Tony Romo’s name stirs up passions. Many Cowboy fans and writers blame Romo for everything from bad losses to bad weather. Recently, a number of prominent sources and personalities have taken up his defense.
From a managerial viewpoint, a key questions is, who would do better? If using data rather than feelings, the only clear-cut improvements would be Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. Romo rates 5th among active QBs in terms of “Passer Rating.” Aaron Rodgers tops this list by a sizable margin with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Phillip Rivers, and Romo in essentially a dead heat with a gap down to the next group on the list of including Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. Using ESPN’s QBR measure that takes more detailed account of passing data, Manning, Brady, and Rodgers stand above the rest with Romo in the next grouping alongside Brees, Rivers, and Rothelisberger over full seasons from 2006-present.
By these measures, it’s a coin flip between Brees, Romo, and Rivers with a small step down to Roethlisberger. Maybe some young guns like Seattle’s Russell Wilson or San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick will be better over the long haul, or by measures incorporating QB running, but, for now, the trio of Manning-Brady-Rodgers are the only obvious improvements. As with most any data measures, these are not perfect. From my own investigations, the simple passer rating performs as well as or better than the fancier QBR measure in predicting points and wins. Fellow sports economists, Dave Berri and Martin Schmidt, developed an improvement in their book, Stumbling on Wins, but I don’t have current data. Romo’s critics need to bring lean on something more than feelings and impressions to show why other QBs not named Manning, Brady, and Rodgers would be clear-cut improvements.
Why, then, does Romo have so many critics? One reason is the “hasn’t one the big one” problem. This is compounded when playing for a high profile team like the Dallas Cowboys and evokes memories of an earlier Cowboy QB, Don Meredith. Meredith’s performances ranked him with the best of his day, but three successive playoff disappointments against the Packers and Browns led to widespread complaints from fans and even Tom Landry, culminating in Meredith’s early retirement. In contrast, Eli Manning’s teams have won two Super Bowls, given him a cachet of creditability denied to Romo, even though Manning’s stats place him well below the Romo level.
The other complaint levied against Romo is that he performs poorly pressure-packed situations. Meredith suffered the same criticism. The guys at NFL Advanced Stats analyzed this particular in criticism in great detail, presenting a terrific graphic that evaluates players in terms of overall performance (expected points from an additional pass attempt) compared with context-adjusted performance (win probability per attempt). Romo is among the better QBs in the league by both stats, but among the two highest in terms of clutch. ch. When the data is examined in more detail for QB rating in close games in the 4th quarter, Romo again comes out strong relative to highly valued peers like Brees and Roethlisberger.