A Chat with K.C. Joyner, Part III: Finding the Romo Sweet Spot

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Part III of my chat with ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner gets to the Romo of the matter, and looks at that elusive sweet spot, where Romo’s play-making and bad decisions are in positive balance.

Cowboys Nation:  Let’s go to the main player.  This is a game that still hasn’t gone down for Cowboys fans.  We’re crazy if we don’t start at the top.  We can discuss him in the Lions game, but I’d like you to position him in a broader context.  Looking at him from the pre-season until now, I’m seeing some of the bad habits that bit him early in 2009.  This is a guy who is a danger to himself on 1st-and-10, which should be a quarterback’s down.

I may be overplaying it, but he has three interceptions this year which came on 1st down where he goes back, looks the safety one way and then fires, as if on automatic, to his primary, who in each case has been double or triple covered.  The situation has people going nuts, thinking, it’s 1st-and-10.  Why are you doing that?

K.C. Joyner:  I’m going to compare him to Brett Favre.  There were times in Favre’s career where he could be the best decision maker in football.  You mentioned 2009.  I just pulled up a chart on bad decisions and that season Brett Favre was tied for the lowest bad decision percentage in the league.

Now, we know Favre is a gunslinger.  He’s a guy who over his career would just fling it.  There’s no receiver who’s covered in his eyes.  He thinks, “I can get the ball in there.”  Lots of times it seemed he was just saying, “what the heck.  I’m taking the chance.”  But that ’09 season proved he could play a tighter game.

Tony Romo, that same year, had a 1.4 bad decision percentage.  It was 3rd best in the league.  So Romo is capable of being that type of quarterback.  That brings up Jon Kitna, who early in his career was one of the worst bad decision makers in the game.  I almost named the metric after him.  He was the poster child for bad decisions.  Last year he was 2nd in bad decisions.  He was that good.

Quarterbacks can make up their minds to play more under control.

CN:  What is his bad decision percentage a month in?  We have to take them with a grain of salt, because the sample sizes are going to be small, but how does he compare to seasons past?

KC:  I have not broken down the Lions game.  I saw it and I’ve seen the mistakes.  I can say that through three games he had a 3.0 bad decision percentage.  It’s surely higher now, maybe 3.5 percent.  Three percent is the cutoff point for gunslinger types. You want to be below 3.0 percent.  If you’re a dink-and-dunk type, and play in a safer system, 2.0 is the cutoff.

I have no doubt Romo is above the 3.0 percent mark.

CN:  Let’s talk about Romo’s support.  In the Washington and the Lions games, he had very few capable receivers targets.  This isn’t meant to excuse bad decisions, but he’s not playing with all the bullets in his gun.  Miles Austin has missed two games.  Dez Bryant is playing hurt and is good for about 20 minutes a game.  I think it’s very impressive that they moved so well and scored 30 points with Laurent Robinson as their primary receiver in that game, but when he went down there were no dependable, capable receivers on the field for Romo to throw to.

Is there anything in the early Cowboys receivers metrics worthy of comment, good or bad?

KC:  Here’s something to mention about the Cowboys.  It’s not a metric thing but something for the fans to keep in mind.  When healthy, they have Dez Bryant, they have Jason Witten and Austin.  When healthy, all three of those guys are matchup busters.  That means that you can put any level of competition against them and they can be productive.  Austin has been especially good at this the last couple of years.  Doesn’t matter what type of cornerback you put on him.  Good cornerback, bad cornerback, you double him.  Doesn’t matter.  He’s still going to be productive.

That’s a rare trait, and the Cowboys have lots of guys who can do that.  Thing is, Jason Garrett back a couple of years ago when he had Terrell Owens, proved he could do what other coordinators like Andy Reid have done in the past.  When you don’t have matchup buster talent, you have to be more creative in your matchups.  When T.O, his primary, and Patrick Crayton was the number two, Dallas used a lot of formations to spring him and create mismatches.  They used bunch sets.  They put him in the backfield.  They got him to where if he got a top guy covering him, that guy had to fight through a lot of traffic to get to him.

The Eagles did that for years under Andy Reid when he had mediocre receivers.  Now he has more talent, but he did that for a long time.  If you have receivers who know the system and are where you’re supposed to be, you can let it fly.

I think Romo in these early games may be in situations where he’s expecting a guy to be in one place and he’s not there.  But if there’s more risk, you might want to be more careful with those tosses.

I also wonder if you’ve built a big lead and you’ve got a QB in a kevlar jacket who is still hurt, and you’ve got a guy like Kitna who showed last year that he can be a game manager, and if you say look to him, look, our starter got the lead, you be Goose Gossage and go in there and close this game out.

CN:  I threw that up as a joke and people had some fun with the idea, but has any team done that in the NFL?

KC:  The Giants back in the 50s didn’t have a starter per say, but they had a rotation of Don Heinrich and Charlie Conerly.  Heinrick would go in there in the first quarter and look over the defense, and Conerly would watch that and then go in and work the offense.  I think part of that was Conerly was old, and this was a way of getting him through the season by having him play 3/4s of games and rather than full ones.

The Cowboys are in a unique situation.  You don’t do this if it’s a close game, but with a huge lead?  Nobody certainly is going to question Romo’s toughness after the San Francisco and Washington games.

CN:  I’m getting tired of talking about this game, but hey, this is who Romo is, so it keeps coming up.  The Cowboys have to allow Romo some freedom, because they rely on his play-making skills, but is there some kind of middle, where you can put a governor on the wildness, and where is it, and how do you harness it?

KC:  Ben Roethlisberger was one of the worst decision makers in the league for years.  The Steelers would still win because of their defense and because they have an explosive offense.  They’re full of explosive plays with guys like Mike Wallace, so they could absorb Roethlisberger’s bad plays.

Last year, he had a bad decision rate of 2.0% which was his lowest ever.  For a gunslinger, that’s really good.  And they were still giving him some leeway, and you could see him in the pocket, watching tape there were times where he was about to take a chance, and then would change his mind and dump the ball down.  He was finding the right time to take those risks, the right time to do those things.

I think the Cowboys know they have to let Romo be Romo and take the chances that he takes, but he also in return, he has to stay I’m going to remember the situations and not take those chances in games like the Lions.  He has to know when to take the risk and when not to.

Look, the Jets have a color system in place for Mark Sanchez.  It says, this is a red situations, this is a yellow situation.  This is a green.  Green means you can take all the chances you want.  Yellow means be careful.  Red means don’t take any.  And they actually had to give Sanchez this system.

It’s not because he’s a dumb quarterback, because he’s definitely a smart guy.  It’s just that there are so many things to think about.  This is the formation, this is the defense, it’s there to help make it easier for him.  Maybe the Cowboys need to do the same thing.  It certainly couldn’t hurt.

CN:  That hyper-competitiveness factors into it.  And quarterback is a quick-twitch, snap-decision position.  If you’re late executing, you’re picked.  But he almost seems too fast at times.

KC:  I say this and I mean no disrespect to Tony Romo when I say this, or any other gunslinger QB.  If somebody were to say in Tony Romo’s defense that he has a hyper competitive nature, I understand that and get it.  But isn’t Tom Brady hyper-competitive?  He’s as hyper-competitive as anybody in the league, and he has bad decision percentages in the low 1.0%s year in and year out.  He doesn’t make those types of mistakes.

K.C. Joyner writes the Scientific Football series of books.  He has written for the New York Times and currently contributes college and pro football analysis pieces to ESPN Insider.

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Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com