It is quite obvious that Tony Romo’s improvisation skills are vital to the success of the Cowboys’ offense. He has used his quick feet and athleticism to make the offensive line look above average in pass protection–or at least superior to reality–for years.
The vast majority of Romo’s “schoolyard” plays–the ones where he jukes and dodges defenders, all the while keeping his eyes downfield in search of the big play–have come on blitzes. Not only are there more defenders for Romo to elude (and thus less in coverage), but the quarterback is also underrated in his ability to diagnose defenses and promptly hit the open receiver.
Most of Romo’s reads get made before the snap. How often do you see the play clock tick down to just one or two seconds before the Cowboys snap the ball? This is because the team uses every available second to call the play(s), diagnose the defense, and make the necessary adjustments.
As I looked into my database of Cowboys’ 2010 offensive snaps, I noticed a trend that seemed to confirm these ideas. I track not only when a defense blitzes, but also when they show a blitz pre-snap. Most of Romo’s mistakes over the past few years have seem to come in two situations:
- When defenses don’t blitz and sit back in zone coverage, forcing Romo to make accurate throws, and
- When defenses show blitz pre-snap but back into a safe coverage
In the chart below, you can see that Romo was incredible against the blitz this past season. His 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio on blitzes is far better than the 5:6 ratio he displayed against “regular” defenses. Romo is particularly outstanding when he knows a blitz is on the way, recording a ridiculous 136.7 passer rating in these situations. His 9.45 adjusted yards-per-attempt is ridiculous. (AYPA subtracts sack yardage and 45 yards per interception–the number of yards, on average, each interception is “worth” in terms of a team’s win probability. Thus, AYPA is an awesome tool for assessing a quarterback’s value against the blitz).
When teams did not blitz Romo in 2010, however, he was slightly below average. His passer rating his historically always been lowest when a defense shows blitz but then backs off, and that was again the case in 2010 (71.3 rating). Romo’s 2.04 AYPA in such situations tells the whole story.
I think Romo’s failures stem from the importance he places on pre-snap reads. When defenses show a blitz but then don’t come, Romo’s original read is usually taken away. He can then sometimes panic, and although I truly believe Romo is a tremendous talent and a Championship-level quarterback, he does not possess incredible accuracy. He makes a lot of his plays by buying extra time to allow receivers to become wide open.
This would explain why he still does well when teams do not show blitz but then end up coming after him. What he sees post-snap may differ from his pre-snap reads, but he possesses not only a quick release, but also the athleticism to make good things happen that may not have been designed in the original play.
Overall, it seems clear Romo performs much better when he “knows” whether or not a blitz is coming. When teams do not blitz, his passer rating is 15.3 points higher and his AYPA 3.53 yards better when teams do not show it as opposed to feigning a blitz. When defenses do send extra defenders, Romo’s passer rating is 1.58 times as high and his AYPA nearly four yards superior if the defense “shows” it as opposed to disguising their intentions.
So you want to stop Romo? Year in and year out, it had been proven to not blitz him often, but feel free to act as if you will. When you do blitz, you better disguise that as well.