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With A QB Controversy Being Discussed In Dallas, We Ask Just How Good Is Tony Romo?

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Opinions about Tony Romo run the gamut. Is it possible to get an objective measure of his game?

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at Seattle Seahawks Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Between the time that Tony Romo stepped on the field after halftime to replace Drew Bledsoe in 2006, until he got hurt in preseason in 2016, there has never been any question who has been the number one quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Suddenly, with the emergence of Dak Prescott, for the first time in ten years Cowboys fans and football pundits are beginning to debate whether, and how long, Tony Romo can hold on to that top spot. It’s a raging question, but one that is not likely going to be decided for several weeks, at least.

This article is not intended to answer that question. Instead, it tries to answer, from an objective standpoint: How good is Tony Romo?

Quarterback Rating

Let’s start with the most commonly used way to evaluate and rank quarterbacks — quarterback rating. This formula plugs in attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns, and turnovers to arrive at a single number. Here’s a calculator that allows you to do this yourself.

This first chart maps Tony Romo’s quarterback rating over the last 10 years, compares it against the quarterback rated number one that season, and adds Tony Romo’s ranking among QBs. (Note that 2015 and 2010 have asterisks because Romo didn’t have enough attempts, due to injuries, to qualify for rankings those seasons.)

Year Romo Rtg Top QB Top QB Rtg Romo Rnk
2015 79.4 Wilson 110.1 31*
2014 113.2 Romo 113.2 1
2013 96.7 Foles 119.2 8
2012 90.5 Rodgers 108 10
2011 102.5 Rodgers 122.5 4
2010 94.9 Brady 111 7*
2009 97.6 Brees 109.6 8
2008 91.4 Rivers 105.5 8
2007 97.4 Brady 117.2 5
2006 95.1 P Manning 101 5
Average 8.7

What you can see from this table is that Tony Romo has had one incredible year - 2014 - when he finished first in the NFL in this stat. He’s had three other top-5 years - 2011, 2007, and 2006. But for the most part, and if you look at his overall average, he’s finished in that group of quarterbacks just outside the top-five. Even if you take out his disastrous 2015 partial season, which was by far the worst of his career, his overall average rank moves up from 8.7 to 6.2. That’s significant, but it doesn’t put him in the top five.

Yet, interestingly, on the all-time career ranks for this stat, Tony Romo comes in third. This is because Romo has been more consistent in this stat than his competitors.

QBR Rankings

ESPN has its own proprietary rating system for quarterbacks called QBR. Here’s how they explain it. It takes into account a number of factors, including the rushing stats for quarterbacks, not included in the traditional quarterback rating. How does Tony Romo rate using this formula?

Year Romo QBR Top QB Top QB QBR Romo Rnk
2015 55.75 Palmer 78.6 25*
2014 83.62 Romo 83.62 1
2013 58.6 P Manning 82.2 13
2012 59.64 P Manning 81.3 10
2011 66.25 Rodgers 85.5 6
2010 59.36 Brady 81.3 14*
2009 58.27 Brees 84.2 13
2008 48.26 P Manning 78 14
2007 66.54 Brady 88.2 3
2006 66.34 P Manning 87.5 8
Average 10.7

As you can see, this stat does not paint as favorable a picture of Tony Romo’s game. Again, he’s had one great year - 2014 - but only one other top-5 year - 2007 - and only two other years in the top-10 - 2011 and 2006. More than half of Romo’s seasons have ended up outside the top-10 in this stat, and his average rank is almost eleventh (this moves up to ninth if you take out 2015). I can’t find any all-time career rankings for this stat. Interestingly, Peyton Manning has won this category four times, while ranking first in passer rating only once.

Won - Loss Record

Like pitchers in baseball, quarterbacks in football receive W-L records. With less control over the game’s outcome than starting pitchers, this is a fairly dubious stat. But let’s see where Tony Romo comes out.

QB W L Pct
Brady 172 51 0.771
P Manning 186 79 0.702
Rodgers 82 40 0.672
Roethlisberger 115 57 0.669
Steve Young 94 49 0.657
Elway 148 82 0.643
Jim Kelly 101 59 0.643
Favre 156 112 0.624
Flacco 78 47 0.624
Romo 78 49 0.614

These are quarterbacks who made their first start in 1981 or later who have decisions in at least 100 games. On this list, Tony Romo ranks 10th. This seems like a fair measure, given who is ahead of him. Perhaps many would take Romo over Joe Flacco, but most would also like Flacco’s Super Bowl ring.

Playoff Record

In the playoffs, Tony Romo has not fared as well. His overall record is 2-4, winning single games in 2009 and 2014, and losing the second playoff game in each of those years, plus losing opening games in both 2006 and 2007.

One might also count the win-and-in, lose-and-out last games of the 2008, 2011, and 2012 seasons as very much like playoff games, since the Cowboys would have made the playoffs if they’d won, and didn’t when they lost. If you count these years, Tony Romo’s record in win or go home games is 2-7. It’s obviously not all on Romo, as this happened to the Cowboys in 2013 too, when Tony Romo was injured and it was left to Kyle Orton to absorb the last game loss. And, like W-L records, playoff wins and losses are team efforts. One thing you can say, though, is that Tony Romo, for all his skill, hasn’t been able to carry the team to wins in these contests.

Overall Analysis

What should one make of this data?

Objectively, Tony Romo has had one great year statistically - 2014. He’s had two more top-five years, 2011 and 2007. But overall, he’s not been a top-five quarterback in the NFL for the 10 years he’s been in the league. He’s been more like what his averages say he’s been, from sixth to ninth in quarterback rating depending on whether you count 2015, and ninth through eleventh in QBR, depending on the same thing.

Yet Tony Romo has clearly carried the team on his back throughout this entire period, keeping them relevant and usually in the hunt for a playoff spot in the years he’s stayed healthy. Still, the Cowboys have made the playoffs in only four of his ten seasons, advanced to a second game only twice, and never made the NFC Championship game, much less the Super Bowl, which is in stark contrast to the great 30-year run of the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Romo has the best passing stats in Cowboys history, but he doesn’t come close to the championship history forged by his Cowboys quarterback predecessors.

Tony Romo’s worst year, by far, was 2015. His best year, by far, was 2014. An objective observer would likely consider both of these outlier years based on the data above, and not expect Romo to repeat either one if and when he returns to action.

A much more likely scenario is for Romo to put up something around his career averages should he return to action, accounting for some level of decline given his age and recent injury history. That would be something around a 95-97 quarterback rating and perhaps a 58-60 QBR. Of course, he might exceed this — though he’s exceeded a 97 quarterback rating and a 60 QBR only once in his last four seasons — but he would have to stay healthy to do so. Those would be good ratings, but not top-of-the-NFL ratings.

Dak Prescott, after four games in his career, is sporting a 98.5 quarterback rating, which ranks him 13th in the NFL and doesn’t account for his running ability, and an 86.6 QBR, which ranks him second in the NFL, and does. This is not to compare four Prescott starts to more than 130 for Romo, but rather to provide some numbers so you can draw your own conclusions.

What do you think? How good is Tony Romo?