Can Romo Get His Deep-Ball Groove Back? Does He Need To?

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I’m throwing deep again!

In the last edition of Cowboys Nation’s chat with ESPN Insider K.C. Joyner, the missing vertical passing attack was discussed.  We pick up the discussion there and K.C. ponders whether Tony Romo was too conservative in 2011?

Cowboys Nation:  That’s not the offense that Jason Garrett ran the previous four year.  I expect to see Dallas revert to a more aggressive style this year, with Romo and the receivers healthy.

K.C. Joyner: Mind you they ranked very well.  They did a lot of things you would expect out of a Jason Garrett offense.  As an offense they ranked 4th best in the league in bad decision percentage, at 1.8%.

They were very productive in a lot of metrics.  I think the got the most out of what they had, within reason, because if you’re only throwing Witten 32 vertical passes…  the leader in verticals by a tight end was Gronkowski, with 61.

I think there could have been some upside there if Dallas used Witten more but that only brings the Cowboys offense to the middle of the league in vertical attempts.  That’s part of the issue in why they didn’t go down the field more, but it wasn’t the only problem.  It’s what you said, when you lose your top receivers, you’re not going deep as often.

CN:  They were also playing three first-year starters on offensive line.  They were going to be more risk-averse, and take fewer seven-stop drops, especially after Romo had that injured rib in week two.

K.C:  Two things you see from a Garrett offense.  He does want to go down the field, but he also wants to eliminate mistakes.  Remember we talked last year about Jon Kitna.  At one point I almost named the bad-decision metric after him because he was a leader year-in and year-out.  He was that bad.

Then in 2010 he finished either 1st or 2nd in the league in that stat running Garrett’s offense.  That’s Garrett saying, “you’re going to be safe with the football or that’s it.”  And I think we saw some of the same with Romo last year.  The number one priority was to have a safe offense and to build everything else off of that.

I’ve got wonder, and I’ve got a lot of respect for Jason Garrett, both as a run play caller and as a pass play caller.  He’s very creative in both areas.  But there’s a risk-reward factor.  If you’re going to manage short passes, you’re likely to keep your bad decisions very low.  If you’re intelligent about it, it’s very hard to have a lot of bad decisions in a short game, and Garrett is smart.

In his offense, it’s going to come down to downfield attempts.  Sometimes you have to take those chances.  If Tony Romo is sitting at a 1.7 bad decision percentage, which he had last year … with gunslinger types, if you’re over 3.0%, then you’re taking too many chances and the penalty for those deep throws begins to outweight the benefits.

If you’re sitting at 1.7%, you can go to 2.2, or 2.5%.  It’s doesn’t sound like much, but that’s an almost 50% increase in bad decisions, it doesn’t matter.  You’re still well in that safe range for a gunslinger passer.

Maybe with the injuries they had last year, okay, but with the receiver they have…  I’m not saying they need to go all Mike Martz and Jay Cutler, but I wouldn’t have a problem saying, Romo, we’ve got to put the fear of the aerial passing offense into these defenses.

CN:  In addition to the injuries and the lockout, Romo has had a problem in early-season losses where he goes too crazy with risk and has a bad game and the press and some of the fans will turn on him.  It’s so out of character however.

K.C.:  That Detroit game too.  You see that and think, no Tony, scale it back.  I know Romo has made some incredibly bad decisions, but I think you  can take him out of character if you try and dial him back too far.

CN:  Metrics-wise, how did Romo look in 2011?

K.C.:  I’m looking at this, and I’m going to do this on a team-by-team basis.

Let’s put it this way — is it a surprise that the Cowboys ranked 2nd in vertical yards per attempt?

CN:  That’s not too big of a surprise.  They have “matchup busters” as you’ve called them, in Witten and Austin.

K.C.:  It could be that Romo only throws the vertical when it’s there, and goes somewhere if it’s not absolutely open.  I have to think there’s a balance there.  Think Drew Brees.  He’s got a real gunslinger mentality, more than Romo did last year.

Vertical yards per attempt is great, but look — Dallas had 165 vertical pass attempts as a team last year.  New Orleans had 226.  Now Dallas is 13.2 yards per attempt, which is slightly better than New Orleans’ 12.9.

But would you have have the better YPA on fewer passes or the 61 more attempts?

CN:  I’d rather have the Saints line.  That’s roughly an extra 50 passing yards per game from being more aggressive.

K.C.:  Here’s the funny thing — on bad decision percentage on vertical passes, Dallas’ bad decision on verticals is 3.5%, New Orleans’ is 3.9%.   So fine, New Orleans threw 61 more verticals and had a slightly bigger risk on them, but they got 726 extra yards from those plays.

726 yards will win a couple of ball games for you.

Give Garrett credit for managing the injuries and the turnover on his offense, but if he can get those yards with healthy weapons, I have to think they go deeper more.

Statisticians will tell you what, an interception is worth 40-50 yards?  Okay, New Orleans may have had an extra interception or two taking more chances, but they’re still coming out way ahead in yardage.

CN:  And Dallas was one win away from the playoffs.  These little things matter over the course of a season.  How many yards are you subtracting replacing Terence Newman with Brandon Carr?  200?  300? More?  That might add up to a win.  You mentioned the lost vertical yards.  Pump up those totals and you may find another win there.

K.C. : Dallas was also 2nd in the league in stretch vertical yards per attempt.  And there they had 60 stretch verticals and New Orleans had 70.

Here’s another comparison.  Dallas had 60 stretch vertical attempts for an 18.2 YPA.  The Giants had 106 stretch verticals for 15.1, so Dallas was about three yards better, but the Giants are attempting 46 more deep passes.  That’s about three more per game.

They have Nicks.  They have Cruz.  They picked up Reuben Randle, who had very good metrics in college playing in a limited pass offense.  If you’re Dallas, you know there the champs.  They threw more stretch verticals than any other passing attack in the league.  You’ve got to keep up with them.

They lost Manningham but they gained Randle and added Martellus Bennett as a tight end, and who knows when their injured tight ends will come back, but they might have a better corps of receiver this year than last.

If you want to keep up with the Giants you need to go vertical.  You need to stop them from doing that, but you also need to take more chances yourself.   I don’t think the Cowboys-Giants games are going to be 14-13 contests.

CN:  I’ll throw some numbers back at you to show how that vertical attack has killed Dallas.  The Cowboys are 1-5 against the Giants the last three years.  They’ve scored 24 or more points in five of those game and they’ve scored 30 or more points in three of the losses. They get into shootouts but always seem to fall a field goal short because they can’t stop the Giants receivers and Eli Manning.

You said it last spring when we discussed free agent cornerbacks.  The Cowboys didn’t have the corners to go head-to-head with the Packers and Saints.  With the Giants, they can’t get out of the division until they slow those guys down.  So there’s the case for stocking up on corners, but also, as you’ve pointed out, for going back to throwing the football down the field.

We talked about the Gronkowski matchup, but in the Cowboys’ world, I think the biggest question is, can they find a slot corner who can match up to Steve Smith and Victor Cruz?  Smith is gone, but those guys have tortured the Cowboys secondary going back about five years.

Next:  What can fans realistically expect from Morris Claiborne as a rookie?

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Rafael Vela

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