A 72.4 percent completion rate. An 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. A 105.0 passer rating. Sounds like quarterback dominance, doesn’t it?
The majority of Tony Romo’s numbers look outstanding at first glance, but there’s one little number that’s a major, major problem: 6.68, as in Romo’s yards per attempt through four games. That’s the lowest number Romo has posted in his entire career, by nearly a full yard.
And YPA is quite important, too. Completion rate can be skewed by short throws and passer rating unnecessarily rewards a high completion percentage. A quarterback’s touchdown-to-interception ratio is of course important, but it can be relatively fluky and it goes hand-in-hand with YPA. You or I could be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys and not throw any interceptions, but our YPA would be horrible.
Right now, Romo is doing everything in his power to not throw interceptions. And that’s fine, on the surface, because turnovers are really bad. We know that. But you know what else is really bad? Punting the ball. That’s a turnover too. There were lots of those on Sunday because Romo and the Cowboys’ sole goal, it seems, is turnover minimization.
But the team needs to ask “what’s the cost of limiting interceptions?” Because as it stands, the Cowboys, who scored only 14 offensive points against one of the worst defenses in the NFL in Week 4, can’t effectively move the ball. The cost of limiting turnovers at all costs is a horribly inefficient offense.
We need to remember that the same style of play that leads to the occasional Romo interception is also what creates big plays for the offense. There needs to be some sort of balance. Romo shouldn’t be out there chucking the ball around regardless of the coverage, but he also can’t play so conservatively that the offense is stifled.
Part of the problem falls on the coaches’ shoulders, too. Romo has obviously been given orders to get the ball out quickly and protect it at all costs. Short passes as a substitute for the running game are fine, but they become a problem when the offense doesn’t attack downfield.
By my count, Romo threw only two passes that traveled 20 yards on Sunday—both barely over 20 yards and both to Jason Witten late in the game—giving him nine through four games. There are benefits to stretching the field that extend beyond those plays themselves, and until the Cowboys realize that, they’re going to continue to struggle offensively.
An Innocent Check-Down to DeMarco Murray
I noticed a check-down late in the game that demonstrated Romo’s unwillingness to take any chances. Down by nine points with under four minutes to play, the Cowboys faced a first-and-10 at the Chargers’ 24-yard line. They lined up in “Gun Spread,” with Bryant lined up to the boundary.
The cornerback on Bryant was playing six yards off at the snap, and San Diego showed a Cover 2 shell. In a two-score game, the Cowboys should have been doing everything in their power to score as quickly as possible.
Bryant ran a stop route just short of the chains, and Romo looked to go his way with the ball. There appeared to be a lane to throw and Bryant was very much open on the sideline. Instead, Romo tucked the ball and eventually checked it down to DeMarco Murray.
Murray was tackled for a two-yard gain. It’s difficult to conclusively say why Romo didn’t target Bryant on the play, but the quarterback has appeared hesitant to throw any passes that he deems as dangerous. I think that’s made him see things that aren’t really there; this should have been an easy pitch-and-catch for a first down, and there have been numerous similar plays throughout the first quarter of the 2013 season.
Dez Bryant 34-Yard Touchdown
It’s not like Romo is never taking his chances, of course, but just that they’re very limited. He threw a beautiful ball into a tight window in the second quarter—a play that changed the outlook of the game at that point.
On a second-and-four at San Diego’s 40-yard line, the Cowboys used a heavy three-tight end package and lined up in a “Jumbo Ace” look. Bryant was isolated to the field.
Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called for a play-action look—something that’s still way too underutilized. Romo came into the week with a 110.2 passer rating on play-action passes, yet the Cowboys ranked near the bottom in the league in play-action pass rate. We saw the same thing last year when Romo had a similar play-action passer rating, yet Dallas ranked last in the league in play-action attempts.
This play was particularly deceptive because it was used in a running situation with run-heavy personnel. Romo was given plenty of time to throw and even had Lance Dunbar open underneath.
He rightfully decided to bypass the sure thing to Dunbar in favor of looking downfield for Bryant. The window of opportunity was a small one, but the aggressive throw paid off. Bryant caught the ball in traffic and took it all the way in for the score.
A Change in Offensive Approach
If the Cowboys are going to get things turned around on offense, they need to implement a much more aggressive style of play. They have all of the tools to be an effective downfield passing team, but they aren’t using them. It doesn’t matter how high Romo’s completion rate is or if he doesn’t throw picks if he’s averaging under 7.0 YPA and the Cowboys are continually punting.
Including this year, Romo has recorded at least 8.0 YPA in four seasons and under 8.0 YPA in another four seasons. When he’s above that number, the Cowboys’ record has been 38-20. In the seasons he’s below it, the Cowboys have gone 19-20.
Meanwhile, the ‘Boys are actually 28-17 in the seasons when Romo’s interception rate is above 3.0 percent, and 29-23 when it’s below 3.0 percent. That hardly means that it’s better to throw picks, but just that there’s more to leading an offense than turnover minimization. Without the attacking, gunslinger-esque style of play—the high-variance offensive strategy that can result in game-changing plays for Dallas—Romo isn’t Romo, and the Cowboys aren’t a winning team.