Does Latest Quarterback Ranking Say More About Tony Romo Or The People Voting?

You know what it’s like. Some things are just impossible to turn away from. The classic example is when there is a car accident and you are driving by. You know that it is tacky and even dangerous to gawk, but there you go, staring at the wreckage as you go by. You gain nothing from it, and might see something very upsetting. Still, you stare.

That is sort of how it is with things like offseason quarterback rankings. They are not really meaningful. Except when it involves the top names on the list, a lot of fans will be upset reading them because they think “their” quarterback was disrespected, and because they think some of the higher-rated players are less deserving than their own.

Cowboys fans will probably feel exactly like that about this year’s installment of Mike Sando’s “Quarterback Tiers” post at ESPN. The article is mostly behind their paywall. The quick summation is that Tony Romo comes in ninth overall among NFL quarterbacks, which is actually one spot lower than he was ranked last season in the first one of these rankings.

I am not going to get too upset about this, since being in the top 10 is in itself a major improvement from the way Romo has been perceived in the past. But there is just something about this that sits wrong with me. Let me explain.

First, let me set up what the idea of this article is. Here is the criteria the article asked its panel to use in rating the quarterbacks.

While it’s far from rigid, our NFL front office and coach voters typically categorized the tiers as follows:

  • Tier 1 quarterbacks can carry their teams week after week and contend for championships without as much help.
  • Tier 2 QBs are less consistent and need more help, but good enough to figure prominently into a championship equation.
  • Tier 3 are quarterbacks who are good enough to start but need lots of support, making it tougher to contend at the highest level.
  • Tier 4 is typically reserved for unproven starters or those who might not be expected to last in the lineup all season. Voters used the fifth tier sparingly.

The panel used consists of eight personnel directors, six general managers, four head coaches, five offensive coordinators, five defensive coordinators, three salary-cap managers, two ex-GMs, two ex-head coaches, and one offensive assistant coach.

So far, it makes a lot of sense. My problem is that Tony Romo is placed in the second tier, and that just seems to not fully give him credit for what he does on the field.

Here is the write-up on Romo, broken up for some additional commentary.

Romo produced like a top-tier quarterback last season when the Cowboys supported him with a dominant ground game, averaging 31.5 drop-backs per game, down from 40.9 over the past two seasons combined. The new approach put less pressure on Romo to make riskier throws.

“Last year’s formula was outstanding for him and I’m wondering why they have not done that forever,” an offensive coordinator said. “I do not care how sexy he looks throwing, he is a 2 to me because I know if it ends up in his hands, it is 50-50 [whether] he is going to make the big mistake.”

Wait. Exactly what is this offensive coordinator talking about? This is not an accurate statement about Romo the past few years. It is a tired meme we have been trying valiantly at BTB to slay. But obviously being an NFL coordinator does not mean you actually know anything more about players than you read in the media. The article, to its credit, goes on to point out that this is not really based on any statistical data.

The numbers don’t necessarily support Romo being unreliable in crunch time. In fact, since 2011, Romo ranks second to Brees in Total QBR among 11 qualifying quarterbacks during fourth quarters and overtimes with the score tied or his team trailing by no more than eight points. His .500 winning percentage in those games (16-16 record) is best in the league over that span among those 11 quarterbacks.

This is the thing that puzzles me. No, let’s be honest. It drives me crazy. For four years, he is one of the best in the league at winning games for his team. But he does not fall into the tier 1 group as defined for this article? Once again, the overall ranking shows that just because the members of the panel are current or former NFL staffers, it doesn’t mean they really study the players in depth. Our thesis here at BTB has long been that during the 8-8 years, Romo was worth at least a couple of wins per season for the team. And he played hurt in many of those contests. Maybe the key here is the idea of carrying teams to wins. Other quarterbacks get credit for that despite having a worse interception to touchdown ratio than Romo. But he is still the quarterback who has a 50/50 chance of making a bad play – in the minds of many people on this panel.

Here is the rest of his write-up.

“Solid 2 all day long,” an offensive coach said. “Last year, he played like a 1 because they ran it and kept it out of his hands. That helped him and his interceptions went under 10. Romo, Flacco and [Matt] Ryan are just such solid 2s, but it seems to me Romo has done more.”

Three defensive coordinators placed Romo in the top tier, as did one head coach, one offensive coordinator, a salary-cap manager and a director of analytics.

“Unequivocally, he is a top 6-7 quarterback,” a personnel director said. “What they did offensively was perfect for him this past year where they had a strong run game and they could create space for people. Romo can find people and make all the throws. He had only one year where he threw a ton of picks. He has thrown picks at inopportune times, but it is not like Jay Cutler where he’s in the 14-15 range per season. Romo can make a play to win the game.”

A GM placed Romo in the second tier based on some of the mistakes Romo has made, but he also thought the Cowboys would be lost without him, as they were against Arizona last season.

“You never really want to put it on his shoulders game in and game out,” a personnel director said. “They have done that in the past and it did not work out as well. When you give him the tools and add some run game and protection, he is much better.”

The personnel director above had a take that seemed the most in line with what we have observed about Romo. He finally had some of the weight off his shoulders and was able to operate at his highest level of efficiency.

Maybe it is just a bit of Cowboys fan paranoia, but there still seems to be an anti-Romo bias out there. Going through the other quarterbacks on the list, some of them seem to get a pass because they were drug down by the rest of their team, but for Romo it is all about how he couldn’t lead the team to victory despite that, as in 2013 when the defense posted some historically bad stats. The running game was not particularly effective then, either. Romo was the main reason they won eight games, and he was fighting to the end in others (such as the incredible shootout against Peyton Manning and the Broncoswhere he really only threw one meaningfully bad pass)

Romo may well have to lead Dallas all the way to a Lombardi Trophy to get his due – and that still may not be enough. Despite our own efforts to redefine him without the misconceptions (led with incredible research by OCC), the league still seems to view him through the lens of one fumbled field goal attempt and a season where he was probably trying to make up too much through his own efforts. Those who have watched him closely – really watched what happens on the field – know what he means to this team. Aaron Rodgers is pretty clearly the king of the hill, but Romo belongs in the conversation for who the next three or four quarterbacks are.

There is one thing that the Sando article gets right. When Romo has effective support, the Cowboys can take on any team in the league. This season, it looks like that support is in place, plus he is healthier than he has been in a few years. And that, for Cowboys fans, is very good indeed.

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