Why the Tony Romo Narrative Is Complete Garbage

Everyone hates Tony Romo, but as you'll see, the hate has nothing to do with how he performs on a football field.

I’m kind of sick of it. I’m sick of hearing how Tony Romo is a choker, a bad quarterback, and one that should’ve been replaced by Texas native Johnny Manziel in this year’s NFL Draft. I’m tired of this idea that, when Tony Romo has the ball in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys are better off with a replacement-level quarterback. I can’t stand the notion that the Cowboys’ consistent mediocrity is Tony Romo’s fault, despite other aspects of the team failing miserably week in and week out.

I’m just over it. To ignore actual facts and data and grab hold of this ridiculous “Tony Romo is bad at the end of games” narrative is lazy. You’re better than that. We’re all better than that.

We’ve written about Romo on this site before. Our own Leo Howell did a great job back in December showing us all how Tony Romo’s support has lacked through the years, and that his numbers are through-the-roof underrated. I’ll reiterate some of that information here, but also get into a discussion that is probably most misunderstood about the Cowboys’ franchise passer: His playing ability late in games.

But first, let’s look at Romo’s total body of work as a quarterback. Hopefully that will at least prove to his haters that he’s a much better thrower of the pigskin than initially thought to be.

Romo’s Career Numbers

We use a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) at numberFire, which essentially tells us the number of points above or below expectation a particular player performs at throughout a game, season and career. To learn more about the statistic, head on over to our glossary.

Rather than throwing Romo’s NEP numbers out at you, I figured I’d do a little comparing. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a group of truly elite (I know, I hate the word, too) quarterbacks grace the football field. Rather subjectively, I think we’d agree that these signal-callers include Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and to a possible lesser extent, Aaron Rodgers.

Talking about Tony Romo in the same breath as these passers may seem like a crime to some. And while his metrics aren’t as good as this group, I think it’s pretty sensational to see just how close he is to being truly elite.

Passing NEPPassing NEP/PassSuccess Rate
Tony Romo717.310.1851.20%
Drew Brees1,346.240.1951.51%
Peyton Manning2,044.340.2754.11%
Tom Brady1,332.800.1951.03%
Aaron Rodgers761.230.2451.04%

The chart above shows the Passing Net Expected Points numbers that these quarterbacks have accumulated throughout their careers, what that number looks like on a per drop back basis, and the Success Rate on these passes.

Clearly, any top-notch player who’s consistently adding points for his team is going to have an advantage within a cumulative statistic. That’s why Manning, Brees and Brady’s Passing Net Expected Points total is so much larger than Rodgers’ and Romo’s.

But when you divide that number by the amount of drop backs each player has had in his career, things get a little more leveled out. The most efficient passer of them all is easily Peyton Manning, who, since 2000, has been adding 0.27 points for his teams on a per drop back basis. Aaron Rodgers is second, which makes sense considering his known efficiency over the course of his shorter career.

What you’ll notice, however, is that Tony Romo’s per drop back success throughout his career is actually on par with Brady and Brees, sitting only .01 points lower. And when you look at Success Rate, which measures the percentage of passes that go for positive advances in Net Expected Points, Romo’s rate is just as strong as almost any of these passers’.

Hopefully that raises at least some eyebrows.

Before I go on, please note that I’m by no means declaring Tony Romo as a better quarterback than any of these guys. Brees and Brady both weren’t the same passers at the beginning of their careers as they are today, and Brady – more than anyone on this list – has played with some really questionable pass-catchers.

I’m merely showing the production of these quarterbacks in an advanced metric form, providing some clarity for folks who think that Tony Romo is anything but a good quarterback. Because he is a good passer. In fact, while the numbers above show that he may be slightly worse than the best quarterbacks of this generation, his advanced metrics illustrate that he’s outperformed players like Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. Tony Romo’s numbers are, whether you want to believe it or not because of this storyline that continues to follow him, the best you’ll find outside of elite quarterback play.

Tony Romo Is Clutch

Click this link. No, that isn’t spam, I promise. Read the title of that YouTube video – one that has over 330,000 views. Romo Singlehandedly Loses the Game!, it reads.

Do you know what I typed into the YouTube search bar to find that video? “Tony Romo Seahawks.” That’s it.

When I type in something like “Brett Favre Saints” – you know, because he threw one of the most careless interceptions in NFC Championship history back in 2010 against New Orleans – I don’t see any, Favre Singlehandedly Loses the Game! videos. Instead, titles look like Brett Favre interception by Saints Tracy Porter NFC Championship. Paul Allen’s Call.

It’s the "Tony Romo always loses in the fourth quarter" narrative. But it’s one that couldn’t be further from the truth.

There’s a subset of readers who acknowledge the previous section to this article. They know that Tony Romo is a good quarterback, and that he puts up numbers that are better than the majority of starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But this subset also believes that Tony Romo is the least clutch quarterback in the league, failing to put together game-winning drives, and stinking up the place in the fourth quarter.

That subset is wrong.

Since 2000, exactly 50 quarterbacks have thrown at least 200 attempts in the fourth quarter when their team was either tied or trailing by at most 10 points. Of these quarterbacks – which includes the aforementioned Brady, Rodgers, Brees and Manning – Tony Romo has the highest completion percentage (64.70%).

Among this same group given these same circumstances, Tony Romo ranks fifth in interception rate (interceptions per attempt), ahead of each of the “elite” passers mentioned previously.

And it’s not only when his team is trailing, either. Since that same year, 21 different quarterbacks have thrown at least 200 pass attempts in the fourth quarter while their team was either tied or winning by at most 10 points. The reason this number is smaller is because, clearly, teams that are winning in the fourth quarter aren’t as likely to throw the football.

Within this group, Romo ranks sixth in completion percentage. Admittedly, however, he has a higher interception rate than anyone not named Brett Favre. While that helps Romo haters, it should be noted that the two players next to him on the list are Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan, while Drew Brees and Tom Brady are also on the bottom half of the list.

Now, completion percentage and interception rates are not the only important statistics to analyze when it comes to quarterbacks. The reason I started there was because Romo’s knock is typically late-game interception-driven, and completion percentage can at least give us some sort of idea as to how well a passer is converting his throws.

Even if you want to look at a more meaningful statistic like yards per attempt, the story is the same, if not better. Among the 50 quarterbacks in the “down 0 to 10 points” group, Romo ranks second in yards per attempt. And get this – when his team is up by 0-10 points in the fourth quarter, no passer in the NFL since 2000 has a higher yards per attempt average. And actually, Romo’s rate of 10.27 yards per pass under these circumstances is 1.65 yards more than second place Aaron Rodgers. And in both instances, no matter if his team is trailing or leading in the fourth quarter when the game is within 10 points, Romo’s yards per attempt is nearly half a yard higher than his career average!

”But he’s bad in the final minutes of the game,” a Romo doubter says. Well, that’s not really true either. In the final five minutes of a game plus overtime since 2000, 48 different signal-callers have thrown at least 200 attempts. Romo’s rankings among those 48 passers in completion percentage, interception rate and yards per pass attempt can be found below:

Completion %RankINT RateRankYards/AttemptRank

In the final five minutes of games plus overtime, no quarterback has a higher completion percentage in the NFL since 2000 than Tony Romo. Only Aaron Rodgers and Trent Green have a higher yards per attempt average. And while his interception rate is lower, it’s still almost in the top-quarter percentile within this group of passers, and is better than the rates from Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Brett Favre.

But you want to blame it on Tony Romo.

Scott Kacsmar, who studies fourth quarter comebacks like it’s no one’s business, has looked at Romo’s career from a comeback perspective as well. In this piece, he shows that, given opportunity, Romo’s rate at coming through with a victory on game-winning drives is nearly identical to Drew Brees’. And it’s better than what we've seen from Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers.

It’s Tony Romo’s fault though.

Stop the Narrative

Our advanced metrics peg him as a player much closer to the elite quarterback talent in the league than many want to believe. And under a fourth quarter microscope, Tony Romo may actually get better as a signal-caller, not worse.

Yet, there will be a continued belief that Tony Romo isn’t clutch, that he can’t win a Super Bowl and that he’s bound to fail each and every time he steps onto a football field at the end of a game. But this feeling for many has nothing to do with how he’s actually performing on the field. No, it’s the result of a media-driven false narrative that was created about the biggest position on the biggest team in the biggest sport in America.

People don’t want Tony Romo to win because he’s a Cowboy. And really, many don’t want him to succeed because he can sometimes come off as super obnoxious. But if you really want to judge Tony Romo the quarterback – if you really want to build a narrative off of his play on the field – make sure you get the story right.

Because Tony Romo is a damn good quarterback.