Since 1970, only three quarterbacks have ever thrown for 500 yards and five touchdowns in a single game—Matt Schaub and Matthew Stafford last season, and now Tony Romo. But Romo’s performance was far different from those other passers in that he attempted only 36 passes. Whereas Schaub and Stafford averaged 9.58 and 8.81 YPA, respectively, Romo accumulated his 506 passing yards by throwing for 14.06 YPA.
Despite the late-game interception, Romo’s numbers are some of the best of all time. Given his efficiency, one could even make the argument that it was the greatest statistical performance for any quarterback, in any game... ever.
Even if we consider all 400-yard passing performances since 1970, only five quarterbacks have ever recorded greater than 14.06 YPA. All but one of those passers also threw at least one interception; that’s just the nature of the game when 1) you’re throwing the ball a lot and 2) you’re playing aggressively enough to allow for such remarkable efficiency.
None of this is meant to absolve Romo from blame. His interception was extremely costly and, for the most part, the result of a poor decision. Looking at the game’s win probability graph from Advanced NFL Stats, you can see just how much the interception hurt Dallas.
Prior to the play, the ‘Boys owned a 60 percent chance to win the game. After it, their win probability was just 16 percent.
Tony Romo: Clutch Quarterback?
There are a few problems with the popular opinion of Romo being a “choke artist.” First, it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Romo has had some really big fourth quarter and late-season mistakes, for sure, but outside of team wins—a horribly ineffective way to judge a quarterback—there’s not really much to support the “Romo chokes” theory other than “well, he had this one bad throw in this big game, and then he had this other poor throw in another game, so clearly he sucks when the chips are down.”
Second, “choke artist” isn’t exactly an objective term. If you’re of the opinion that Romo collapses in high-pressure situations, you need to provide some sort of guidelines through which we can test the theory. That’s kind of how stats (and science) work and why they’re pragmatic; instead of arguing in support or against a player or team with vague, potentially meaningless concepts such as “lots of heart,” “a strong identity,” “savvy play,” and other untestable qualities, we can acquire a deeper, more meaningful understanding of football and its players through stat analysis.
If Romo’s interception in Sunday’s loss is to be used against him, then we also need to include other performances in similar situations. So let’s do that.
Since 2000, no quarterback in the NFL has a higher fourth quarter (and overtime) passer rating than Romo. Aaron Rodgers is second, but he’s still nearly five points behind Romo.
And it’s not like Romo’s rating is inflated by some fluky touchdowns, because he’s also averaged 8.5 YPA. That’s 0.7 yards more than Rodgers and a full yard more than the third quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning. Romo’s 60-to-23 fourth quarter touchdown-to-interception ratio is a whole lot better than Manning’s 90-to-42 ratio, too.
But it’s pretty clear that Romo racks up stats in meaningless situations, such as when the team is down by 21 points, right?
Uh, no. Romo’s fourth quarter passer rating in one-score games is a few points lower at 100.1, but his YPA (more strongly correlated with team wins) is slightly higher at 8.7. He has 31 touchdowns and 13 picks in such situations.
So this is really where we are—a juncture at which we can either blindly accept the notion of Romo folding under pressure or analyze the stats to understand that our memories are clouded from a few highly covered and oft-discussed plays. It’s faith versus science, and I’m on the side of the argument that can actually be both tested and falsified.
The Big Interception
The Cowboys wouldn’t have been in position for Romo to throw a costly pick if the quarterback didn’t play the best game of his career. With that said, he made a poor decision in targeting tight end Gavin Escobar on the play. Let’s take a look.
After a first down sack, the Cowboys faced a second-and-16 at their own 14-yard line with the two-minute warning approaching. With the way the defense was playing, it was critical for the offense to get at least one first down so that Manning couldn’t again see the field in regulation.
The ‘Boys lined up in “Gun Trips Left” with “12” personnel—one running back, two tight ends, and two receivers. In that part of the field, it was a curious decision to use Escobar over Cole Beasley.
The Broncos rushed only three defenders on the play and played extremely conservatively in the back end. They had four deep defenders and even the linebackers were well out of the picture just after the snap of the ball.
Romo initially had time to throw, but no one was open right out of the gate. He stepped up into the pocket and made a decision to hit Escobar on a crossing route. As you can see below, though, Romo stepped on left tackle Tyron Smith’s foot right as he was about to throw.
From the end zone camera, you can see Romo’s foot stayed on Smith’s even through his throwing motion, so he was never really able to plant properly.
Nonetheless, take a look at running back DeMarco Murray in both shots. He’s wide open underneath. Romo certainly felt pressure to make a big play in this situation, but considering it was still only second down, he should have checked the ball down to Murray. I’m confident that the step onto Smith’s foot affected Romo’s throw, but he probably shouldn’t have made that decision.
By the time the ball reached Escobar, there were three defenders around him.
Romo’s aggressiveness hurt him on this particular play, but we also need to recognize it was the impetus for his success all day. Despite only nine passes that traveled at least 20 yards past the line through the first four games, Romo attempted six of them on Sunday alone. He completed three for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Romo isn’t going to get the respect he deserves until he gets to and wins in the playoffs. Even through Sunday’s tough loss, however, there’s not much more than anecdotal evidence that Romo can’t play in pressure situations. If we’re using his past performances to predict whether or not he can lead the Cowboys deep into the postseason, the answer is an unequivocal, resounding "yes."