In a recent post, we looked at Tony Romo’s contract and explained how much cap space the Dallas Cowboys stand to gain by trading him. The answer is $54 million, spread over three years. It is cap money Dallas very much needs to keep its roster strong over the next few seasons.
For a team adding Romo by trade, unless they decide to restructure his contract, they would be on the hook for that same $54 million, but only in 1-year chunks - $14 million in 2017, $19,500,000 in 2018, and $20,500,000 in 2019. None of that money would be guaranteed prior to game one of each season, after which contracts are locked in for that season. So, if Tony Romo were to get hurt again in preseason like this year, he could be cut by his acquiring team with no cap consequences.
That’s what Tony Romo costs, unless, as mentioned, he agrees to renegotiate his contract. The question for this article, is what is Tony Romo worth?
What is Tony Romo Worth?
This is not an easy question to answer. But let’s take a stab at it. We’re going to look at three things. First, Tony Romo’s historical performance levels. Second, how much difference he could make depending on the team that trades for him. Third, how much should his value be discounted given the risk of future injuries and his cap cost to a new team.
Tony Romo’s historical performance.
Earlier this season, we wrote an article that attempted to get at an objective measurement of Tony Romo’s game. We looked at his quarterback rating each year, and where it ranked in the NFL, and did the same for his QBR rating, ESPN’s proprietary stat, and drew the following conclusion.
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.
Many of those who commented on the article thought it sold Tony Romo short, and in one respect it did - his consistency. For while Romo has “only” had three top-five seasons in his 10 years in the NFL, he’s fourth in history for quarterback rating, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady, and he was ahead of Brady when the year started, with a 97.1 rating.
Given that consistency, a team that acquired him could reasonably expect Tony Romo to post around a 97 quarterback rating, with some chance of it being higher, and some chance of it being lower.
How much can Tony Romo improve a team?
This is a question that has not been looked at yet. It’s one thing to guess in the abstract how much Tony Romo might bring back in a trade. It’s much more interesting to look at the teams he might be attractive to, and see how much he might help them.
We recently did our own analysis of where Tony Romo might end up in 2017, listing seven teams that made some sense. Let’s look at that list of teams and plug in the quarterback rating for their primary starter for this year.
- Houston Texans - Brock Osweiler - 72.2 (29th)
- Buffalo Bills - Tyrod Taylor - 89.7 (18th)
- Denver Broncos - Trevor Semien - 84.6 (23rd)
- Jacksonville Jaguars - Blake Bortles - 78.8 (26th)
- Miami Dolphins - Ryan Tannehill - 93.5 (12th)
- Kansas City Chiefs - Alex Smith - 91.2 (16th)
- New York Jets - Ryan Fitzpatrick - 69.6 (30th)
If you were to plug in an estimated quarterback rating of 97.1 for Tony Romo, it would obviously elevate every one of these teams’ quarterback play. Of course, it’s not quite that easy.
One reason a quarterback’s rating changes over time is that his receivers change, his offensive line changes, his running backs and running game changes, his coach and offensive coordinator changes, etc. Even his defense changes, requiring more or less passing attempts to try to win the game.
We saw Tony Romo really hit his peak in 2014 once Dallas had a great offensive line to protect him, a great running back behind him, and top notch receiving targets, where he could win in a run-dominant offense that called on him to be efficient, not passing all the time out of the shotgun.
Yet Tony Romo has put up excellent stats on Cowboys’ teams without great offensive lines, when the team passed the ball 60% or more of the time, so he’s proven himself adaptable, and would likely easily fit into any of the teams listed above.
With the above caveats in mind, let’s plug in a hypothetical quarterback rating of 97.1 for the teams above and see how that would have changed their quarterback rating differential for 2016.
We use this because the Passer Rating Differential has been called the “Mother of All Stats” for it’s correlation with championship teams. Indeed, this year’s Super Bowl teams are #1 and #2 in this ranking at +24.89 (NE) and +24.39 (Atl).
This stat takes into account each team’s defense against their opponent’s quarterback. So you can improve the differential by improving your own quarterback play, and/or by playing better pass defense. We’re just taking the offensive side.
Let’s look at those seven teams again by where they rank in passer rating differential, and where they would rank if you substituted 97.1 on their offensive side.
- Denver - 4th in PRD. Would be first at +27.39.
- Kansas City - 5th in PRD. Would be third at +17.3.
- Miami - 10th in PRD. Would be sixth at +10.7.
- Buffalo - 18th in PRD. Would be sixth at +10.8.
- Jacksonville - 24th in PRD. Would be ninth at +8.7.
- Houston - 25th in PRD. Would be sixth at +12.8.
- New York Jets - 32nd in PRD. Would be 18th at -1.4. (Even Romo couldn’t dig the Jets out of their hole.)
Now, passer rating differential, by itself, doesn’t guarantee success. Of the top 10 teams this year, Minnesota (3rd), Denver (4th), and Cincinnati (8th) didn’t even make the playoffs. But it does correlate strongly with winning, which means any team that can make a leap in this statistic has given itself a much better chance of having a successful year.
For one team on this list - Denver - adding a healthy Tony Romo could vault it back into Super Bowl contention. For a team like Jacksonville, it could give them an immediate shot at making the playoffs after years of futility. Others would fall somewhere on that spectrum.
How much is that worth? A lot, but there is at least one more caveat to consider.
Health and cost risk.
Continued health is likely the only real caveat holding back Tony Romo’s value to a new team. Romo was injured in a preseason game in 2016 after only taking a few snaps. He broke his collarbone twice in games in 2015. And he missed a game-and-a-half in his historic 2014 season.
Can he stay upright for a season? It’s a question that can’t be answered.
If he can stay healthy, he’s worth as much as Sam Bradford garnered in a trade this year - a first-rounder in 2017 and a fourth-rounder in 2018 that could go as high as a second-rounder depending on performance.
Bradford finished the season with a 99.3 passer rating, but has a cap hit of $18,000,000 in 2017 to Romo’s $14 million. Bradford also has a history of injury that’s at least as long as Tony Romo’s. And Bradford has never taken one of his teams to the playoffs, which Romo has accomplished several times.
On the cost side, Tony Romo is locked up for three more years, with no cap charge if he’s hurt again and needs to be cut, at a very reasonable price for a franchise quarterback.
So What Is Tony Romo Worth?
Returning to the question we posed at the outset, there is no definitive answer. On the one hand, Tony Romo would improve the quarterback play of all the teams listed, some of them by a massive amount. That should be worth a lot to any team that wants to contend for the Super Bowl, or give itself a much higher chance of making the playoffs and winning than it has now.
Moreover, none of these teams has an easier way to move quickly up in the standings than it would by adding Tony Romo to its roster. There is no quarterback even close to Romo’s historic performance levels likely to be on the market this offseason, and other than the rare rookie quarterbacks who excel, there is no way to draft one and expect the immediate return that Romo can provide. Quarterbacks get paid the most in the NFL, and usually win the MVP award, for a reason - they make the most difference.
But there is a risk to adding Tony Romo - the chance that a single hit will end his season again, or take him out for an extended time.
One way to temper the risk is to make any draft compensation to Dallas conditional on his playing time with the new team. The problem with this is it pushes off at least some of the draft compensation into 2018, when Dallas is itself in a win-now mode, with holes to fill on its roster.
Another way to balance the value would be to trade a player or players to Dallas for Tony Romo. An older veteran still performing at a high level, for example, might have great value to Dallas if they plugged a hole in the secondary or on the defensive line, but be seen as less costly to the trading team than a first-round draft pick who is tied up cheaply for five years.
If he can stay healthy for any team that acquires him, Tony Romo could be the most valuable player that changes teams this offseason. That’s a big “if.” The Dallas Cowboys just need at least one team willing to roll those dice.