A short time ago I penned a couple of pieces titled "The Romo Factor". In the first, I opined that there would not be a major statistical difference with Tony Romo's return. In the second, my hypothesis was that with Romo back, the team would play fast and loose and make plays they wouldn't usually make. With the Dallas Cowboys victory over the Miami Dolphins, the experiment has been run and we now have some observations and data to record. Oddly, after a career of being accused of putting up "empty stats", Romo had a very mediocre statistical day, but his effect on the team couldn't have been clearer.
With the defense fresh, rested, and playing with a 4th quarter lead, both sacks and turnovers returned to their menu. Plays were missed, but those plays did not cost the game, which is exactly the Romo factor I am speaking of. When you don't have to fear that your decision is going to cost you the game, this play (watch 55):
Turns into this play:
I truly believe this is the chief thing that Romo brought back with him to the team-- an ability to relax and play each play with a calm abandonment without feeling like the game hinged on each player's personal perfection.
Statistically there was not much difference. Romo's 85 passer rating, 228 yards, and 1:1 TD/Int ratio were nothing Matt Cassel didn't duplicate. But in the last two years, a number of factors have combined to give Romo a master's palette and the things he has done with it in key situations are amazing. On 3rd and 10+ he is converting nearly a third of his attempts. The NFL as a whole in that time is converting 22%. Cassel and Weeden between them did not convert a single 3rd and 10+ pass for Dallas (Cassel did convert some for the Minnesota Vikings last year).
On 3rd and 5 or less, Romo is converting over 60% of the time. The NFL average is just under 50%, Cassel (for Dallas) converts at 47%, and Weeden at 33% (note that Brandon Weeden at 5 or fewer yards is roughly as effective as Tony Romo at 10 plus). That's where Tony really has shown his value -- by channeling that inner gunslinger and calling it up in key situations to convert 3rd downs and keep drives going at a rate that far exceeds that of other teams. The conventional wisdom was that DeMarco Murray was the one who allowed Dallas to control the clock, but with Romo converting 3rd down passes at 46.4% this year while then NFL average is 36% and the best team in the NFL (Arizona) is at 45%, I think we can safely say that Romo is the one sustaining drives and controlling the clock. Oh, and for the record, Brandon Weeden converted 27% of 3rd down passes while Matt Cassel converted 33%.
But there's another thing Romo brings that we all forget. Everyone loves a good Romodini, but the true level of Jedi Mastery that Romo has achieved was shown on some more mundane seeming plays... and indeed, it's making them seem ordinary that makes them so important. The fact that we simply haven't seen these plays the last two months should be a reminder of how unusual they are.
Look at the window on this throw:
Here's a freeze frame right after the throw:
That's an unbelievably tight window, double coverage with a man in zone underneath. Yet Romo and Witten make it look routine. 15 yards and a first down.
Speaking of routine-looking, watch the casualness with which Romo delivers the touchdown to Dez:
It looks like two guys playing catch in a field somewhere. Also worth noting is the pocket against a five-man rush (and particularly the teamwork between Zack Martin and Travis Frederick on Ndamukong Suh and the blitzing Mike linebacker). Poor Darren McFadden simply cannot find anything useful to do before the TD.
And then there's this-- the classic "y-option":
Romo knows he's got Witten isolated on a safety who has no prayer. I picked this to show Romo's patience and knowledge of the game (it's clear he knows he's going to Witten from before the snap and it's just waiting for Jason to go there), but it's really fun to see the hopeless body language of the safety after Witten totally schools him with his pivot.
While I am a big proponent of statistical analysis, it's safe to say that there is much more to the game than that. The kind of play we saw on Sunday was greatly elevated from what the team has done before and much of it rests on the fact that Tony Romo has unquestionably become that player who does, in fact, put the entire team on his shoulders.