Eli Manning has two Super Bowl rings. He also has a 58.6 percent career completion rate and has averaged 18 interceptions in the eight seasons he’s been a starter.
Drew Brees is widely considered one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. He also tossed 19 interceptions last season—tying Tony Romo for the league-lead—and has thrown at least 15 interceptions seven times in his career.
Coming off of the heels of a miraculous Super Bowl run in which he threw 11 touchdowns and no picks, Joe Flacco just received an exorbitant $120 million contract. He’s also never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season.
And then there’s Romo. Deep down, we all know Romo isn’t truly an 8-8 quarterback, regardless of how the Cowboys finished in the past couple seasons. The love-him-or-hate-him quarterback is such a paradox because all of the signs for future success are there, but he doesn’t have the history of postseason accomplishments to lend credibility to his game. Until he and the Cowboys make a run deep into the playoffs, Romo’s brilliance will continue to go unrecognized.
But there’s good evidence that Dallas won’t finish this season at or below .500. There’s even better evidence that Romo is much, much better than an average quarterback. Here are the top four numbers that back up that claim.
7.94: Career YPA
There’s no individual stat that better predicts team success than a quarterback’s YPA. Year in and year out, the best squads are those led by quarterbacks with great efficiency. We can talk about the Ravens’ offensive “balance” all day, but the fact is they won the Super Bowl because Flacco put together perhaps the best four-game run of his career, averaging a ridiculous 9.05 YPA, allowing Baltimore to overcome 3.64 YPC from Ray Rice.
Romo has averaged 7.94 YPA over the course of his career. So what does that mean? Well, it means that only six players have ever been more efficient, three of whom played prior to 1950. Counting just modern-day quarterbacks, only Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, and Kurt Warner have posted higher YPA than Romo. The combined record of those passers is 213-124—a .632 winning percentage.
So what’s more likely: Romo has somehow been able to record incredible efficiency but is still a mediocre quarterback, or he’s a superb quarterback whose postseason success doesn’t match the level of plays he’s sustained for years?
Hint: it’s not the first one.
52.0: Percentage of Romo’s 2012 plays that increased the Cowboys’ chances of scoring on a given drive
By looking at historic game data, sites like Advanced NFL Stats are able to determine the exact number of points an offense can expect to score on a given drive or their chances of winning given specific game situations. That’s valuable for all kinds of reasons, one of which is it allows us to grade players based on their success rate: the percentage of plays on which they increase their team’s chances of scoring and winning. Romo ranked fifth in the NFL in success rate in 2012, behind only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers.
33: Romo’s age
Thirty-three is over-the-hill at most NFL positions, but not quarterback. Quarterbacks have proven to be capable of playing at a very high level well into their 30s, especially lately.
Many quarterbacks see a drop in efficiency and total production in their late-30s. At age 33, however, the typical NFL quarterback has produced bulk numbers and efficiency metrics at right around 95 percent of his previous career-high. At least for a few more years, there’s no reason to worry about Romo’s age.
99.9: Romo’s passer rating in the fourth quarter of close games (within seven points)
Romo’s a choke artist. Just ask anyone in the national media. He buckles under the pressure in important situations.
Of course, if that were true, we’d expect it to be reflected in the numbers. If Romo really plays poorly when the stakes are high, his stats should be worse in late-game and late-season situations. But they aren’t.
Actually, in the fourth quarter of close games, Romo has actually raised his level of play. On 464 career passes in the fourth quarter of one-score games, Romo has generated a gaudy 99.9 passer rating. Don’t like passer rating as a metric? You might like Romo’s 8.69 YPA. Or his 6.0 percent touchdown rate. Or his 2.6 percent interception rate. All of those numbers surpass Romo’s overall stats, suggesting he’s not really any worse in crunch time, but better.
I’m not brushing some of Romo’s obvious late-season struggles under the rug. Romo will be the first to tell you that decisions like that which led to the late-game interception in Washington can’t happen. But a quarterback who truly “chokes” in high-pressure situations would never be able to sustain an all-time high passer rating in, well, high-pressure situations.
If the argument boils down to a highly-impressive body of work over a large sample of games versus anecdotal evidence clouded by a recency bias, well, there’s really no argument at all.