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Tony Romo Versus Quality Opponents: What The Numbers Tell Us

At least he's not wearing his hat backwards, right?
At least he's not wearing his hat backwards, right?

One of the most persistent and slanderous allegations brought up against Tony Romo is that he pads his stats against weak teams and underperforms against quality teams, because he can't win the big games.

If you look deeper at the root of this particular meme, you'll quickly find that it's more than just sloppy thinking and lazy research that leads people down this erroneous path of self-deceit. These nefarious allegations live on in the interwebs like a ghoul from the Walking Dead stuck in a swamp somewhere in Georgia, and are based on a particularly twisted piece of post-rationalization that is very particular to Cowboys Nation:

Tony Romo can't win big games, because it's only a big game if the Cowboys lose. If the Cowboys win, it can't have been a big game because "they should have won that one anyway".

Irrefutable fact or vicious slander? Today, we apply what we learned during countless hours procrastinating in front of the TV in the afternoons of our youth: "Don't take the law into your own hands: you take 'em to stat court." So after the break, we set the stat hounds loose to sniff out the truth as we slice and dice Tony Romo's performance against better and lesser opponents.

Let's do away with the stat-padding story right away. Tony Romo's career passer rating against quality opponents (teams that won 9 or more games over the course of the full season) is 96.4, a value that is almost indistinguishable from his 96.9 career average. Against quality opponents, Tony Romo plays at the same (extremely high) level as he does against lesser opponents. Put that story to bed right now.

A closer look at the splits by opponent W/L record in the table below shows that Romo does have slightly better numbers against the truly terrible teams in the league. But which QB doesn't? Here's Romo's full breakdown by opponent wins.

Tony Romo career reg. season passer rating by opponent W/L record
Opp. Wins No. of games CMP ATT CMP% YDS YPA TD INT QB Rating
12+ 9 183 286 64.0% 2,411 8.43 15 7 97.8
9-11 19 397 623 63.7% 4,964 7.97 40 21 95.7
8 16 339 543 62.4% 3,940 7.26 19 19 81.4
5-7 21 479 720 66.5% 5,782 8.03 42 17 100.6
0-4 14 274 420 65.2% 3,737 8.90 33 8 111.8
Total 79 1,672 2,592 64.5% 20,834 8.04 149 72 96.9

Overall, Romo's numbers are remarkably consistent across all opponent W/L records, with one notable exception: we see a significant drop-off against teams that finished the season 8-8. Of course, when we look at Romo's 81.4 passer rating against 8-8 teams and call it a "significant drop-off", keep in mind that we are talking about a level of performance that other QBs like (and I'll just grap two names out of the hat randomly here) Eli Manning (82.1) or Michael Vick (80.9) have just barely managed to achieve over their entire careers. Context. Always good for some perspective.

But the drop-off is still intriguing, and a little digging shows a curious pattern specifically in divisional games. In five of six years in which Romo was a starter, he played at least one team in the division that ended up with an 8-8 record. And each year, Romo picked that team to have himself a sub-par game:

2006 vs Giants, L 22-36, 2 TDs, 2 INTs - 73.7 rating
2007 vs Eagles, L 6-10, 0 TDs, 3 INTs - 22.2 rating
2008 @ Redskins, W 14-10, 1 TD, 2 INTs - 72.8 rating
2009 vs Giants, L 31-33, 1 TD, 3 INTs - 29.6 rating
2011 vs Eagles, L 7-34, 1 TD, 1 INT - 66.7 rating

In 2010, Romo did not face a team that finished 8-8, which probably saved him from a couple more INTs. That is, if you subscribe to the theory that randomly assembled stats from the past are indicative of future performance. A more reasonable assumption could be that this 8-8 anomaly for Romo was perhaps a team-wide issue of underestimating a still dangerous but perhaps uninspiring opponent.

The other constant to Romo's game that these stats don't show is that he's been playing behind some highly suspect O-lines for a couple of years now. Yet he has a career passer rating that's higher than Steve Young (96.8), Tom Brady (96.4), Philip Rivers (95.5) and Peyton Manning (94.9), and is second only to Aaron Rodgers (104.1) on the all-time NFL career passer rating ranking.

Give Romo decent protection and he'll be scary good.

Of course, Romo still plays golf and occasionally wears his hat backwards, so he can't really be any good, right?


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