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The Continuing Development Of Tony Romo As A QB

The Minnesota Twins' Jim Thome will likely hit his 600th home run in the next few weeks, making him only the eighth player in baseball history to reach that mark. Jim Who? Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Jim Thome? I don't think so.

The Maverick's Dirk Nowitzki has put up stats over his career like only a select few before him. Yet when the discussion turned to the all-time greats, Dirk's name was never in the mix. For a long time, Dirk was thought of as a 'choker' and was considered too soft to win an NBA title - way before LeBron James popularized that particular meme. One ring later and Dirk’s place in history has irrevocably changed. His name now carries considerable weight as folks compile list after list of NBA greats.

Tony Romo has the fourth best career passer rating of all time in the NFL (95.5) behind contemporaries Aaron Rodgers (98.4) and Phillip Rivers (97.2) as well as Steve Young (96.8). His 8.0 career yards per attempt also ranks fourth behind your grandfather's favorites Otto Graham, Sid Luckman and Norm Van Brocklin, and ahead of all his contemporaries.

Yet Romo rarely makes a top 5 QB list anywhere outside of hardcore Cowboys fan circles. In the NFL, both fans and media like to measure a QB by his performance when the pressure is at its highest, and that's usually considered to be in the playoffs, where Romo is 1-3, and ultimately in the Super Bowl, where he's never been. Now, we could wait until January/February 2012 to continue this discussion, or you could follow me after the break where we look at how Romo has done in pressure situations on the field, and we'll do that by looking at how Romo has performed when blitzed.

A blitz puts a quarterback under a lot of pressure. More often than not a sack will lead to a change of possession on that drive. A big hit can cause a fumble. The fear of seeing a 270-pound pass rusher charging can cause a QB to throw a pass that falls to the ground or that is picked off by a defender.

But a blitz can also be an opportunity. A blitzing team usually has less people in coverage and a QB who keeps his wits about him can turn the blitz into his advantage by turning that blitz into a big play - witness Wade's defensive efforts in Dallas last year.

Traditionally, defenses have been wary of going after experienced quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady because defensive coordinators were worried they'd get burned every time they blitzed. And that remained true in 2010. In percentage of pass attempts, Manning was the least blitzed QB in the league (blitzed on 24.3% of his pass attempts) and Brady received the fourth lowest blitz pressure (28.3%).

Where defenses really turn on the pressure is with rookie quarterbacks, who have little experience and haven't played enough to recognize all the ways an NFL defense can get to them. Among the 33 QBs with at least 200 pass attempts last year, the most blitzed QBs were Sam Bradford (38.6%), Jimmy Clausen (38.8%) and Colt McCoy (44.6%).

Tony Romo was blitzed on 35.2% of his pass attempts, which is a relatively high number. On the list of the most heavily blitzed QBs (led by the three rookies above), Romo ranks 13th. The NFC East is a particularly blitz-happy place, and last year Donovan McNabb ranked 15th (35.2%), Eli Manning 12th (35.3%) and Michael Vick 9th (36.3%) on that list. But Romo only played one full game against a divisional rival, so those blitzes were coming from non-divisional opponents. So are teams still blitzing Romo like they would an inexperienced rookie?

Perhaps. But Romo is making them pay. Here's how often Romo was blitzed over the last three seasons, and his passer rating in those situations:

Romo Under Pressure, 2008-2010
2008 2009 2010
Blitzed (in % of ATT) 31.6% 38.7% 35.2%
Passer Rating 85.4 95.9 118.7

Romo has steadily improved his passer rating in blitz situations over the last three seasons to a point where he led the NFL in this category in 2010. No one made defenses pay for their aggressive tactics more than Romo last year. Against 75 blitzes he's found an open receiver for a touchdown six times times versus just one interception, which - when you consider his 72% completion percentage as well - has to make you wonder why opposing teams are not backing off Romo they way they do with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady for example. In his limited playing time in 2010, Romo was sacked just twice on those 75 blitz attempts (2.7%) for the lowest sack rate in the league. It hardly seems worth the effort and the risk of going after him quite so often. But hey, if that's the way it is, keep those blitzes coming.

A point to consider though is that Romo's passer rating against the blitz is not just a reflection of Romo's performance. This number is strongly influenced by how good the offensive line is at picking up those blitzers, how effective the backs and tight ends are at adjusting their blocking responsibilities or running a hot route and how well the receivers are able to adjust their routes.

Kitna's numbers are further proof that the Cowboys offense as a whole did a good job against the blitz: Kitna has the 10th best passer rating (92.3) against the blitz among the qualified passers. Of course, a playbook consisting almost entirely of three-step drops helps as well because by the time a blitzing linebacker gets to the QB that ball is long gone. Here's the list of the top ten QBs against the blitz in 2010:

Top ten QBs against the blitz, 2010
1 Tony Romo 54 75 639 72.0 8.52 6 1 2 118.7
2 Tom Brady 84 139 1,201 60.4 8.64 15 2 11 118.4
3 Ben Roethlisberger 83 144 1,159 57.6 8.05 10 1 11 103.9
4 Matt Cassel 88 151 995 58.3 6.59 13 2 12 101.3
5 Aaron Rodgers 106 166 1,282 63.9 7.72 13 5 10 101.0
6 Matt Ryan 128 201 1,534 63.7 7.63 13 4 6 100.2
7 Eli Manning 114 190 1,509 60.0 7.94 16 6 8 100.1
8 Josh Freeman 107 178 1,445 60.1 8.12 12 5 15 96.8
9 Drew Brees 126 190 1,342 66.3 7.06 9 4 14 93.8
10 Jon Kitna 62 104 791 59.6 7.61 9 5 9 92.3
Note: All data courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau via ESPN.

So, what is the take-away here? There is no doubt that Tony Romo is statistically one of the best QBs in the game today. I really could care less where he ranks on some dude's list of the best QBs. I find it far more encouraging to see that Romo is continuing to develop as a QB from an already very high level and to see that he is making progress in an under-appreciated/hard to recognize but critical aspect of his game.

But to enter the conversation for greatness, the NFL public demands that a QB deliver when the pressure is highest. And that means more than 'just' success against the blitz. That means playoff success. And in Dallas, preferably a ring.

Yesterday rabblerouser wrote about Tony Romo's interview with Gavin Dawson on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. In that interview Romo said he'd put away his his golf clubs until the end of February.

Way to go Tony, way to go.

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