Romo's Back

Romo's back. After missing the last ten games in 2010, not having played since last October 25, he's back at the helm of this dynamic offense, out there making plays for our Cowboys. I love watching Romo play. I know he's going to make mistakes and lose some games, but I still thoroughly enjoy watching him play. Love him or hate him, the NFL is better and more interesting with him in it.  Football itself is back, which is great in itself, but I'm so excited that we finally have a season of Cowboys games to watch again, with Tony Romo leading the team. Tony Romo is back.

And Romo's back. The bad Romo that is.  The Romo that makes a poor decision at the wrong time. The Romo that takes us to the brink of victory but can't close it out. A lot of this is more perception that reality. In such an emotional game, the big gaffes tend to get magnified, and once a narrative develops it becomes confirmation bias—we favor information and notice examples that confirm our preconceptions. Part of the narrative today is that Romo somehow has a long history of collapsing in the 4th quarter.  Even the sage Peter King said it. But that really isn't true. As Todd Archer reminds us in the ESPN Dallas blog:

In the fourth quarters of games with a score differential no greater than seven points, Romo has completed 165-of-263 passes for 2,418 yards with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his career. That’s good for a 101.5 passer rating. 

Only Peyton Manning has a better passer rating (103.7) than Romo since 2006 in those situations. 

But nevertheless, as fans we have experienced games like this before with Romo. We have seen him make boneheaded plays and lack situational awareness that contributes to losses. Part of us has to say "Here we go again," and we know that this totally feeds into the perception and narrative that has developed for Romo. The old, bad Romo's back.

Romoʻs back, he put the game on it, and the loss is on his shoulders. He does feel like he wants to try as hard as he can to make a play to help his team win, which sometimes results in mistakes. And heʻs so competitive that he takes it hard when he loses. But he does seem to take adversity as a learning opportunity and grow from it, and usually bounces back with a strong game after bad ones. We know one thing Romo does not lack is a highly competitive nature, he is willing to put the game and his team on his shoulders, and sometimes the victories are also on Romoʻs back.

Romo's back. I got it. I got his back. He's taking a lot of criticism, and some of it is certainly deserved. But there is also a whole lot of extreme overreaction going on. If you're a fan who loses all perspective and pre-judges the entire season from Sunday's results and wants to jettison Romo, go have fun somewhere else trying to find a better quarterback who we could realistically have play for us. But for those fans who are justifiably frustrated and disappointed with the loss and Romo's mistakes that contributed to it, but who also want to have some perspective and realize that there's lots to be encouraged by at the start of a long season despite the loss, including Romo's play, this is for you. I've got Romo's back.

So here's a few little tidbits of perspective.

1) Tony Romo learns from his mistakes, and we make a mistake inferring much from early-season games

First, a couple reviews of the game.

Dave Halprin

There's no sugar-coating this, Romo was the #1 culprit in the loss last night. He still hasn't learned that the most precious commodity on the football field is the ball. I'm not going to go into all the specifics of his play last night, but I will generalize this: Romo is the QB for this year, so you might as well get used to that fact. I still have faith he can lead us to the big-time, but nights like last night are tests to that faith, and I don't know how many more tests I can take. Shape up, Romo.

Rafael Vela

The play would have been forgettable had Romo thrown the pass away. For some inexplicable reason, he attempted to squeeze the pass into coverage.  It was badly overthrown and was picked off....  This is the type of pass Romo was supposed to eliminate this season, but the play only showed that he still needs to deliver on the promise.

Week 1, 2011? 

No, week 2, 2009, Cowboys lose 33-31 to the NY Giants at the grand opening of Cowboys Stadium on Monday Night Football. Sounds mighty familiar, though, huh?

Romo threw 3 interceptions. He made some plays to give the Cowboys a chance to win, but his bad decisions were a significant contribution to the loss. It was also a "big game" despite being an early season game because of the setting. The reactions and comments after that game could be reposted like those above and would all fit right in today, including the extreme overreactions (read comments here and here). Romo chokes and makes bad decisions. Romo has the ability but needs to protect the ball.  Romo's the worst QB ever and should be cast into the furthest ring of football hell. Stuff like that. 

But then what happened? We won 11 of our next 15 games, with Romo throwing only 6 more interceptions the rest of the season. He led the team to win the NFC East and their first playoff game in over a decade. Even when they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs in Minnesota, most observers blamed the offensive line more than they blamed Romo; though it was a humiliating loss, it was a team loss and not specifically because of poor decisions by the QB. Throughout the season, Romo demonstrated good ball security and minimized his poor decisions without losing his playmaking ability. In 2009, Romo lost an early "big" game due to bad decisions and interceptions, but bounced back to have an outstanding season.

Conclusion 1: Romo learns from his mistakes and is resilient. We all would hope that these lesson would stick, and develop from season to season, rather than having to be learned again. But I think Romo is constantly working to constrain his natural tendencies. He has supreme confidence, and wants to throw it all over the field, and wants to put the game on his shoulders, and believes he can make plays that sometimes he can't.  He has to consciously make an effort to curtail his playmaking desire for the sake of ball security. His natural tendency is to be a gunslinger, and we don't want him not to be that. He just needs to balance it better especially in crucial situations.

So while we wish it wasn't a lesson that needs to be relearned with a new season, we have seen a season with a very rough early game when all these same criticism emerged, when Romo responded and demonstrated much improved decision making the rest of the season, and seemed to mature into the quarterback we hoped he could be. It only took one game that season for him to correct his mistakes, hopefully the same will be true this year. Even if he doesn't seem to learn the lesson permanently, hopefully he can again learn it quickly.

Conclusion 2: Don't overreact based on one or two games. Every season the NFL post-week 1 and week 2 commentary is littered with narratives that turn out to be completely wrong, based on overreacting to what happens in the least predictable (and least predictive) weeks of the season. (BTW I do wonder how many of those calling for Romo's head and giving up on the season after this game in September 2009 were back on the bandwagon in January, and how many will repeat that cycle again this year.)

2) Final outcome strongly colors our perceptions

It is also the nature of the game that the final result strongly colors our evaluation of the individual performances within the game. The exact same plays by a quarterback will be seen quite differently depending on whether his team wins or loses, even if he win or loss is largely due to events beyond his control. This is true for fans as well as commentators; I know it is certainly true for me. 

Now given that we know this is how our sports brains work, I would like to share A Series of Unfortunate Events, each of which was required for the final outcome to happen as it did, and without which our evaluation of Romo's play would likely be quite different...

  • If Witten pushed a little harder to finish off this run and made it to the end zone, or even another yard or two where Felix might have scored the next play or the Cowboys would have tried to run it in instead of passing on 2nd and 3rd down, the conversation about Romo is probably quite different today.
  • If Austin is on the same page as Romo on a perfect back shoulder pass placed where Austin could catch it but the DB couldn't reach it, the conversation about Romo is quite different today.
  • If someone on the Cowboys team manages to fall on that fumble by the goal line, the conversation about Romo is totally different today.
  • If the Cowboys special teams don't totally fail and give up the biggest play of the game, the conversation about Romo is totally different today.
  • If Choice converts on 3rd and short, after a 2nd and 2, the conversation about Romo could be totally different today.
  • If Ball manages to secure the interception going the other way, that he had his hands on after nicely jumping a route, the conversation about Romo could be totally different today.
  • If Dez manages to tackle Revis when he had a chance before the CB returned it the additional yards, and then the Cowboys come up with the same stop, Folk never gets a chance to kick the game winner and the conversation about Romo could be totally different today.
  • If Folk hadn't made his 50-yard FG, which started to veer outside and only narrowly corrected back inside the upright, the conversation about Romo could be totally different today.
  • If Witten hadn't been called for what some felt was a bogus pass interference call, the conversation about Romo could be totally different today.

Each of these things did happen, of course, and the Boys lost the game. The Jets made all those plays, and the Cowboys didn't. And yes, that's a load of ifs. 

But my point is that all of those plays were made or not made by players other than Tony Romo, yet each one of them had to happen as it did for the full collapse which is laid on Romo's shoulders to be complete.

His play in the first three quarters had put the team in a position where even with two big mistakes, lots of other things outside of his control also had to go wrong in a very short span of time for the game to be lost. If any one of those things outside of his control hadn't happened the way it did, they Cowboys could still very likely have won that game, in which case the conversation about Tony Romo would be quite different today, even if his play was exactly the same up to that point.

Of course the W is the goal. That's all that really matters, and the play of the QB is usually responsible more than any other for the outcome of the game. I just think it's always wise after emotional losses to realize how much our perception and the narrative about the QB is shaped by the final outcome, and how radically that perception can change based on events over which the QB has no control. Romo actually looked really, really good Sunday night, and we should try to evaluate the game as a whole and not forget about all the positive plays he made that made the two really bad ones feel even worse because he had put us in position to win a road underdog emotionally charged game that no one had given us much chance at all of winning.

3) The Cowboys took one for the team

Finally, I want to add a little reflection on the 9/11 anniversary aspect of this game. Other than perhaps those games played immediately after the event itself, I don't think there is any other single sporting event that is linked more strongly to something so much bigger than the game itself. Rarely do sporting events have such cultural and political significance, as this one did because of the time and place it was played. While it was "just a football game" it was the conclusion of a week of very emotional ceremonies and remembrances for the people of New York, falling on the 10-year anniversary of the most traumatic and memorable event personally experienced by most Americans and certainly most New Yorkers alive today. Of course it affected us all, but obviously it affected them most directly, and many of them were there and saw the towers fall and saw the smoke rise, and knew people who were victims, first responders, etc. There are deep scars that won't totally heal, and that those of us who just watched the events on TV , as much as we were affected by it, don't fully understand how it was to be there.

So reflecting on how this game played into our national narrative, our collective consciousness, it almost seemed like the Cowboys were supposed to lose the game. The game was supposed to give the New York fans a satisfying conclusion to the week. The game was supposed to play a cathartic role in helping New Yorkers remember but also heal and move forward. So perhaps the Dallas Cowboys collapse somehow helped to ease the pain of the memory of the Twin Towers collapse. 

Of course I never want us to lose a game, but even going into it, I said to myself that if there is one game to lose for reasons other than the game itself, this would be it.  In an odd way, I feel more accepting of the loss knowing how it did fit into our national narrative, and knowing that it probably did bring a lot of pleasure and catharsis to a lot of people who were deeply affected by events 10 years ago and are still processing them today. This is a personal thing, but somehow my disappointment at the loss is buffered somewhat by the unique social and cultural circumstances of the game, and I'm more able to accept it with some equanimity. I do hope New Yorkers enjoyed it. It was a heck of an entertaining game. 

So, in conclusion, Romo's back!

Romo's back leading our beloved team and we have a promising season ahead of us, and for that we should rejoice.

Romo's back to his old ways, for good and bad, and needs to protect the ball.  But we have seem him learn quickly from mistakes and rebound from a big early season loss.

Romoʻs back, he put the game on it, so this time the loss is on his shoulders, yet victories will be won on his back this season as well.

Romo's back... I've got it! He's my Cowboy's QB and don't want it any other way. Any statements about whether or not he will eventually win us a championship are just beliefs, not facts. As Tony himself would sing out of tune, Don't Stop Believin'!  I'm disappointed, but encouraged, and I still believe in Tony Romo and our Dallas Cowboys for 2011.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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