A wasted throwaway by Romo?

“He had a lot to think about there,” Witten said Thursday from Texas. “It looked like they were going to blitz, but they were disguising it, and Tony saw it. There were five, six, seven of those kinds of plays in the last two drives Tony made, when he has a lot to think about and processes it quickly and makes a quick decision. It seemed like every decision he made there at the end was the right one.”

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Romo for an instant looked to the middle but Terrance Williams wasn’t there yet—and then fired a quick eight-yard out to Cole Beasley at the left sideline. Gain of seven. Clock stopped. Three plays later, Romo hit Witten for the first of two touchdowns Dallas needed.

Next drive: Thirteen seconds left. Giants up 26-20. Third-and-two from the Giants’ 11-yard line. From the shotgun, with back Lance Dunbar to his right for protection, Romo prepared to snap. But with 16 seconds left on the play clock, he went to the line and screamed out “TACOMA!! TACOMA!!”

Then some hand motions. Fourteen seconds left.

Then calling out “47,” noting the number of the Giants’ middle ‘backer, Uani ‘Unga. Eight seconds left.

Then more hand motions. Six seconds left.

Then a few words to Dunbar. Four seconds left.

“Get us on the line,” Witten said. “Examine the coverage, examine the protection, change the protection, then see what the middle linebacker is going to do in coverage. We were going to read 47 and how he played it, and if not me, we had Cole in the slot, and we thought that might be open too.”

Then the snap. One second left.

The snap went off his left arm and fell to the ground.

Jason Witten (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

In all this time, no sudden movements, no evidence of panic or wasted motion. Romo picked up the ball, looked at Witten breaking free from Robert Ayers at the line, and then looked at ‘Unga allowing Witten to stay in front of him down the field. Well, if the middle linebacker was going to let Witten stay in front of him, and no Giant was going to get in the path of the throw from quarterback to Pro Bowl tight end, well, that’s a gift Romo’s going to take. He thought he might see it, he did, and he had enough time with the protection scheme he called for it to work. Touchdown. Dallas 27, Giants 26.

On the final two Dallas drives, Romo was 11 of 12 for 148 yards and two touchdowns.

Moral of the story: Romo could have agreed with all those who said he was doomed to be a failure in the clutch, or he could have worked to make his decision-making much better all through the game, and particularly in the crucial parts of the game. On these last two drives, he made one poor throw, leading Beasley too far two snaps before the winning touchdown to Witten. The key thing was, no Giant had a chance to pick it off.

“Some might call what’s happened to Tony a great leap,” Witten said. “He was willing to put in the work to go to a place not many players can get to. He worked for greatness. It’s not easy here. There’s so much to live up to, especially at that position. Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Hall of Fame quarterbacks. But Tony had some adversity, and he worked, and now, every snap, we trust he’ll get us into position to make a great play.”

* * *

Bradley Roby's touchdown return (off a Jamaal Charles fumble) lifted the Broncos over the Chiefs on Thursday night. (Ed Zurga/AP

About Last Night

Denver 31, Kansas City 24. One of the craziest games I’ve seen in a long time … but the biggest takeaway is this: Gary Kubiak has to move Peyton Manning back from under center, let him play the same kind of shotgun offense he’s played for his three Denver seasons, and stop putting this plodding 39-year-old man into the kind of dropback and move positions that give the defense a head start at bashing the tar out of him.

The one move play when Manning faded left and threw a ground ball across his body was just ugly. He was at his best Thursday night running the offense quickly, playing the Chiefs the way he’s played other foes since his Indianapolis prime, leading an offense by playing his way. “That no-huddle offense is something beautiful,” Emmanuel Sanders said to NFL Network after the game.

You could write about 64 aspects of this game—Jamaal Charles’ two gigantic lost fumbles, Andy Reid’s dubious decision to not just kneel it with 35 seconds left at the Chiefs’ 20 and play for overtime, the Chiefs playing huge on defense, the Broncos playing huge on defense, rookie Marcus Peters playing like a six-time Pro Bowl corner, Manning looking grimly finished at times and clutch late. But the lookahead angle has to be what Denver needs to do to maximize Manning’s twilight.

* * *

Player You Need To Know This Week

Tyler Eifert, tight end, Cincinnati (number 85). Maybe it took Cincinnati getting rid of Jermaine Gresham, the perennially disappointing incumbent tight end, for Eifert to start shining. In the Bengals' first game post-Gresham, Eifert caught nine Andy Dalton passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Oakland, and served notice that the Bengals have another major weapon other than Jeremy Hill and A.J. Green.

* * *

Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week

Terrance Williams, wide receiver, Dallas. The good news for the man who will replace Dez Bryant for the next two months in the Cowboys’ lineup is how shaky the Eagles’ secondary was Monday night in Atlanta. In particular, the Eagles’ $63-million cornerback, free-agent pickup Byron Maxwell, was abused all night by quarterback Matt Ryan, who targeted him 11 times and completed 10 throws—for 179 yards. Williams could have a big day, as could Cole Beasley, because Tony Romo is hot, and the Cowboys should have time to exploit a weak secondary.

* * *

Stat of the Week

Andrew Luck plays his 50th NFL game Monday night, against the Jets. With 315 passing yards in the game (no sure thing against a good rush and a secondary with Darrelle Revis), Luck will have more passing yards in his first 50 games than Dan Marino (13,514 yards).

* * *

Quote of the Week

“Go ahead. Ask me! Yeah, I got fined. 35K. Way too much for a football play. I'll appeal.”

—Bengals cornerback Adam Jones, after he was fined for taking Amari Cooper’s bare head in his hands and smashing it backward against the shell of Cooper’s helmet.

“A football play.”

I see.

* * *

Ryan Mallett (Jonathan Bachman/AP)

Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend

1. Kam Chancellor’s holdout. I don’t expect anything to happen, mind you. But the Seahawks are in grave danger of going to 0-2 with a Sunday night loss in Green Bay. I can’t see GM John Schneider caving, and I think it’ll be a while before he seriously considers trading Chancellor if the holdout continues.

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2. A homecoming for Jim Tomsula. The Niners coach, a classic Pittsburgher through and through, returns to his roots to try to beat the team of his youth: the Stillers. (That’s how the folks from his neighborhood pronounce the hometown faves.) Pittsburgh had better protect the middle of the line better against San Francisco than the Vikings protected Monday night, because NaVorro Bowman was coming all night. A challenge for San Francisco will be stopping the reborn DeAngelo Williams, who gashed the Patriots in Week 1.

3. A very big game for Detroit. Not saying it’s threatening to get late early for the 0-1 Leos, but an early Sunday game at the Vikings is big for the defending wild-card team. Detroit follows the game in Minneapolis with Denver, Seattle and Arizona, and has a dangerous Chiefs-Packers-Raiders-Eagles-Packers stretch in midseason. Starting 0-2 will be hazardous to the Lions’ playoff health.

4. Houston’s quarterback choice. Doubt it matters too much, but with Ryan Mallett (110.4 rating in less than a half last week) replacing a healthy Brian Hoyer at quarterback for the Texans, every eye in the Houston locker room will be looking at coach Bill O’Brien and wondering, “How does a guy lose his starting job in one half of football?”

5. Battle of the coaches in Orchard Park. Well, not really. But Bill Belichick is 26-5 in his career against the Bills, and 9-4 head-to-head against Rex Ryan. My head says, Take the Pats. Heart: Take the Bills.

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6. DeMarco Murray’s workload. I don’t think the Eagles had “eight carries, nine yards” in mind when they paid Murray $8 million a year in free agency. But that’s what Murray produced in game one. Chip Kelly has to remember his devotion to the run in his first two seasons as an NFL coach. Weirdest stat from the Monday night doubleheader: The Eagles ran the ball on 42 percent of the offensive snaps in 2014, and on 23.5 percent of the snaps in the Monday loss in Atlanta.

7. Redemption for Jameis Winston. Or so he hopes. After a poor Game 1 loss to Marcus Mariota and the Titans, Winston plays at the pass-rush-weak Saints in New Orleans. There is plenty for Winston to improve. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter wasn’t cutting Winston any slack this week. “It’s the quarterback’s job to cut our losses,” said Koetter. “[His] first interception was a bad decision. [His] second interception, on the screen, was just a bad throw. You got to make a better throw right there. What does he need to get better on? Quarterbacks have to make great decisions. When quarterbacks don’t make good decisions, bad things happen. Quarterbacks don’t make good throws, bad things can happen.”

8.  The encore of Marcus Mariota. What kind of kid—going from spread college offense with most everything called for him to standard NFL offense with lots of decisions to make—throws four touchdown passes in the first half of his first game? The Titans have a winnable second game at Cleveland on Sunday, so we’ll see if Mariota can keep the passer rating perfect. (His is: 158.3.) And by the way, for all commentators, it’s pronounced MAR-ee-OH-duh, not MARE-ee-OH-duh.

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9. A battle of Florida. It’s Dolphins at Jags for the second straight year. One of these decades I’m going to be right, predicting better days for the Jaguars. I still think Blake Bortles is going to have a good sophomore year.

10. Derek Carr’s right thumb. “We anticipate he’ll be ready to go,” coach Jack Del Rio said of his young quarterback, and he’d better be. Doubtful the Raiders will give the Ravens much of a game, but any chance goes out the window with Matt McGloin playing. Carr bruised the throwing thumb in the second quarter of the loss to Cincinnati.

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