The Case for Believing in Tony Romo

Despite his "choker" reputation, the Cowboys captain is actually the best fourth-quarter QB in the NFL. He just needs to start performing in the first three quarters, too.
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AP / Sharon Ellman

This Sunday night, in front of a huge national audience, the Cowboys and the New York Giants will renew the NFL’s most heated rivalry. And at the center of it will be the parallel rivalry between the teams’ respective quarterbacks, Tony Romo and Eli Manning.

If you just considered their regular-season records, Romo has been in every way superior: a 64.7 pass completion percentage to Manning’s 58.6 percent, an interception percentage of 2.8 (per 100 throws) to Manning’s 3.2, and in yards per throw (pro football’s most important passing stat), Tony has 7.9 to Eli’s 7.1. Yet Manning is considered one of the game’s elite quarterbacks while the sports media often derides Romo as “a choker.”

Many NFL observers agree that Romo is among the most gifted quarterbacks in the league. He has it all: size (6’2”, 220 pounds), arm strength, and mobility. But, crucially, he’s never won a Super Bowl. In fact, he is 1-3 in postseason games over seven seasons as the Cowboys starter. (He was on the Dallas roster in 2004 and 2005 but didn’t throw a single pass.) And thus, last January, a headline in the Waco Tribune summed up the media’s response to Romo’s whole career pretty accurately: “Romo’s Chokes Overshadow Triumphs.”

But is that really a fair assessment of Romo’s NFL legacy? It depends on how you define “choke”—because a look at Romo's career stats proves he's actually one of the best overall finishers in football.

It's important to note that Romo has had only one truly bad playoff game: On January 17, 2010, the Minnesota Vikings crushed the Cowboys, 34-3. It is now largely forgotten that the previous week he had led his team to a 34-14 win over the Eagles in an outstanding performance—244 yards, two TDs, and zero interceptions for a game rating of 104.9.

Of four playoff games, Romo’s two other losses were to Seattle early in 2007 and the New York Giants in January 2008. He wasn’t great in either game, but the games were both heartbreakers. The Cowboys lost both by a total of only five points. The loss to the Giants was a particularly bitter end to the 2007 season for Cowboys fans after the team’s regular-season success of 13-3, their best win-loss mark under Romo. But Eli Manning began to peak that very afternoon and from that point on he rode a wave that carried the Giants to an even bigger upset—some say the biggest Super Bowl upset ever—over the unbeaten New England Patriots for the championship. So perhaps Romo and the Cowboys simply collided with the team of destiny that year. 

Since then, the Cowboys have failed to make it to the Big Game, going 8-5 under Romo (who missed three games with an injury) in 2008, 11-5 in 2009, 1-5 with Romo in 2010 (another injury kept him on the bench for 10 games), and 8-8 in both 2011 and 2012.

How much of that failure can be pinned on Romo? Quarterback is, of course, the key position in the game, but a close evaluation reveals the Cowboys had problems that have nothing to do with the man who takes the snap.

Last year, the Cowboys 8-8 record and failure to make the playoffs was largely attributed to Romo’s league-high 19 interceptions. But in Week 17 they were still in contention for a playoff spot mainly because of Romo, who led Dallas on five fourth-quarter come-from-behind wins, a feat not achieved even by Cowboys Hall of Fame QBs Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Some of those interceptions were caused by the simple fact that the Dallas defense was so bad that he had no choice but to keep throwing the ball—his 648 pass attempts amounted to the third highest in the league. Because the Dallas D couldn’t hold their opponents, the Cowboys were constantly surrendering the lead, putting the pressure on Romo. And this is an ongoing problem: The Cowboys were 24th among 32 teams last year in points allowed. In only one of Romo’s seasons—2010, when they were second in the league in points allowed—has Dallas finished better than 13th in scoring defense.

Their two toughest losses of the 2012 season can’t be blamed on him, either. On October 14 they played the Ravens in Baltimore. With 48 seconds to play, Romo moved his team from their own 20 to the Baltimore 33 where, with two seconds on the clock, kicker Dan Bailey missed a 51-yard field goal try. Dallas lost 31-29—hardly a disgrace, in retrospect, considering the Ravens went on to become the Super Bowl champs.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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