It’s amazing how quickly the narrative can shift in the NFL. If the Cowboys’ defense hadn’t managed to stop the Vikings on their second-to-last drive, writers across the great state of Texas and nationwide would have blasted quarterback Tony Romo for choking down the stretch.
Actually, because we live in a world of real-time updates, Romo’s late-game interception against Minnesota was indeed used as more evidence that he chokes down the stretch.
Look, I’ve already showed that the “Romo-folds-under-pressure” argument is one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; it either needs to be accepted on faith or, at best, on anecdotal evidence, i.e. which arbitrary games or moments can I recall?
If that’s how we’re going to examine and define “clutch play”—by handpicking games because they stand out in our minds (which typically ends up being the most recent ones)—it’s going to create a pretty flimsy foundation on which to stand.
It transforms into a situation in which every time Romo leads a game-winning drive, he just turned a corner. When he doesn’t, it’s this...
The Final Drive
With 2:44 remaining in the game, Dallas had a first-and-10 at their own 10-yard line, down by three points. Before breaking down any plays, I want to note that the Cowboys might have actually been in a better position if they were down by four.
Yes, you read that correctly. Teams play overly conservatively when they’re down by just a field goal, thinking “all we need is three points” when, in reality, “all they need is three points” to potentially force overtime and have around a coin flip’s chance of winning.
Down by four or more late in games, offenses play with far more urgency because they know they need a touchdown. And the numbers back it up.
Since 2000, teams in situations similar to the Cowboys—down by three inside of three minutes—have won 14 percent of the time. Teams in the exact same situation down four points, though, have won 25 percent of the time! That’s nearly double the win rate for teams down by four points instead of three.
It’s not that being down by four points is inherently advantageous, of course, but just that NFL teams are really horrible at understanding percentages. As we’ve seen with Jason Garrett time and time again, coaches freeze up in those late moments, opting to go conservative for the “sure thing” of overtime when they should press on.
And to be honest, the Cowboys looked like they were headed that route before a big catch from wide receiver Dez Bryant. But let’s start with the first play of the drive.
First-and-10 at the 10-Yard Line
The Cowboys lined up in an empty set with three receivers to the field, one of which was tight end Jason Witten, and two to the boundary.
Witten quickly darted into the flat at the snap of the ball on a play that I’ve never seen from Dallas. Witten was really the only option for Romo on this play; you can see all of the other receivers getting into position to block as Romo released the ball.
It was a unique play from Dallas—one that probably resulted from something they saw from Minnesota during the game. They treated the play almost as a screen pass.
Witten had quality blocking out in front as he took the pass for an 11-yard gain that got the drive moving.
Second-and-10 at the 45-Yard Line
A few plays later, the Cowboys faced a second-and-10 at their own 45-yard line with 1:31 remaining in the game. Their win probability at this point was still low—right around 18 percent. They lined up in an empty set, this time with Witten playing in-line.
Just before the snap, Romo yelled “Sally” to wide receivers Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley, who were lined up to the boundary. I haven’t heard that term and it’s unclear what it means, but there’s a good chance it was a route concept—a single word that gives both Bryant and Beasley instructions as to where to go on the play.
That appeared to be the case because Romo gave the “Sally” call right after he saw Minnesota showing blitz, suggesting he thought he had man coverage.
Beasley ran into the flat and Bryant ran a slant on the play—a smart decision if the Vikings were in man coverage. They were, and Beasley initially appeared to be open short on the play.
However, the Vikings’ defensive backs got confused on the play, with the slot corner following Beasley and the outside corner falling off of Bryant onto him as well. Many teams have what’s known as a “Banjo” concept—they often refer to it in different ways—in which defenders exchange man coverage responsibility based on the releases of the receivers, i.e. they take whoever comes their way.
If the Vikings used a “Banjo” technique here, which they probably should have given the Cowboys’ alignment, the slot cornerback should have picked up Bryant on the slant. Dallas made it more difficult on them by having Bryant wait about five or six yards to break on his slant, so it wasn’t immediately clear
The pre-snap “Sally” call from Romo and the design of the play suggest that Romo understood the Vikings were in man coverage and might have trouble with their responsibilities. Great audible, awesome play design, and sensational catch-and-run from Bryant.
Bryant was wide open and eventually took the ball down to the Vikings’ 21-yard line. The play was so important because it negated the opportunity for Garrett to mess up the end-game. With over a minute to play, the Cowboys had enough time on the clock to run their normal offense without an ultra-conservative “let’s-take-the-field-goal” approach harming them.
Second-and-Goal at the Seven-Yard Line
Facing second-and-goal at the Vikings’ seven-yard line, time was no longer a factor for Dallas with 42 seconds left on the clock. Again, they lined up in an empty set.
The Vikings rushed four defenders, and they actually got quick pressure on the play. As you can see, though, Romo had a lane through which he could step up in the pocket.
Believe it or not, Minnesota didn’t double Bryant on the play. He was actually open in the back of the end zone on a concept similar to the earlier “Sally” call (assuming that was indeed a route combination).
Romo also had receiver Dwayne Harris working across the middle, though. Because Bryant and Beasley drew the middle linebacker’s attention to the boundary, Harris had the entire middle of the field open.
Harris got a clean release and beat his defender pretty easily, taking the short catch in for the game-winning touchdown.
The Final Verdict
Yesterday’s game was an example of why the black-or-white, small sample-based claims regarding Romo’s “clutch factor” are silly. If your argument is so fragile that it can’t withstand a one-game sample size—and a relatively unimportant Week 9 contest at that—you might want to reexamine your position.
Maybe, then, we can all start to realize that the idea of “clutch” play is an extremely vague term. It can be molded to fit whichever argument you prefer, seeing as how Romo has the highest fourth quarter passer rating of all-time.
Maybe Romo is clutch. Maybe he isn’t. Or maybe we should slow down with the generalized labels that are based on a handful of arbitrary games so that our viewpoints don’t need to change every other week.