Cowboys vs. Eagles: A Deeper Look at Kyle Orton

Kyle Orton

Credit: Getty Images

Kyle Orton #18 of the Dallas Cowboys throws the ball against the Chicago Bears at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington on October 1, 2012. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)



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Posted on December 24, 2013 at 3:56 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 25 at 5:10 AM

While it’s not out of the question that Tony Romo could play against the Eagles on Sunday night, it’s looking like the Cowboys’ playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of veteran Kyle Orton.

I don’t think I need to tell you that this isn’t a great situation. As much as everyone wants to get on Romo when he struggles, no one in their right mind would want Orton starting in place of Romo. There are people out there that think Romo should be benched, sure, but they are batshit crazy.

But just how much of a downgrade is Orton? As I analyzed the numbers, I was shocked that Vegas dropped Dallas from three-point to seven-point underdogs after news broke of Romo’s injury. That suggests they think Romo is “worth” only four points more than Orton, which I believe to be wrong.

In my view, Dallas should be closer to 11-point underdogs, even at home, with Orton at the helm. There’s about a 0.01 percent chance that the Dallas defense can limit the Eagles’ offense in any meaningful way, so it will come down to Orton’s ability to consistently move the ball.

Throughout his NFL career, Orton has been a below-average quarterback in a number of key areas. Take a look at his yards-per-attempt, Net-YPA, and Adjusted Net-YPA versus that of Romo and the 2013 league average.

Net-YPA factors sacks into passing statistics. That’s meaningful for both Orton and Romo, for a couple reasons. First, the majority of sack numbers have proven to be the result of quarterback play, not the quality of the offensive line. Peyton Manning always has “one of the league’s best offensive lines” because he gets the football out so quickly and makes them appear elite.

Second, both Orton and Romo have been in the league long enough that the quality of their offensive lines has sort of “evened out.” It’s not like either player has always had an outlier offensive line, either elite or horrific. Thus, those sack numbers are pretty standardized.

Adjusted Net-YPA adds both touchdowns and interceptions into the mix, weighting them according to how much they help and hurt an offense. Adjusted Net-YPA is the most predictive individual stat that we have in the NFL.

You can see Orton ranks below both Romo and the league average in all three stats. Note that Romo’s Adjusted Net-YPA evens out at nearly the same number as his Net-YPA (that doesn’t happen for Orton or the rest of the league as a whole). That’s because Romo’s career touchdown-to-interception ratio is above-average.

Romo has thrown 2.06 touchdowns for every interception during his career, which is an outstanding number. Meanwhile, Orton checks in below the league average. You might pin some of it on team strength, although Orton has been on good enough teams (Broncos and Bears) that you can conclude that he was probably always a below-average quarterback.

In December, Orton has been even worse than normal.

The same is true of Romo, whose December passer rating is well below his mark in other months. Most attribute that ex post facto to a vague “choking” characteristic—despite his NFL record fourth quarter passer rating—but I have a different theory: small hands.

If you look at Romo’s late-season struggles, they often come in cold, windy, or otherwise inclement weather. I think hand size is an extremely important factor in predicting quarterback success, and Romo is one of the few quarterbacks who has been able to thrive in spite of smaller-than-average hands. Even if you look at the short quarterbacks who have succeeded—like Drew Brees and Russell Wilson—you see they have absolutely massive hands.

With smaller hands, Romo might have trouble controlling the football and throwing it accurately when he either can’t grip it well or must throw it through strong winds. In my view, that’s why he’s been worse in December. That wouldn’t have been an issue playing at home.

The biggest reason that the Cowboys are in big trouble with Orton is because they need a huge game from their quarterback. With the Eagles figuring to pick apart the Dallas D, the Cowboys absolutely need to put a ton of points on the board. They need a high-variance approach and a passer capable of putting up big-time numbers.

Throughout his career, Orton has never been a high-upside quarterback. He’s posted a passer rating of 110 or greater in only 14.5 percent of his games—about one in every seven games. Meanwhile, Romo’s accomplished the feat in more than one-third of all contests. He might be a high-variance quarterback, but that’s exactly what the Cowboys need right now.

Because Orton is unlikely to torch the porous Eagles defense in a game when the Cowboys basically require elite play from their quarterback, I think the Cowboys’ chances of winning with Orton leading the way are very low. If Romo indeed can’t go on Sunday night, I’d be shocked to see Dallas wake up Monday morning as the NFC East champs.