The Yips: Does Tony Romo have a Pavlovian need to lose?

Is Tony Romo, psychologically speaking, trending upward?






First, a relevant word or two on baseball's past.

In 1994, on a crisp July afternoon in Cooperstown, New York, the most exclusive class of baseball players gathered to attend the induction of their newest members, the most popular among them Philadelphia Phillies pitching legend Steve Carlton who received 96% of the vote for that year's Hall of Fame class, one of the highest percentages on record.



Carlton had a hallowed career, and was a perennial winner for the Phillies. In 1980, Carlton led Philadelphia to their first World Series Championship in franchise history. When he took the mound for the last time that October, in game 6 the final game of the Series, Carlton struck out 7 batters in 7 innings of work to defeat the Kansas City Royals and secure the Commissioner's Trophy's first trip to the city of brotherly love. (The Lombardi has yet to make this trip.)

Carlton's finest season was undoubtedly his magical year of 1972. A year in which he won 27 games. To put that in perspective, no player since has won over 25. And he did it on the abysmally bad 1972 Phillies team, that only won 59 games in total.

To make the feat even more incredible, his three no decisions means he pitched well enough to ensure victory in 30, or 51% of the 1972 Phillies' wins. That year he ran away with the NL Cy Young Award.

However, this story is not about perennial winner Steve Carlton, or at least not directly. No, this story is about the man who finished 2nd in that year's Cy Young ballot. A young pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoying his own career year, right hander Steve Blass.



Blass at the time was most noted for a good slider, as well as his brilliant 1968 campaign, where he took the National League by force, winning 75% of his starts and posting a career-best 2.12 ERA. Oh, and of course, under immense pressure, in 1971 he recorded a CG one-run victory in game Seven of that year's Fall Classic to seal the World Series for the Pirates. At the time of the final out, the tying run was on third. Blass, cool under pressure, forced a ground out to win the World Series. (fast forward to the end to see a joyous celebration)

With his dominant performance in 1972, it would not be far-fetched to believe that at 30 years old, Blass seemed to have many bright years ahead of him.

That proved to be wrong. In 1974 Steve Blass retired in ignomy, even having a psychological disease named after him.

Blass lost control of his pitches in 1973 and began a two year stretch so brutal that he was forced to retire from professional baseball. Steve Blass disease, as it was known for years, is when a player loses all logical control of his throwing form. Balls fly wild, balls miss targets. It is now commonly known as the "Yips".

"I only would have needed to string together a month of good starts to get it out of my system," said Blass in 1975 to the New Yorker's Roger Angell. That month never came. Blass would pitch well for stretches, and then in one fell swoop it would all come undone. He would walk batters in droves and the game would spiral out of control.

Nellie King, former Pirates hurler, was quoted about Steve as saying, "Right after that terrible game in Atlanta, Steve told me that it had felt as if the whole world was pressing down on him while he was out there. But then he suddenly shut up about it, and he never talked that way again. He covered it all up. I think there are things weighing on him, and I think he may be so angry inside that he is afraid to throw the ball."

Blass became so unnerved by his fear of wildness, that he became even more wild. His worst game, the aforementioned meltdown against the Braves came in 1973. Already relegated to the bullpen to work on his form to try to combat his mystifying condition, the roof fell in for Blass against Atlanta. His stat line included three wild pitches, 7 walks and 8 runs scored in 1 and 1/3 innings work.

"It was the worst moment of my professional baseball life" said Blass in his excellent profile piece with the New Yorker "Down the Drain", "I don't think I'll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can't imagine the feeling."

I can tell you one person who can imagine the feeling.

Tony Romo December 2012, Tony Romo December 2013, Tony Romo December 2013, Tony Romo October 2013.

One benefit a Pitcher has vs. an NFL Quarterback is that his team plays nearly every day while in-season. He starts every fifth game, and when his time comes around, if he doesn't have his stuff, he is not forced to finish the game. However, one of the psychologically tough things about being a Pitcher vs. an NFL Quarterback is that you are forced to remain on the field after a mistake. Those long innings deserted out there in a crowded stadium took a toll psychologically on Steve Blass that turned him from this into a pitcher who became unable to even throw strikes to his own teammates in batting practice.

Tony Romo's hardships came to a head with that interception against Washington in 2012. A game the Cowboys should have won, it must have made him feel snakebitten with frustration, on a scale that even the most devout fan could not muster.

I was working when it happened. I caved in and forced my girlfriend to text me the play-by-play (I had the game recording at home). Unfortunately for me, the text came in that Romo had thrown the interception. "It's pretty bad, I feel bad for him", she texted.

"Are you kidding me?" I replied.

"I am so so sorry. It's a really bad interception." End of season.



To take this type of loss lightly would not be in the make up of Tony Romo. Such a competitive spirit, I have never read an article about a devastating loss like that and not heard of sleepless nights and much post-traumatic frustration.

With a whole off-season to dwell upon such an unfortunate play as a season-ending lob pass, Tony wanted to come back stronger, to play better. However, in April he underwent Cyst removal surgery that kept him out of most of the offseason program. Then after a vicious week one sandwiching by two Giants D Linemen in week one I believe as evidenced by his ginger-jumps in his post-touchdown celebrations, Romo was hindered by his back all year.

In the Fourth Quarter Tony Romo has excelled for much of his career. However, in 2013 there were examples of breakdowns in decision making. Erratic "backfoot" throws in crunch time. Not checking down when under pressure. Tony Romo has never been gun-shy, but often his interceptions aren't looking aggressive, they are looking like poor choices and often times, a little fearful.

Could this be a response to his late game record when the pressure is on?

"Pavlov's Dog" is a famous psychological experiment from 1927, where Ivan Pavlov experimented by ringing a bell at meal time for his dog. This trained the dog to psychologically respond to the stimuli of the bell before the food was even introduced. After ringing the bell at feeding time for an extended period of time, Pavlov's dog began to salivate at the sound of the bell even if food was not introduced. The point being, what we have come to expect often times repeats itself. Psychologically, is Tony Romo conditioned to underperform in the waning minutes of the game?

Nature primes winners to keep winning and losers to keep losing. The winner effect is not exclusive to Pavlov's Dogs. Sports scientists have observed it in tennis, rugby, football and even chess. Winning athletes experience a post-game spike in testosterone. Even the fans of winning teams vicariously experience a testosterone surge.

We do have a self-doping mechanism lurking in our bodies and any sports scientist will tell you that rising levels of testosterone contribute to victory.

As Mark Twain once famously penned, there are three types of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics. If I were to show you statistical analysis for his performance under "pressure" you could surely use more numbers against me to negate my point. However, as a fan watching every snap the possibility that Tony Romo was pressing in the late fourth quarter last year cannot be simply cast aside. If it is, I believe you may want to reconsider it for a moment.

Statistically speaking, the numbers do not paint a kind picture of his performance in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter. Tony was 35-53 on his passes for a respectable 66% completion percentage. His yards at 387 also paint a rosy picture of efficiency, cumulatively adding up to 11 yards per completion.

However, he threw merely 2 TDs (Min, Was), an alarming 4 INT (one INT called back [KC]), took 5 sacks (SD -7, Den -6, NO -8 and -10, GB - 2), and even his yards per completion were under 10 until he connected with Terrence Williams for the 50 yarder in Tony's last game in Washington.

I concede that the two sacks on back to back plays in the New Orleans game are erroneous, and only included here for the sake of statistical clarity. After all, if you are to give an article comparing Tony Romo to Steve Blass, you better bring statistical integrity to the table.

However, a career defined thus far by painful, traumatic fourth quarter turnovers is certainly a harder ship to turn around in the mentality department than a career bereft of such defining mistakes. Tony's first big mistake came as a 26 year old rookie. His last big mistake came in week 17 of the 2012 season as a 32 year old veteran.

I, like every zealous fan of the Dallas Cowboys football team, realize that the defense is the real culprit for the stagnancy of the franchise. However, Tony Romo's late game interceptions certainly have kept him from having the type of career he would like to have had up until this point.

As every year passes, so too must another layer of the psychology of Tony Romo. That psychology is either trending upward, or downward. When you watch videos like this you see an inspirational leader. You see a man who should in all good faith, all things considered, be one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. And he is. On many levels he is.

For Tony Romo to take the step forward and become a Steve Carlton figure, he has to first psychologically get over his fourth quarter Yips, which I believe were lingering from his final play of 2012. Steve Blass was a good pitcher, and an even better team mate. But baseball, like football, is a business. Wins are the only currency that ensures your place in the league.

And wins in Tony Romo's case have been only as elusive as his success in the late 4th quarter. When Tony plays well, as evidenced in the Washington, and even the brilliant drive to end the Minnesota game, the team wins. However, the yips may only be effecting his late fourth quarter play. Steve Blass, by every account, threw as beautifully as ever when not facing a batter. He shaved corners, his stuff bit, his stuff cracked the catcher's mitt. You put a batter in the box and he would go sour, once recording 27 walks in a 7 inning scrimmage before calling it quits for good.

Tony Romo knows his place is secure as long as he puts up numbers. However, as evidenced by my above research, most of his positive numbers come from all 55 minutes prior to the end of the game. Besides, is his current place where he wants to be? Forget the biased statistics of "win or go home" games. Forget the biased team statistics of W-L records in general. Tony Romo needs to win some playoff games, and to do that with this team, he will need to play better in the final five minutes.

And there is circumstantial evidence that he will do just that next year.

Evidence prior to the 2013 season showed a possible downward trend in Tony Romo's psychological late-game makeup. 2013 started with back surgery and skipped preseason training sessions. It began with a tough game against the Giants and a lingering injury.

14' so far already has him at least participating and sounding very confident in his recovery.

In interviews, I hear a Tony Romo that is as hungry for victory as always, and poised enough to know that his career is in its twilight. Will age bring about a wisdom that relieves Tony of the pressure he must feel to will the team to victory week-in and week-out? Or will he press and succumb to his previous fate, never able to have a defining victory?

And lastly, I think the most resounding evidence that Tony Romo will play better late in the fourth quarter this year, he ended the season incredibly, throwing a late game 4th down td to DeMarco Murray on a herniated disc.

These are Tony's last years. It has been a bumpy ride thus far, no? But in the wake of his rocky 2013 late-4th quarter performance, thankfully, there are reasons to look forward to a better 2014 campaign. Leave the Yips for Steve Blass.

Tony needs to salivate for food, not merely for his "Pavlov's Bell" of past misfortune.

Thank you for your time,


Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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