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Why Is Tony Romo So Successful Passing Over the Middle?

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By Jonathan Bales

Recently, I’ve taken a look at the 2009 receiving statistics of some Cowboys pass-catchers (Roy Williams, Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, and Jason Witten) broken down by location.  Williams, Crayton, and Witten were all significantly better when catching the football over the middle of the field, while Austin’s play stood out when receiving the ball either over the middle or on the left side of the field.

You can see graphs displaying the numbers of each player above.  While one might expect receiving statistics to be somewhat inflated in the middle of the field, the degree of inflation seen (particularly for Williams, Crayton, and Witten) is surprising.

Part of their efficiency was due to quarterback Tony Romo.  The chart above displays his passer rating over different areas of the field.  You can see Romo thrived on passes over the middle between 10 and 20 yards in length.  The sample size of passes in that particular area is huge, as it is over the linebackers and in front of the safeties–a very popular place to throw.

Of course, all NFL quarterbacks generally pass with higher efficiency over the middle of the field. So instead of simply claiming that Romo is a better quarterback when passing over the middle, I am interested in uncovering if his success is greater than the expected statistical inflation.  That is, it is understood he will have better statistics when throwing to the middle of the field, but should they be as good as what is observed?

To determine if Romo’s success is atypical, I looked up the 2009 statistics of each team’s top quarterback (the one who took the most snaps).  It is worth mentioning that these statistics are by no means infallible.  For example, Vince Young, David Garrard, and Mark Sanchez all recorded a higher yards-per-attempt over the middle of the field last season than Peyton Manning.  Enough said.

Nonetheless, they numbers do provide a general baseline for success, as the “top” quarterbacks are (more or less) near the top of the list.

As you can see, Romo’s 8.83 yards-per-attempt checked in as sixth-best in the NFL.  While this is very good, it doesn’t actually confirm my hypothesis. Romo did average less yards in general in 2009 (8.15 per attempt), but so did most other quarterbacks.  On the season, Romo’s 8.15 overall yards-per-attempt ranked him at No. 5 among all signal-callers.

Thus, while Romo and the Cowboys do succeed more often when throwing to the middle of the field, the results do not appear to be anything out of the norm.

It is still interesting that quarterbacks are generally more efficient when throwing to the middle of the field.  Why is this the case? Common sense might tell you a quarterback would succeed most often when throwing to his “arm side,” i.e. right-handed quarterbacks to the right, and vice versa.

One possible explanation is the introduction of pass-catching tight ends. New hybrid players such as Jets tight end Dustin Keller are becoming increasingly talented at receiving the football (and subsequently less talented at blocking).  Just take a look at our Tight End Rankings.  The list is loaded with incredible athletes who stretch the field and take advantage of mismatches on linebackers to make a lot of big plays over the middle.

However, it could be that this tight end rejuvenation is not the direct cause of the inflated passing numbers over the middle of the field, but rather the byproduct of something else.  Perhaps the NFL’s pass coverage rules (specifically ‘illegal contact’) are to blame.

Since instituting the ‘illegal contact’ rule, the NFL has seen an explosion of complicated zone coverage schemes.  Instead of playing man-t0-man, it is safer for defenses to sit back in a zone and minimize the risk of yielding a big play or committing a penalty.  Even blitzes are often performed out of a zone concept, i.e. the terms “zone dog,” “zone blitz,” etc.

The king of zone coverages, of course, is Cover 2 (pictured to the left).  Cover 2 is a very safe coverage, as both safeties are back deep to limit big play opportunities.  Thus, it is extremely difficult for an outside receiver (the X or Z) to beat the defense deep.

As if that wasn’t enough, the cornerbacks play with what is called “outside leverage.”  This means that off of the snap, they do everything possible to force the receiver inside.  Why?  Well, that is where their help is located.  One of the weaknesses of Cover 2 is behind the cornerback and in front of the safety.  If the cornerback can force the receiver inside, the receiver has little chance of exposing this weakness. This is one reason CBs are getting bigger and stronger–they are rarely asked to play man coverage anymore.

Further, new concepts of Cover 2 have the cornerbacks sinking deeper and deeper into their zone (which is called “Curl to Flat”), almost to the point where they are reaching the safety’s territory.  In a nutshell, X and Z receivers have little chance of exploiting Cover 2 for big yardage.

The other weakness of Cover 2 is (yup, you guess it) the middle of the field.  This is due to the safety’s deep half responsibilities.  As they split, just the middle linebacker is left to cover the short-to-intermediate middle.  This is actually what led to the version of Cover 2 called “Tampa 2” in which an athletic “Mike” linebacker runs deep down the middle.

As I stated earlier, highly-athletic tight ends, H-Backs, slot receivers, and even running backs are exploiting this weakness.  Even a talented “Mike” backer, such as Chicago’s Brian Urlacher, is no match for a top-notch slot receiver, such as Reggie Bush (the 2007 NFC Championship game is a testament to that).

Thus, it appears (to me at least) that the recent success of NFL offenses in passing over the middle is indirectly related to the league’s ‘illegal contact’ rule.  It has forced defenses to implement more zone coverages, particularly Cover 2–a defense whose major weakness is the middle of the field.

Fortunately for the Cowboys, they play a few teams in 2010 who run a lot of Cover 2 (Minnesota, Indianapolis, Chicago).  It won’t make headlines, but if Witten, Austin, Crayton & Co. can effectively exploit the weakness of these Cover 2 schemes, the Cowboys may just be able to take all three games and obtain home field advantage in an effort to reach a Super Bowl in which they would acquire, well, home field advantage.

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2 Responses to Why Is Tony Romo So Successful Passing Over the Middle?

  1. john coleman says:

    I really think it is simply the most open part of the field. It could also expose a lack of edge protection that limits outside throws. Just a thought.

  2. Hmm…I didn’t think about the protection issue, but I don’t think it would limit too many outside throws (perhaps just outside the hashes, unless the tackle REALLY gets pushed back).

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