Tony Romo has taken an average of 2.42 seconds to throw his passes this year. According to Pro Football Focus, that’s a time that would have ranked as the fastest in the NFL last year—ahead of Peyton Manning, ahead of Tom Brady, and ahead of Aaron Rodgers.
When you consider the conservative nature of Romo’s early-season passes, it’s pretty clear what the coaches have asked him to do in 2013: get the ball out quickly and don’t take any chances.
But that’s not Romo’s game, folks. Look, no one wants the interceptions. They suck. They lead to losses. But the same style of play that leads to those picks—buying time in the pocket coupled with aggressive downfield throws—also results in highly efficient play. When Romo is good, he’s amazing.
The Cowboys have seemingly ridden themselves of big-play Romo in favor of no-turnover Romo. Both Romos are good Romos, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Just because Romo is playing aggressively doesn’t mean he needs to make horrible decisions, and just because he’s protecting the ball doesn’t mean he can’t take any chances.
The Cowboys are one of 32 teams in the NFL. What constitutes a successful season in Dallas? It’s winning a championship. It’s beating 31 other teams in order to wear the crown. That means that teams should always be searching for high-variance strategies that can result in greatness. I can’t think of a fan in the world who wouldn’t put up with a couple 4-12 seasons for a 12-4 season and a Super Bowl win.
The Cowboys have a high-variance quarterback leading their team—one who can play really poorly at times but, if everything comes together, one who is also capable of winning a championship. How about we don’t stifle high-variance Romo in favor of no-turnover Romo?
Take off the shackles and let Romo be Romo. It’s okay to emphasize turnover minimization, but not to the point of completely holding back the offense. Let’s meet in the middle here—a compromise through which Romo can play aggressive, high-variance football without taking unnecessary chances—to truly optimize the efficiency of this offense.
Cowboys vs. Rams Statistical Trends
Trend No. 1: Romo has thrown the ball deep (20 yards or more) just five times this year.
That represents 5.5 percent of his attempts—the second-lowest mark in the NFL. The Cowboys have never thrown the ball downfield much with Jason Garrett in town, but the rate has never been close to this low. Part of the explanation is that the Giants’ played a whole lot of Cover 2 in Week 1, but the Chiefs didn’t. Romo had shots to get the ball downfield, but he was so focused on getting the ball out quickly that he didn’t take them.
Sam Bradford Comparison: 5.4 percent
Bradford is the only quarterback in the NFL to have thrown the ball deep less than Romo. That’s pretty shocking since the Rams have explosive receivers in Chris Givens and tight end Jared Cook. Rookie Tavon Austin is explosive as well, but he’s more of a sideline-to-sideline player—perhaps part of the reason that St. Louis hasn’t gone deep much.
Trend No. 2: 54 percent of Romo’s passes have been over the short middle portion of the field
I break up all Romo’s throws into one of nine segments of the field. Every throw is categorized by whether it was to the left, middle, or right portion of the field, and whether it was short (under 10 yards), intermediate (10 to 19 yards), or deep (20-plus yards).
As mentioned, Romo has thrown only five deep passes this year. But he’s also thrown just 12 intermediate passes, meaning every other pass has traveled nine yards or fewer. Moreover, the majority of Romo’s throws have been over the middle. Check it out.
Again, part of these numbers are due to the Giants’ game plan, but this still a pretty obvious tendency that defenses can exploit.
Let me be clear that it’s okay—preferable, even—to use the short passing game in favor of the run. That’s especially true for Dallas. But the benefits of that strategy disappear if you never attack downfield and defenses can just load up guys underneath.
Sam Bradford Comparison: 43.4 percent
Bradford and Romo have pretty similar numbers this year in regards to pass distance and direction. Bradford has tossed 43.4 percent of his passes over the short middle. In comparison, a quarterback like Andrew Luck attacks downfield way more often. Only 24.2 percent of his passes have come over the short middle and he’s thrown 18 passes between 10 and 19 yards.
Trend No. 3: The Cowboys have passed the ball 65.1 percent of the time on first down.
Stats suggest that offenses should pass the ball on nearly every first down. Defenses still play to stop the run and passing is so advantageous over running that it’s actually more beneficial even once it becomes predictable. The Cowboys passed the ball on only 58.7 percent of their first downs in 2012 and were still among the league’s leaders.
Rams Comparison: 65.6 percent
St. Louis seems pretty committed to letting Bradford air it out. They have a bunch of new weapons on offense and they’re playing an aggressive style of football. Their first down pass rate through three quarters—while games are generally still battles of point-maximization—is even higher at 67.4 percent.
And although we have only two weeks of data, check out the league-wide first down pass rate this year.
It will be interesting to see if that rate remains steady all season—a sign that teams are finally embracing analytics.