Tony Romo: The Most Underrated Player of This Era

Despite the fact that casual fans think Tony Romo consistently crumbled under pressure during his career, numbers show the complete opposite.

If you ever want to gauge the competency of a football fan, ask them how they feel about Tony Romo. If they start talking about his propensity to choke, his inability to win big games, or how he's an overrated quarterback, then you know.

You know the person you're talking to isn't a big football fan.

False narratives have followed Romo throughout his career, despite being one of the most efficient passers the NFL has ever seen. Or maybe I should say he was one of the most efficient passers -- according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, it looks like Romo's playing days are over, as he'll be going into broadcasting.

Whether that lasts or not, the league just lost one of its best players today. The league actually just lost probably the most underrated player of this era.

Absurd Efficiency

Since the merger, we've seen 182 quarterbacks throw the ball 1,000 or more times in their career. Tony Romo is one of them.

Among this 182-quarterback sample, Romo ranks fourth in quarterback rating, fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt (a statistic that correlates strongly to wins), and third in touchdown rate. The players who generally come in ahead of him within these efficiency metrics are Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.

Now, passers in 2014, for instance, had an easier time throwing the ball than quarterbacks in, say, 1994. So let's take those numbers with a grain of salt: Romo played during a time of extreme passing.

But even within the context of his own era, Romo was a stud.

According to our Net Expected Points metric (or NEP, which you can read more about in our glossary), Romo has quite easily been a top-five or so passer since the turn of the century. The chart below shows the passing efficiency (Passing NEP per drop back, which shows how many points a quarterback adds or loses with each pass) among 1,000-plus attempt quarterbacks since 2000 versus Success Rate (percentage of positive expected points plays made by a quarterback).

Romo's the red dot -- Romo's expected points profile is similar to what we've seen from Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

Oh, and that unicorn data point in the top right? That's Peyton Manning.

All of this is to just say that Tony Romo was really, really good at quarterback.

But that damn narrative...

A Garbage Narrative

From a Hall of Fame standpoint, the biggest knock on Romo is that he never won big games. I -- maybe you, too -- see that as slightly irrelevant considering football is the ultimate team game, but it's the way that the voters think. I can at least understand it.

From a perception standpoint, the biggest knock on Romo is that he crumbled under pressure. That he was a choke job.

I can't, for the life of me, understand this.

OK, maybe I can understand it. We live in a world where talking heads will drive home false narratives thanks to one or two plays that happen on the field. You know, like botched snaps in a wild card game.

This idea that Romo is a choker, though, couldn't be further from the truth.

That's why I don't understand.

Since Romo became a starter in 2006, we've seen 56 quarterbacks throw 300 or more passes (this number is completely arbitrary, but we need some point of comparison) in the fourth quarter or overtime. This includes the playoffs.

Within this cohort, here's where Romo ranks in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and quarterback rating:

Statistic Number Rank
Completion Percentage 64.9% 2nd
Yards Per Attempt 8.3 1st
Quarterback Rating 101.8 2nd

Is that good?

Despite the fact that "Tony Romo isn't clutch," he's led the NFL in yards per attempt in the fourth quarter and overtime -- you know, high-leverage situations -- since he became a starter.

How about when you look only at the final five minutes of a game?

Since 2006, 71 passers have thrown the ball 100 or more times with five minutes remaining in a game plus overtime. Here's where Romo lands among this group:

Completion Percentage63.9%2nd
Yards Per Attempt7.84th
Quarterback Rating94.54th

Even if you're not a fan of these particular statistics (because they are flawed individually), at the very least, it wouldn't make much sense to say Romo chokes when it matters most. Maybe you could make arguments if he was average in the fourth quarter or as games ended, but he's the opposite of average. He's elite. He's arguably been the best fourth quarter passer since he became a starter.

We can dig in deeper than this to prove that, too.

As defined by Pro Football Reference, a fourth-quarter comeback occurs when an offense -- led by some quarterback, of course -- is trailing by one score and is able to at least tie things up on a drive in the fourth quarter. Then, if the team wins (or ties), the quarterback accrues a fourth-quarter comeback.

Romo ranks 14th all-time in fourth-quarter comebacks. But that doesn't tell us a whole lot, because if a quarterback is constantly in those situations, he'll naturally see more comebacks. It's a cumulative metric.

Fortunately, Scott Kacsmar, the king of fourth-quarter comeback data, has helped provide some context. According to his numbers, among active quarterbacks, Romo has the sixth-best fourth-quarter comeback rate -- that is, the number of fourth-quarter comebacks divided by the number of fourth-quarter comeback opportunities -- in football, behind Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, and Derek Carr.

In other words, Romo's fourth-quarter comeback rate over his career tops Matt Ryan's, Drew Brees', and Aaron Rodgers'.

But, yeah, sure, he's not clutch.

An Unfair Career

Tony Romo played the most important position in football during a time period where quarterbacks were needed most. And he did it just as well as almost any other passer in the NFL.

That's not how the public sees it, though. A fumbled snap and a late-game pick here and there perpetuated this idea that Romo wasn't the answer. These plays told folks that Romo wasn't a top starting quarterback.

These plays created an ongoing Tony-Romo-isn't-clutch meme that would never go away unless he won a Super Bowl.

Even then, who knows.

But make no mistake: Tony Romo was good.

Tony Romo was unbelievably good.