Dallas Cowboys history blazes with a galaxy of stars. From Bob Lilly, the team’s very first draft pick to Captain America Roger Staubach to the the Triplets of the 90’s, Cowboys fans have been blessed with a head-spinning number of superstars to cheer. And for many young fans Tony Romo is the most recent addition to that list of greatness.
As quarterback and de facto leader of the Cowboys for ten years, an entire generation of fans have grown up with Romo representing their professional football hopes. It’s a certainty that at some point Romo’s name will appear on the team’s Ring of Honor, joining an exclusive list of greatness. There are Cowboys fans, however, who will not be satisfied with that honor alone, believing Romo should enter the National Football League’s Hall of Fame. The question today: does Tony Romo deserve to be a Hall of Famer?
This analysis will look at nine quarterbacks who careers cover the last 20 years and are either certain Hall of Fame inductees or are potential candidates. The last 20 years provides us with a large enough sample but also represents a small of enough time period that we can reasonably compare the performances of these quarterbacks. The list of potential candidates and their likelihood of entering the Hall:
Current Hall of Famer
- Kurt Warner - elected in third-year of eligibility
First ballot Hall of Famers
- Tom Brady
- Peyton Manning
- Aaron Rodgers
Hall of Famer
- Drew Brees
- Ben Roethlisberger
Borderline Hall of Famer
- Philip Rivers (needs significant accomplishments to be inducted)
Non-Hall of Famers
- Eli Manning
- Tony Romo
While I place Romo in the “non Hall of Famer” category, a persuasive argument can be made that throughout his career Romo played as well as future Hall of Famers such as Brees, Roethlisberger and Rodgers. The following are career numbers for our select group. We use metrics such as passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt because they are the best measures of a player’s quality of performance:
For the uninitiated, adjusted net yards was created by the Pro Football Reference folks as a means to incorporate the value of touchdowns, interceptions and sacks into a yards passing metric. Here’s the formula:
(pass yards + 20*(pass TD) - 45*(interceptions thrown) - sack yards)/(passing attempts + sacks)
What the charts tells us is Aaron Rodgers is notably better than everyone else, Eli Manning is notably worse than everyone else and Tony Romo is right in line with all the other great quarterbacks of his era.
Passer rating notes:
- All but Rodgers and Eli Manning fall into a very narrow range between 93.7 and 97.6.
- Romo’s 97.1 career passer rating ranks fourth among these players, ahead of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner.
- Romo, and everyone else here, far outpaces Eli Manning who is a severe, negative outlier.
The adjusted net yards per attempt chart looks almost identical:
- Rodgers is again head and shoulders above everyone else.
- Eli Manning’s 5.9 number lags far behind all others.
- Everyone else falls into a narrow range between 6.7 and 7.2.
- Romo again ranks fourth among the entire list, ahead of Brees, Rivers, Roethlisberger, Warner and Eli Manning
The fact the two charts are nearly identical simply illustrates that both the passer rating and the ANY/A metrics largely do the same thing in attempting to measure a quarterback’s overall performance. Now lets look at touchdowns and interceptions and the ratio between the two. Since these are already incorporated into the passer rating and ANY/A measures, we wouldn’t expect to see enormous variance from those results:
The touchdown percentage chart, again, looks very similar to the two earlier charts. The interception percentage chart is a little different. Rodgers again has the best numbers and Tom Brady is a close second, but after that there’s again little difference. Of course, Eli Manning again has the worst result.
And finally the TD to INT ratio maintains the pattern with Rodgers scoring highest, Brady second, Eli Manning last and everyone else bunched together. The only difference is Kurt Warner’s number is closer to Eli Manning’s than the group.
This confirms what was noted earlier: in terms of quality of play, Tony Romo was every bit as good as players like Brees, Roethlisberger, Warner, Rivers and even Peyton Manning. He’s not quite as good as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but not far off.
Efficiency metrics are great, but they don’t tell the entire story. After all, Alfred Morris led the 2017 Cowboys in yards per attempt (4.8), 0.7 yards better than Ezekiel Elliott. No one, however, would claim Morris is the better running back. Similarly, efficiency metrics don’t capture how often a team’s asks a quarterback to shoulder a team’s load.
The following table shows each player’s career statistics converted into 16-game averages.
Here we see Tony Romo is a clear outlier in terms of how often he threw the ball. Romo’s 445 average passing attempts per season lags far behind the average of 535 attempts. Not surprisingly, Romo’s completions, yards and touchdowns also lag far behind the average.
Drew Brees is the most prolific passer by a fairly wide margin and, on average, attempts nearly 35% more passes per year than Romo did over his career. In short, the Cowboys never asked Romo to shoulder as much of the offensive burden as any of these other quarterbacks.
There’s a good reason for that. Looking at Romo’s year-by-year numbers shows that as his attempts increased his efficiency declined; as his attempts decreased his efficiency improved:
Romo’s 2014 season, when he finished second in NFL MVP voting, was easily his best season ever. It was also the season when he threw the ball the least; his 29 attempts per game was six fewer than his career average. By contrast, when Romo was asked to throw the ball more in 2012 he recorded his career worst passer rating.
Now, some might argue Romo had to pass because the running game was anemic or the defense was terrible and he was always playing from behind. Others, however, like Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, have been asked to carry offenses with only complementary help from the running game and have succeeded. Romo was never able to do that.
Summarizing thus far, we can say Tony Romo played as well as other Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks of his era, but wasn’t asked to do quite as much. While we’ve considered career statistics thus far, we haven’t looked at the length of each player’s career. And when we add this consideration, we see that Romo is again a severe outlier. The following shows the years where each player was his team’s primary quarterback (started at least 9 games). Those with arrows on the right indicate active careers:
I have to admit I was somewhat stunned when I put this together. Yeah, it feels like Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, and Manning have been around forever but it’s still remarkable to me that each have logged at least 14 seasons as starting NFL quarterbacks. Moreover, each is slated to man the quarterback helm again this upcoming September. Brady, Brees and Rivers each finished in the league’s top 10 in passer rating last season, so it’s not like these guys are just hanging on with diminished capacity. Every active player not named Eli Manning is still playing at a high level.
Romo, by comparison, had an anemically short career, logging only eight seasons as the team’s primary quarterback. Only Warner and Rodgers have logged similar numbers. Rodgers, of course, will be 34 when the 2018 season starts and is likely to play 3-6 more seasons.
So, thinking of this group in terms of both quality of performance and length of career, we get the following:
Tony Romo’s 156 games played lags far behind the numbers of either Manning, Brady, Brees, Rivers and Roethlisberger. Aaron Rodgers is almost certain to surpass Romo this year and will likely end with 200+ games played. Only Kurt Warner played fewer games than Romo.
The differences in these player’s longevity manifests itself in their respective career approximate value numbers (another metric brought to us by the good people at Pro Football Reference).
This basically shows us that HOF quarterbacks from this era should have AV numbers near or above 150. The only ones not at the 150 threshold:
- Tony Romo - 116 career AV
- Kurt Warner - 96 career AV
Now, the argument could be made that if Kurt Warner is good enough for the Hall of Fame then isn’t Tony Romo also good enough? After all, like Romo, Warner had only eight seasons as a primary starter. Romo’s efficiency metrics are actually better than Warner’s. What did Warner accomplish that Romo didn’t that makes him a better candidate for the Hall?
Well, quite a lot actually. Let’s look first at post-season honors:
Now, Pro Bowl honors can be a sketchy way of recognizing excellence. Players sometimes receive unearned Pro Bowls based upon reputation; others can toil away in anonymity without getting the recognition they deserve. Quarterbacks, however, are not a low-profile position that requires rigorous film study to identify who’s great and who’s not. Perhaps Romo deserved more honors but these results look about right to me.
Here we see just how consistently great players like Brady, Brees and Peyton Manning have been. Romo’s four Pro Bowl and zero All Pro honors tie him for last in such honors, along with Eli Manning.
If we add Super Bowl wins, Super Bowl MVPs, NFL MVP and 1st Team All Pro awards together we see the following:
The true dominance of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning is clearly evident here. Brees and Roethlisberger, by contrast, haven’t earned a large number of such awards but they’ve earned some. The two SB wins and two SB MVPs from Eli Manning are the sole reason his name is even in consideration; take those away from his resume and he’s been an above average but not great quarterback throughout his career.
We also see why Kurt Warner is in the Hall of Fame. Two NFL MVP awards, a Super Bowl win and a Super Bowl MVP. Romo joins Philip Rivers as the only names on this list to never have received even one of these honors.
- Eli Manning is clearly not of the same quality as the other players on this list. I have never seriously considered him a legitimate HOF candidate. He’ll probably elicit serious consideration simply because of two Super Bowl wins (and MVPs) and... well, New York. But by any objective measure he’s not the same caliber quarterback as the other names on this list, including Tony Romo.
- Assuming Rodgers plays an additional three full seasons (resonable assumption) he’ll log nearly 200 games played and will add that number to his very high efficiency metrics. That’s why I believe he’ll be a first ballot Hall of Famer.
- Tom Brady and Peyton Manning both enjoyed long, high performance careers and are no doubt first ballot guys.
- Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees have had similar high quality careers. While not quite as accomplished as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady I believe they’re both no-doubt Hall of Famers.
- Philip Rivers is interesting because, as we see, he’s been every bit as good as Brees and Roethlisberger. However, I don’t think most people consider him a future Hall of Famer. I think he’ll need a couple standout seasons and/or a Super Bowl run to make the cut. His career is eerily similar to Tony Romo’s; both have played at elite levels but didn’t achieve elite-level team success.
- Kurt Warner: I was surprised at how short Warner’s career was. Not only did he not start playing until age 28 but his during his age 31-33 seasons he started only 16 games due to injuries and poor performance. He basically had four elite seasons and two good seasons surrounding five mediocre seasons. But, Warner was a two-time MVP, a Super Bowl MVP and set NFL records for yards and touchdowns in a season. At one point, the Warner-led “Greatest Show on Turf” teams held the first, second and fourth spots on the NFL’s all-time highest scoring teams list. I personally would not have voted him into the Hall but I can understand why he was inducted.
- Finally, Tony Romo. Think of every name on the list we’ve looked at. There are signature accomplishments for each of the no-doubt candidates. Warner’s Greatest Show on Turf was an unstoppable force. Peyton Manning won five MVP awards and was clearly the best QB in the league for a number of years. Ben Roethlisberger has won 13 playoff games and two Super Bowls; but it was when he threw a Super Bowl-winning pass in the only spot it could possibly be thrown that defined his career. I could go on for each player here but what can we point to to showcase Romo’s accomplishments? The sad reality is Romo doesn’t have a truly outstanding big-game play, or signature game, or record-setting season on his resume. He never made a miracle pass to win a playoff game, held the Super Bowl trophy aloft or compiled an historic season. River’s career is pretty much the same; without some such addition to his record, like Romo, he’ll never don a yellow jacket either.