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Cowboys vs. Chargers Analysis: The Tony Romo Illusion

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I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ lack of aggressiveness today. In addition to a post that will be up at DallasCowboys.com later, I discussed the Tony Romo illusion over at NBC:

Tony Romo is gaming the system right now. With his 105.0 passer rating and 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Romo has made it appear that he’s playing great football. He’s made it appear that he’s leading the Cowboys’ offense and that factors outside of his control are killing the team’s chances. He’s made it appear like he’s an improved decision-maker.

But playing quarterback isn’t all about minimizing turnovers. Yes, Romo has cut down on his picks. That’s awesome and, given interceptions or no interceptions, there’s obviously no choice.

But that’s not the real dichotomy, here. The real decision is between an aggressive, high-variance style of play that leads to interceptions at times but also creates big plays to lead the offense, or an ultra-conservative style of play that typically results in another form of a turnover—a punt.

On Sunday, Romo was again acting as Houdini in San Diego. A 73.0 percent completion rate. Two touchdowns and no interceptions. A magnificent 108.4 passer rating.

But here’s the dark side of his illusion: 6.60 YPA. No individual stat best predicts team success like YPA. Romo’s 6.68 YPA in 2013 is the lowest he’s ever posted. And it’s not even close.

Turnover minimization should be one of the Cowboys’ goals. It should be an important goal, too. But it shouldn’t be the only goal. The offense can’t continue to minimize turnovers at all costs, regardless of whether or not they move the ball. Open up the offense, let Romo get the ball downfield, and stop playing for another 8-8 record.

At ABC, I broke down a few of Romo’s throws:

Dez Bryant 34-Yard Touchdown

It’s not like Romo is never taking his chances, of course, but just that they’re very limited. He threw a beautiful ball into a tight window in the second quarter—a play that changed the outlook of the game at that point.

On a second-and-four at San Diego’s 40-yard line, the Cowboys used a heavy three-tight end package and lined up in a “Jumbo Ace” look. Bryant was isolated to the field.

Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called for a play-action look—something that’s still way too underutilized. Romo came into the week with a 110.2 passer rating on play-action passes, yet the Cowboys ranked near the bottom in the league in play-action pass rate. We saw the same thing last year when Romo had a similar play-action passer rating, yet Dallas ranked last in the league in play-action attempts.

This play was particularly deceptive because it was used in a running situation with run-heavy personnel. Romo was given plenty of time to throw and even had Lance Dunbar open underneath.

He rightfully decided to bypass the sure thing to Dunbar in favor of looking downfield for Bryant. The window of opportunity was a small one, but the aggressive throw paid off. Bryant caught the ball in traffic and took it all the way in for the score.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

You’re going to hear all week that quarterback Tony Romo “took what the defense gave him.” That was the case in both Week 1 and Week 2 as well when Romo, despite a high completion percentage, was quite inefficient in terms of yards per attempt.

On Sunday, Romo again padded his completion percentage, connecting on 27 of his 37 attempts (73.0 percent). Completions aren’t valuable in and of themselves, of course, and Romo managed only 244 yards on those passes (6.59 YPA). Let me save you the suspense—if that’s the sort of efficiency we can expect from Romo all year, the Cowboys will be lucky to go 8-8.

Romo is an outstanding quarterback and more than capable of leading the Cowboys as far as they want to go, but not like this. If the Cowboys don’t start throwing the ball downfield, there’s very little reason for fans to be optimistic. Yes, he protected the ball again, but eventually, the team will need to realize that the same style of play that can lead to interceptions is also what makes Romo a great quarterback.

The ‘Boys seem content to employ a low-variance strategy, through which Romo does everything in his power to not throw interceptions, even if it means not moving the offense.

Grade: D

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