I was thinking about Danny White the other day. I liked Danny White a lot. Still do. In fact, I watched him play in one of the greatest games I ever saw. Many of you are too young to remember, but he led the Cowboys in an epic playoff struggle against the Atlanta Falcons in 1980 and if you've never seen it, try and find highlights online. It was amazing. Danny was a good QB.
I want to say he was a great QB but, unfortunately, that term is reserved only for those who have either won the Super Bowl or were prolific passers for an extended period of time such that they rank highly in the area of career statistics versus their peers. In terms of active players, the great QB's are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers. Rivers, the only non-Super Bowl winner on that list, makes it because of his gaudy numbers coupled with his consistency.
After that, it's all a jumble of players in the next tier of QB's including Eli, Vick (eesh), Romo, Schaub, Ryan, Bradford, Flacco and Josh Freeman. Eli is on the cusp of making it into the first group and I'll leave that to the masses to argue for or against. The others have some big numbers or tons of hype (some of it warranted, some not) surrounding them. Similarly, when you rank the Dallas Cowboys QB's over the years, it's universally Staubach and Aikman on top and then there's the Merediths, LeBarons, Whites, Morton's, etc. in that next group of guys who are known for having played the position...but JUST for having played the position.
As I was considering what our guy Romo had to do to crack the list of elite QB's, it occurred to me that unless he wins AT LEAST one bling, he won't make it on his statistics alone. Why you ask? Well, the NFL has become a passing league and, as a result, has inflated the statistics for all of the QB's in the league. As evidence, Houston's Matt Schaub is on his way to being remembered as one of the most productive NFL QB's ever once he's done (assuming he continues this pace and doesn't get hurt) and that guy is no closer to winning it all than Matt Stafford. The other reason Tony has to win a bling is something else entirely. It's a hard pill to swallow, but the fact is this;
Tony Romo is getting old.
He doesn't look it, but 31 years of age is old for a QB in the NFL. Knowing that, Romo doesn't have many more chances to do the things he has to do to have his name mentioned in the same breath as the greats. Now, I'm not a stat guy and I seldom check reference material for what my eyes tell me is true (mainly because I trust my eyes more than anyone's interpretation of selectively chosen statistical nuggets aimed at proving a point) but I relented this time and went looking for info. I found this study by the US Sports Academy and, clearly, my eyes don't deceive me. Generally speaking, and for obvious physical reasons, this is a young man's game.
Here's the quote that jumped out at me;
According to Fein (2009), "a quarterback's peak age is 25 for all but one of the stats, with 26 to 28 not far behind. There seems to be a steep, upward trend at the beginning of a quarterback's career, and a gentler fall from their peak."
One piece of good news was this;
"A top flight quarterback obviously needs to possess very good arm strength and throwing accuracy and good speed and quickness, but more important sometimes is his ability to know the offense he is playing in, the ability to see the entire field, and be mentally stronger than the opponent. Those attributes are much more likely to be maintained and improved after the athlete reaches and passes his physical peak."
If you read further, while they point out the declines are slower for QB's than for other skill positions, there is still a drop off in statistical productivity. People will want to throw names like Favre, Warner, Peyton and Brady out there as QB's performing well into their early and mid/late 30's, but they're not the norm. If you believe their conclusions (and I do because my eyes tell me I should), it suggests that Romo's numbers won't be as good as the ones we saw in 2009. He's past the apex of his athleticism. So, that means Tony has to depend on his supporting cast being significantly BETTER than they were if they're going to get to the top of the NFL heap. Now, it's not like this hasn't been done before. We saw what John Elway (he of the 2 blings) did in the final years of his career when the team became more Terrell Davis-centric. There's no reason Dallas' running game couldn't become the more dominant piece of the offense...except, for what I said earlier aka ‘this is a passing league'. Few teams not named the Ravens and Steelers run the ball with any great regularity. In fact, Dallas under Garrett runs about as much as the former head of the IMF does (only when they have to). The pendulum could swing back, but that means we'd have to depend on a much better showing from our O-line in the area of run blocking and, based on who we have ready to strap on a helmet if the games were to start today, that's wishful thinking.
But we also have to consider some factors external to what's happening with Romo as we examine the future of the franchise. We all know the Cowboys went far too long to find a suitable replacement for Troy Aikman. One has to wonder if they will put themselves in that position again or not. I think they won't, especially if they have a chance to draft what they think could be a franchise QB in the first or second round next year. Now, I know many people will scoff at the notion, but let's play this out for a moment. There are several QB's that have GM's all lathered up who will likely be coming out next year. Already, 2011 looks like it could be a banner year for QB's with guys like Luck, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley, Ryan Lindley and Landry (if Dallas picked him, how quirky would that be?) Jones topping a list of what could be 9-10 QB's who are worthy of being picked in the first two or three rounds. I like Tony. I think Jerry likes Tony. But I also think Jerry likes to make a splash more than ANYTHING else. If Romo can't get the team deep into the playoffs and a Foles or a Barkley is there and Jerry thinks they could be the next Aaron Rodgers, I wonder if he would pass it up.
What about Romo's durability? In the past three seasons, he has started 16 games only once. He's not the big, stout pocket passer that many of his contemporaries are. Romo is a lither, more mobile, creative QB and while he is able to make some spectacular plays because of his ability to escape, he takes more than his share of vicious hits back there. I think Tony is a tough son-of-a-gun. But this isn't about his toughness. It's about the human body's ability to sustain the kind of punishment he has had to take behind a porous offensive line with a less-than-sound running game behind him.
Now I want to believe that Dallas has a legitimate shot at the bling this year but, then, reality sets in. This team still has huge questions surrounding the O-line, D-line and Secondary. There's a new DC in town but he can't even begin to think about installing his new schematic changes while this labor dispute drags on into the summer. It's reasonable to expect Dallas will improve if only on the strength of better practice habits and overall discipline, but that's not likely to be enough to propel them to the point where they can be considered a threat to go all the way. Not yet.
So where does that leave Tony? It leaves him needing to win it all quickly. His window is closing. Whether you believe the US Sports Academy data or not, he's closer to 35 years old than he is to 25 and no longer has the luxury of time to grow into the role of leader on a championship team. He has to win now or he will be considered an also-ran in the Dallas Cowboys Quarterback history books when all is said and done. One thing about Romo that I have always said is that, as a fan, he gives me hope. He makes me believe we can win. He has that kind of magical, special ability. I spent a few minutes with Tony in Del Mar at the Drew Brees Dream Foundation dinner (along with 1200 of my closest friends) and Tony seems very comfortable in his own skin...and yes, he won the golf tourney with a 5-under. Trust me, a lot of the fans in his gallery entourage looked like this:
But I saw a guy who'd reached "that stage" of his life. I think Tony is ready to have a family and become more balanced in terms of his lives on and off the field. But it hit me as I was talking to him. He's now just like I remember Danny White was when he had passed the age of 30; not the same athletically, but maybe the wiser for it. Who can say for sure?
In spite of all of this, the funny thing was that as I was thinking about Danny White, I remembered that White's best statistical season was at age 31...the same age Tony will be this year. HA!