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My Cowboys-Broncos Analysis: Tony Romo, Big Plays & Position Grades

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At ABC, I broke down Tony Romo’s interception and explained why he’s still a clutch quarterback:

Tony Romo: Clutch Quarterback?

There are a few problems with the popular opinion of Romo being a “choke artist.” First, it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Romo has had some really big fourth quarter and late-season mistakes, for sure, but outside of team wins—a horribly ineffective way to judge a quarterback—there’s not really much to support the “Romo chokes” theory other than “well, he had this one bad throw in this big game, and then he had this other poor throw in another game, so clearly he sucks when the chips are down.”

Second, “choke artist” isn’t exactly an objective term. If you’re of the opinion that Romo collapses in high-pressure situations, you need to provide some sort of guidelines through which we can test the theory. That’s kind of how stats (and science) work and why they’re pragmatic; instead of arguing in support or against a player or team with vague, potentially meaningless concepts such as “lots of heart,” “a strong identity,” “savvy play,” and other untestable qualities, we can acquire a deeper, more meaningful understanding of football and its players through stat analysis.

If Romo’s interception in Sunday’s loss is to be used against him, then we also need to include other performances in similar situations. So let’s do that.

Since 2000, no quarterback in the NFL has a higher fourth quarter (and overtime) passer rating than Romo. Aaron Rodgers is second, but he’s still nearly five points behind Romo.

And it’s not like Romo’s rating is inflated by some fluky touchdowns, because he’s also averaged 8.5 YPA. That’s 0.7 yards more than Rodgers and a full yard more than the third quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning. Romo’s 60-to-23 fourth quarter touchdown-to-interception ratio is a whole lot better than Manning’s 90-to-42 ratio, too.

But it’s pretty clear that Romo racks up stats in meaningless situations, such as when the team is down by 21 points, right?

Uh, no. Romo’s fourth quarter passer rating in one-score games is a few points lower at 100.1, but his YPA (more strongly correlated with team wins) is slightly higher at 8.7. He has 31 touchdowns and 13 picks in such situations.

So this is really where we are—a juncture at which we can either blindly accept the notion of Romo folding under pressure or analyze the stats to understand that our memories are clouded from a few highly covered and oft-discussed plays. It’s faith versus science, and I’m on the side of the argument that can actually be both tested and falsified.

At NBC, I broke down some of the game’s biggest plays:

Tony Romo’s INT
Romo’s interception was obviously costly, but here’s how much; prior to the play, the Cowboys owned a 67 percent to win the game. After it, the odds dwindled to just 16 percent. And in reality, it was probably worse than that because generic win probability numbers don’t account for specific game situations. Neither the Broncos nor Cowboys could consistently stop one another, so the game was bound to be a whoever-has-the-ball-last-wins sort of contest.

Allowing a Touchdown
Should the Cowboys have allowed a touchdown on purpose when the Broncos faced third-and-inches at the Cowboys’ two-yard line? I don’t think so. It’s a close call, but there was still hope that the defense could make a stop in the backfield and hold Denver to a field goal try.

In my opinion, the coaches should have told the defense to try to make a tackle for a loss, but if you don’t immediately get a push into the backfield, let the running back score. Allowing a first down but not a touchdown was the worst possible outcome for Dallas, although I don’t think the coaches made a horrible decision in telling the defense to play it straight up.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Romo set a career high with 506 passing yards and five touchdowns. He also through a crucial fourth-quarter interception that led to Denver’s game-winning score, but it’s difficult to get on Romo about it since the Cowboys wouldn’t have been in that position without him.

In terms of pure stats, Romo outplayed Manning in every way. He had nearly 100 more yards on six fewer attempts, averaging 14.1 YPA, compared to 9.9 YPA for Manning. They scored the same number of touchdowns with Manning tossing four and running one in.

If your inclination is to say this is “the same old Romo,” in regards to his fourth-quarter interception, you’re just wrong. Romo actually has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating ever. It’s unfortunate his lone pick came so late in the game—and it was clearly a poor decision—but this was still one of the best games of Romo’s career.

Grade: A

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