From the Archives: Effectiveness of Tony Romo’s Audibles
By Jonathan Bales
I recently headed into my film study database to decipher Tony Romo’s effectiveness when he audibles out of the original play call. Sometimes Romo will actually call an entirely new play at the line of scrimmage, while other times he will simply signal for the team to check into the second play which was called in the huddle (the team often calls two plays in the huddle, planning to run the first unless Romo checks out).
The latter scenario is marked by a phrase many of you have probably heard the Dallas’ quarterback yelling on television, “Kill, Kill, Kill!” When you hear this, Romo sees something in the defense that makes him believe the first play called in the huddle will be unsuccessful. The second play, which is the one run after the “Kill” call, is generally dissimilar to the original call to combat whatever problem Romo noticed.
Note that the Cowboys really have very little incentive to use “dummy” audibles. Nearly every check they made in 2009 (75 of 79) was a “Kill” call. These calls give the defense little strategic advantage, as they do not know either play which was called in the huddle. Thus, because there’s no important information being conveyed at the line of scrimmage, there’s not really anything to cover up with a “dummy” call.
I tracked every play during which Romo called an audible all season, and here are the results:
As you can see, Romo checked out of a play 79 times in 2009, which equates to 4.9 per game and 8.0 percent of all plays. The Cowboys were much more successful when Romo audibled into a run, which he did 59.5 percent of the time he checked. They averaged 5.8 yards-per-rush on all run audibles, a full yard better than their season average. They were not as successful on pass audibles, however, averaging a half yard less per attempt than their season average.
One possible explanation for the lower productivity in the passing game after checks is that defenses are more prepared to defend the pass after an audible. They may assume an audible by the opposing quarterback means he sees an opportunity for a big play, probably a pass, thus making them more likely to effectively defend the pass.
So should the effectiveness of the run force Romo to check into a run play more often than the current 59.5 percent rate? Not necessarily. That percentage is already rather high, and if it would increase to say, 70.0 percent, the defense would have a great indication as to the play-call.
Further, there are times when Romo is even more efficient with his audibles, both when they result in a run and a pass. These times are when the opposing defense shows blitz (only lines up as if they will blitz, but does not necessarily blitz), and the results are below.
Of the 79 times that Romo checked on the season, the defense was showing blitz at the time on 30 of those plays. The Cowboys gained 237 total yards on these checks, gaining 1.9 more yards-per-rush against the blitz than their season average, and 1.5 extra yards-per-pass. The sample size of 30 plays may be low, but probably significant enough to conclude that Romo is more effective in making audible calls when he perceives blitz.
Also notice Romo checked to a pass 56.7 percent of the time during these situations, compared to just 40.5 percent overall. This may be because Romo is more comfortable putting the pressure on himself to make a play when the offense is facing pressure.
While this higher pass-to-run ratio could also be influenced by the fact that teams are more likely to blitz during passing downs, it probably is not too much of a factor, as the Cowboys would already have a pass called and would be much less likely to even audible.
So why is Romo more efficient making checks when the defense shows blitz? One explanation is that Romo is just more effective versus the blitz in general. This could reveal some of the success, but it probably cannot account for the full two yard difference in average yards-per-pass. Further, Romo’s ability versus the blitz does not explain the increase in rushing average when he checks after seeing blitz.
Thus, we must conclude that Romo is generally effective in making audibles, but much more so when he believes a blitz is coming. This does not necessarily mean that he should check out of more plays when he perceives blitz, but perhaps increasing the number of audibles during these situations until the yards-per-play average peaks may result in an even more effective Dallas Cowboys offense.