Romo Reformed? Tony Needs to Kick the September Blues

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Part two of Cowboys Nation’s chat with ESPN Insider and Scientific Football publisher K.C. Joyner covers the biggest reason why Joyner placed Tony Romo in his quarterback pantheon.

Cowboys Nation:  You’ve just touched on the easiest debate starter in Cowboys land.  A couple of weeks ago you wrote an ESPN Insider piece saying Tony Romo is a top-5 quarterback.

We’re in that time of the summer where Ron Jaworski is holding his quarterback countdown and any scribe with a deadline to meet and eyeballs to attract kicks off the debate about quarterback value.  You’re made as bold a statement as you can.  What metrics stood out in Romo’s profile?  Which one or ones motivated you to rate Romo this highly?

K.C. Joyner:  It wasn’t one single metric.  It was a variety of metrics that did it.  When I planned it, I pitched the idea that Tony Romo is a top-5 QB and my editor said, okay.  If you can make the argument, go with it.

I don’t think either of us expected the response.  It seems that fans really embraced it or really went against it.  It was either, “yes, he’s a top-5 quarterback,” or “you’re an idiot!”  I found that very interesting.  Most of the people I talk to inside the industry hear that and say, “yeah, I can see it.  Tony Romo could be a top-5 quarterback.”  But I think the general public was polarized by this.  It seemed to strike a nerve with a lot of fans.

CN:  I think what has happened with Tony Romo in the last couple of years is that he’s been unable to shake the first impression he made with the fan base.  We’ve talked about him for years.  He’s a big play maker, but he can also be a gunslinger, in the worst sense of the word.  He had the amazing start in ’06, then the league seemed to adjust to him and those gunslinger tendencies took over in year two and three.

Of course, the games were as polarizing as his reception.  When he was great he was really amazing and when he was bad, he was off-the-chart bad.  Those howlers, the Buffalo Monday Night game where he throws five interceptions, those games seem to have disappeared.  He did have some bad games last September, the Jets game where he had those two killing turnovers in the 4th quarter and the Lions game.  But if you chart the course of his seasons since 2009 when they made the playoffs he seems to have reached a different level of maturity.

Steve Young talks about reaching a point in his career where he had seen it all, where the blitzes and the defenses didn’t surprise him anymore.  The key, he claims, is staying healthy, having enough spring in your legs and power in your arm to take advantage of this knowledge.  Romo seems to be getting there, but other areas of the team have cratered around him.

K.C.:  That’s a good analogy.  Romo has not just reached the point where he understand the game, but I think the short answer is that he’s finally buying into Jason Garrett’s system.  He did make those big mistakes early in the season, and people said, “oh, he’s the old Tony Romo.”  But over the course of the season he had a 1.8% bad decision rate.  That’s really good.

If you rate under 2.0% and you’re a dink-and-dunk guy that’s considered really good.  But if you’re a gunslinger and you’re below two percent, it’s a fantastic number.  He was 5th best overall.

The only quarterbacks better than him were Aaron Rodgers.  You expect that.  Tom Brady.  Again, you expect that.  Alex Smith, the ultimate play-it-safe quarterback, and Tim Tebow.  And Tebow’s rating came from the simplicity of his offense.  He threw a very high percentage of deep passes, but if the target wasn’t open, he ran the ball.  There were a lot of passes that other quarterbacks try that Tebow just didn’t attempt.

And then there’s Romo.  And this includes those gaffes, those self-destructive games against the Jets and Lions.  Often, games like those will mess your metric up.  Maybe you will still rate fairly well, but you’re not going to overcome that in  the season stats.

He overcame that because he has a lot of games where he had no mistakes.

CN:  It’s strange.  He had a similar seasonal curve in ’09.  He had a terrible game in week two when they lost a shootout to the Giants.  It was a lot like the Lions game.  He threw these 1st-and-10 howlers, where he forced the ball into coverage.  These are the trademark Romo gaffes.  It’s not that they Cowboys are down four with two minutes left and Romo was trying to make a play. It’s the long pass on 1st-and-10 when he’s leading that changes the course of the game.  Romo adjusted in that year, and he did it again last year.

Now,  he seems to have created a new problem for himself. Earlier in his career, he took some abuse for his poor Decembers, but if you look at his last two healthy years, ’09 and ’11, he had solid Decembers but was all over the highway in September.

K.C.:  Consider this.  Romo had seven bad decisions in those first four games.  He had three the rest of the year.  Three in twelve games.  And in nine of those games, I didn’t see him make a judgement error.  Nine games where you can say, the Cowboys lost?  You can’t hang this on Romo.    He had one in the second Giants game, one against Miami and one against the Patriots, and that was it.

Let’s compare him to Brady, who’s the bench mark for this metric.  Brady has had multiple years where he averages a bad decision about once every 100 passes.  It’s an insanely low number.  Very few quarterbacks can even get close to this rate.  Even Peyton Manning, for all his greatness, never has had an extraordinarily low rates.  They’re good, but I think he just decided to take more chances in his game than Brady.

If you’re not at Brady’s level, but you’re at two percent, that’s one mistake every 50 passes.  Tony Romo is making them at less than two percent.  If you take the September games away, he actually got close to Brady’s standard.

Now, there still some room for improvement.  Can you get this play for sixteen games instead of twelve?  Then, you’re the team winning the division instead of the Giants or the Eagles.

Next:  How did Dez Bryant’s 2011 performance compare to Miles Austin’s and Laurent Robinson’s?  Does he project as a potential number one target?

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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