The Dallas Cowboys are trying to turn Tony Romo into Peyton Manning, and that’s a problem. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with being Mr. Manning, of course; at this point, we’re probably justified in claiming he’s the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.
But Tony Romo isn’t Peyton Manning. What makes Manning special isn’t what makes Romo special. There are similarities—above-average accuracy without an outstandingly strong arm, among others—but Romo isn’t made to dink and dunk his way up the field in the same manner that Manning isn’t made to buy time in the pocket and improvise his way to big plays.
It’s okay to be different. Romo can be a chaotic quarterback. The Cowboys are giving him artificial structure that, while necessary at times, isn’t the name of his game. We’ve seen overly aggressive Romo, and now we’re seeing unnecessarily conservative Romo. How about a mix of the two? That’s possible, right?
So what do I mean when I say the ‘Boys are trying to transform their quarterback into Manning? Let’s start with this.
Romo is facing less pressure this year than ever before. Take a look.
The drop of a few percentage points is a sizeable one when you consider the relatively low deviation in pressure rates. The offensive line has gotten the majority of the credit for this change, which is fine; Tyron Smith is playing good football and Doug Free has obviously improved over last year.
But the primary reason for the offensive line’s improvement has nothing to do with the offensive line, and everything to do with Romo.
Time in Pocket
In watching Cowboys’ games, it’s pretty clear that either Romo or the coaches—or, more likely, both—have decided he needs to get the ball out quicker this year.
Pro Football Focus tracks the average time spent in the pocket prior to each throw, and Romo’s average of 2.51 seconds is way down from previous years. That number is the seventh-lowest in the league right now. Manning has the second-quickest release—the same as last year—at 2.35 seconds.
Romo’s eagerness to get rid of the ball has been reflected in his lack of deep passes. Only 5.9 percent of Romo’s 2013 passes have traveled at least 20 yards past the line. Only one quarterback has a lower rate. Even Manning, whose offense is built around him distributing short passes basically as a substitute for the running game, has thrown deep on 9.0 percent of his passes.
I’m not saying that Romo needs to always stand in the pocket until the last second, taking shots in an effort to generate big plays. That’s not the case at all. But there needs to be more of a balance; again, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing situation in which he’s either ultra-aggressive or completely conservative.
If there’s one stat that best sums up Romo’s approach in 2013, it’s this: the average depth of his throws has been only 6.7 yards. That’s the third-lowest number in the NFL. In comparison, Manning’s average throw has traveled 8.0 yards, and he still ranks in the bottom half of the league.
First Down Pass Rate
One area of game management in which the Cowboys should be mimicking Manning, but aren’t, is first down play-calling. There’s probably no aspect of play-calling through which NFL teams could improve more than their first down calls.
Defenses still play to stop the run on first down—a major mistake in today’s NFL considering that offenses are averaging 7.5 YPA on first down passes, but only 4.0 YPC on first down runs.
Yet the majority of NFL teams still want the much-sought “balance” on first down. As a whole, teams have passed the ball only 51.6 percent on first down, and that’s actually way up from previous seasons.
The Broncos are one of the teams that come out aggressively on first down to start games. The Cowboys aren’t.
In the first quarter alone, Dallas has passed the ball on only 35.7 percent of their first down plays. Compare that to 60.7 percent of first quarter first downs for Manning’s Broncos.
By the end of the game, you can see that Denver’s first down pass rate plummets while Dallas’s soars. I wonder why? The “balance” that tends to follow winning teams is an illusion—a byproduct of efficient early play rather than a cause of success.
And if the Cowboys really want to be more balanced, they should actually ditch the early first down runs. Because nothing screams, “we’re going to pass” like facing second-and-11 all day long.
In the Red Zone
As a final non-Romo, non-Manning aside, take a look at the career red zone touchdown rates for the receivers in Sunday’s matchup.
We all know how dominant Bryant has been in the red zone, but Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker has been even better. He’s converted 42.5 percent of his red zone targets into touchdowns. Before you say that’s the Manning effect, don’t forget that Decker spent quite a bit of time with Tim Tebow as his quarterback. Decker’s red zone dominance also dates back to his college days at Minnesota.
Newly acquired Wes Welker will help move the Broncos up the field, but it’s Decker the Cowboys need to worry about most in the red zone.