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Tony Romo: Slow Starter Or Strong Finisher?

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When we looked at Tony Romo's passer rating earlier this week, we saw a high degree of consistency in his performance - as measured by passer rating - regardless of the end-of-season W/L record of  the opposing teams.

And that consistency is something that is also visible in Romo's performance every season since he became a starter for the Cowboys in 2006. Over the last five seasons, Romo has recorded a career 95.5 passer rating. The most he's ever deviated from that average in a single season was by a miserly four points in 2008, when Romo averaged a 91.4 passer rating for the season.

Tony Romo 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Career
Passer Rating 95.1 97.4 91.4 97.6 94.9 95.5

But as remarkably consistent as these numbers are, there's a part of Romo's game, and by extension the Cowboys' game, that is remarkably inconsistent.

There is an oddity in Romo's numbers that shows up with such regularity and is so pronounced that it cannot be discounted as a statistical fluke.

Tony Romo, and with him the whole offense, does not start football games well. Here's a look at Romo's passer rating in the first quarter, contrasted against his rating in all quarters.

Tony Romo: first quarter passer rating
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Career
First quarter 70.4 62.8 71.5 89.3 77.7 74.6
All quarters 95.1 97.4 91.4 97.6 94.9 95.5
Difference -24.7 -34.6 -19.9 -8.3 -17.2 -20.9

Romo's passer rating in the first quarter has been a lot lower than his rating for all four quarters in every single season so far. And a first quarter rating that's an average of 20 points lower than for the rest of the game is no laughing matter.

Continuing to slice and dice Romo's numbers, here are his career totals by quarter:

1st Qtr 280 453 2907 61.8% 6.4 16 19 74.6
2nd Qtr 410 620 5010 66.1% 8.1 36 16 99.5
3rd Qtr 304 474 4069 64.1% 8.6 31 11 103.4
4th Qtr + OT 332 523 4664 63.5% 8.9 35 16 101.7

Romo's passer rating in the second, third and fourth quarters are remarkably consistent, and remarkably high. But his first quarter numbers are off his other averages in almost all aspects: Romo's yards per attempt are almost a full two yards shorter in the first quarter than in the remaining quarters. The Cowboys scored only about half the passing TDs in the first quarter compared to the number they scored in the remaining quarters, and the first quarter saw the lowest passing accuracy of all quarters with Romo under center.

So there you have it folks, Tony Romo consistently plays at an All-Pro level - for three quarters of a game. But why?

Perhaps Romo is simply a slow starter. That would certainly be the easiest answer and Occam's razor would suggest it's the most likely answer. But if you've watched the Cowboys games you'll probably have noticed that the Cowboys as a whole seem to struggle to get into games.

Perhaps it's the Cowboys starting off fairly vanilla in an attempt to feel out the opponent. I've even heard an argument that the slow starts may be due to Garrett having scripted the first two or three drives of the game, although I find that highly implausible. For one thing, I haven't seen any evidence of extensive scripting in the last few years. Also, suggesting that Garrett is a better playcaller when he doesn't have the time to think too much - while probably a fairly popular notion in some of the remoter areas of Cowboys country - just doesn't sound like a very rational argument.

The Cowboys have been slow starters dating back to the Parcells days. Strategy, lethargy, caution or overconfidence, whatever it is, slow starts easily lead to situations where the Cowboys have to play from behind, and that's not a situation anybody wants.

And perhaps it is a statistical fluke after all. To completely rule that out, I'd have to run a similar analysis for all QBs over the last couple of years to determine whether such patterns are common. But that's a lot of work, so I only looked at the top ten passers in 2010 by passer rating. Of these ten QBs, only three, Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Freeman and Matt Schaub had a similar disparity in their first quarter passer rating versus other quarters. Three out of ten. Of the tree, only Freeman showed a similar pattern in 2009, his rookie season. One out of ten. I think it's safe to say Romo's numbers are not a pattern that is common among NFL QBs.

I'm not sure that there is one clear cut answer for Romo's numbers. What I do know is that while the old truism holds that "it's not how you start but how you finish", you've got to wonder how much better the Cowboys could finish if they started better.