December Stars: The truth about Romo and Rivers

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 01, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Comeback King


They both became starting quarterbacks in 2006, and have two of the six highest passer ratings in NFL history. They both win nearly 65% of their regular season games, but both have a losing record in the postseason and have never taken a team to a Super Bowl.
 
One is the high draft pick directly linked to many Super Bowl winning peers, while the other is a rags-to-riches story that faces the pressure of his franchise’s past Super Bowl success.
 
The careers of Tony Romo and Philip Rivers make for an even comparison of franchise quarterbacks that have a void on their resumes. Their stats have been gaudy, come at high volume, and are fairly consistent from year to year. They have both continuously faltered in the playoffs, and are the only two quarterbacks ranked in the top 10 in passer rating to not win a Super Bowl, despite playing on teams that are annually considered among the most talented in the league. It’s hard to talk about one without recognizing the other as the rival conference’s equal.
 
But as the calendar turns to December, there is one area where Rivers appears to distance himself by a wide margin from Romo (and just about everyone else): winning games in December.
 
Rivers managed to win his first 18 starts in the month of December before suffering his first two losses last season. San Diego finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Romo meanwhile has never had a winning record in each of his four Decembers, which critics point to as his failure to step up for big games. He did not start a game after October last season due to a broken clavicle.
 
What happened last season combined with San Diego’s current six-game losing streak has put a hold on the usual December narrative. But at the Cold, Hard Football Facts, we know it will take just one or two wins before the pundits start touting Mr. December and the Chargers as having a chance to come back and win the division. We’ve seen it happen before. Just as it will only take a loss or two before the Cowboys are in the crosshairs for another December implosion. Though with the way the Giants and Mr. October have been playing, it might not matter.
 

Graphical Representation

If you need a quick graphical representation of how a typical season for each quarterback and his team progresses, look no further than here:
 
 

The Chargers often struggle out of the gate, while Dallas is feeling good and happy. November is especially good for Dallas, as Romo’s record in that month is just as impressive as Rivers’ in December. But when December comes, it’s Rivers that is happy (we think that’s his happy face), and Romo feels the pain. But no matter how good or bad December went, the end result in January (the playoffs) has been the same: disappointment and frustration.
 

The Data

Has Rivers been that good in December? Has Romo been that bad? Why has this happened? We gathered the data that matters in the hope that it will speak for itself to answer such questions.
 
The only games included in the data were games each quarterback started, and only from the 2006-2010 seasons. 2011 was excluded due to wanting to have a full 16-game sample to use for the various calculations. Should something intriguing happen this month with these two, we’ll return with the 2011 update.
 

General Monthly Breakdown

Throughout the tables, a key stat column will have the top value in bold, and the worst in red. A month like January (and playoffs) where each quarterback has only started one or two games in the regular season will be disregarded for that formatting.
 
We’ll start with each quarterback’s passing stats broken down by month.
 
Tony Romo - Monthly Splits
Month GS Record Att. Comp. Pct. Yards YPA TD INT Rating
September 14 10-4 477 301 63.1 4066 8.52 27 12 98.6
October 12 6-6 405 266 65.7 3134 7.74 24 14 94.4
November 17 15-2 525 350 66.7 4643 8.84 41 12 111.0
December 17 7-10 602 369 61.3 4234 7.03 21 20 80.3
January 1 1-0 34 24 70.6 311 9.15 2 1 106.4
Playoffs 4 1-3 135 80 59.3 832 6.16 4 2 80.8
 
 
Philip Rivers - Monthly Splits
Month GS Record Att. Comp. Pct. Yards YPA TD INT Rating
September 16 8-8 530 333 62.8 4331 8.17 27 17 92.1
October 20 10-10 622 402 64.6 5121 8.23 37 9 104.0
November 20 15-5 591 387 65.5 4544 7.69 30 17 93.6
December 22 20-2 630 395 62.7 5105 8.10 40 13 100.7
January 2 2-0 52 30 57.7 412 7.92 1 1 81.6
Playoffs 7 3-4 229 134 58.5 1820 7.95 8 9 79.2
 
Romo’s stats are well-defined here. November is his best month in every way, and usually by a wide margin. Keep in mind Romo was 4-0 this November, raising his career record to 19-2 in the month. That’s the best November record in NFL history.
 
The same can be said for December; just replace the positive comments with negative ones. Romo’s record is 7-10, and his TD:INT ratio is nearly 1:1. That 80.3 rating is a far cry from the 111.0 he puts up in the previous month, and in fact greatly resembles the 80.8 rating he has in January. These are exactly the kind of numbers that haunt Romo in the media.
 
Rivers meanwhile starts September and October with .500 records before finishing strong (37-7 in regular season games played in November or later). Statistically he’s a bit all over the map, with his highest rating and YPA actually coming in October and not December. Like Romo, the playoffs see a significant decrease.
 
Those are the kind of numbers many fans are accustomed to seeing. Now we’ll look into the factors that create such splits.
 

Strength of Schedule

Arguably the most obvious place to look is the group of opponents they played in these months. Football is about matchups, and playing better teams and defenses will hinder a player’s chance for success.
 
Since a team’s strength of schedule (SOS) is influenced by how they perform, we included the adjusted SOS by subtracting the wins and losses incurred against each quarterback’s team in only that month. For example, because Rivers is 20-2 in December, that’s making his December SOS look easier than it was if you factor out how those teams did when they weren’t playing San Diego that month.
 
 
Tony Romo - Dallas' SOS
Month GS Record Opp. Record SOS Adj. SOS
September 14 10-4 90-133-1 0.404 0.412
October 12 6-6 95-96-1 0.497 0.497
November 17 15-2 125-147 0.460 0.482
December 17 7-10 151-120-1 0.557 0.555
January 1 1-0 11-5 0.688 0.733
 
 
Philip Rivers - San Diego's SOS
Month GS Record Opp. Record SOS Adj. SOS
September 16 8-8 130-126 0.508 0.508
October 20 10-10 162-158 0.506 0.507
November 20 15-5 153-167 0.478 0.493
December 22 20-2 157-195 0.446 0.470
January 2 2-0 8-24 0.250 0.267
 
Already you can start to see the pattern fall into place. Romo has his easiest schedule in September, and by far his toughest in December (.555). For Rivers, it’s the complete opposite: toughest in September, easiest in December. Also make note of the difference the adjusted SOS makes from the regular SOS, particularly in the quarterback’s dominant month.
 
This split alone helps explain why San Diego gets off to slow starts and the Cowboys struggle down the stretch. Dallas has played 12 of their 17 December games against teams that were at least 8-8. They went 4-1 against the teams with losing records. They were 2-3 against teams 11-5 or better. Exactly half of San Diego's 22 opponents in December were at least 8-8. They were 10-1 in those games, but only played one 11-5 team, which happened to be the 2009 Dallas Cowboys. San Diego won 20-17.
 
Still, there’s more to an opponent besides their record.
 

Defensive-Adjusted Passer Rating

In measuring the quality of the pass defense the quarterback faces, we like to look at the defensive passer rating (DPR) the team had for that season. Here, we looked at each game with the quarterback’s numbers subtracted out from the opponent’s season numbers. It’s the same line of thought as the adjusted SOS. We want a stat that will compare what the player did against an opponent compared to how everyone else did against them. That will be the Defensive-Adjusted Passer Rating (DAPR) for the game.
 
We’ll have a full write-up on this in the future, but for now, think of DAPR as a way to calculate how a quarterback did statistically against a defense relative to the other 15 opponents they played that season. You get rewarded for playing better against tougher defenses. The resulting number is the impact that quarterback had mathematically on his opponent’s DPR for the season.
 
 
Tony Romo - DPR + DAPR
Month GS Record DPR DAPR DAPR/Game
September 14 10-4 82.0 15.80 1.13
October 12 6-6 84.0 7.78 0.65
November 17 15-2 82.0 28.81 1.69
December 17 7-10 80.2 -0.44 -0.03
January 1 1-0 75.9 1.79 1.79
Playoffs 4 1-3 84.7 -1.08 -0.27
 
 
Philip Rivers - DPR + DAPR
Month GS Record DPR DAPR DAPR/Game
September 16 8-8 83.3 7.98 0.50
October 20 10-10 81.1 28.14 1.41
November 20 15-5 82.5 12.51 0.63
December 22 20-2 83.4 21.24 0.97
January 2 2-0 89.8 -1.08 -0.54
Playoffs 7 3-4 70.3 3.88 0.55
 
Remember, the lower the DPR, the tougher the opposing pass defense. As for DAPR/Game, a score of 0.00 would mean you played the average game against that defense compared to your 15 peers. A score above 1.00 would put you in elite territory. A negative is obviously playing below average.
 
Once again it works out to where Romo’s toughest pass defenses are in December (80.2) and Rivers has his easiest (83.4) that month.
 
Still, Romo’s performances in December have been subpar, which is shown by his negative DAPR for the month. On a per game basis, Romo has essentially played against his 17 December opponents at a completely average level (-0.03, so even a tick below average). This would be fine if he was an average quarterback, but for someone of his caliber, these are not good stats. And it shows in the team’s 7-10 record. Romo’s +1.69/game DAPR in November is a very elite score, hence the 15-2 record is no surprise.
 
In December, Romo had a negative DAPR in 8 out of 17 games, but only once in his last 7 December starts. Perhaps a sign of improvement, though Cowboys fans will not be delighted to hear the one negative was the 2008 Week 17 finale in Philadelphia (44-6 loss) when the Cowboys had a chance to make the playoffs.
 
Rivers actually scores best in October, due to playing his toughest group of pass defenses. The Chargers are only 10-10 in those games, but that’s what happens when you’re playing one of your stronger schedules based on record and pass defense. Of the 10 October losses, seven of them were by one score.
 
Seven of Rivers’ 16 September games saw him register a negative DAPR (4 in October, 7 in November, 6 in December).
 
Despite an opposing DPR of only 84.7 in the playoffs, Romo has not played well in those games, with a -0.27 DAPR/game. Contrast that with Rivers, who has faced one of the most difficult playoff slates (70.3 DPR) of any quarterback in the league.
 

Scoring Margin

Ratings and efficiency are always nice, but we know that the games are decided by points in the end. These scoring numbers are based on all scores and are not adjusted for return touchdowns on either side of the ball.
 
Tony Romo - Dallas Scoring Margin
Month GS Record PF PPG PA PPG Margin
September 14 10-4 411 29.4 275 19.6 9.7
October 12 6-6 322 26.8 309 25.8 1.1
November 17 15-2 452 26.6 250 14.7 11.9
December 17 7-10 321 18.9 402 23.6 -4.8
January 1 1-0 24 24.0 0 0.0 24.0
Playoffs 4 1-3 74 18.5 90 22.5 -4.0
 

Philip Rivers - San Diego Scoring Margin
Month GS Record PF PPG PA PPG Margin
September 16 8-8 418 26.1 346 21.6 4.5
October 20 10-10 565 28.3 408 20.4 7.9
November 20 15-5 543 27.2 403 20.2 7.0
December 22 20-2 656 29.8 371 16.9 13.0
January 2 2-0 56 28.0 48 24.0 4.0
Playoffs 7 3-4 139 19.9 144 20.6 -0.7
 
The Cowboys score less as the season goes on, though they are fairly consistent prior to December. Romo’s lesser play is a direct result in the offense not scoring more points. Some fans will probably recall home losses to the Eagles on Christmas 2006 (23-7) and the following year (10-6) as low-scoring duds authored by Romo and the offense. There was also a Week 17 game in 2007 at Washington where Romo and some starters rested in the second half. They lost 27-6.
 
Dallas has allowed the most points (25.8) in October, but that’s skewed by a 48-27 loss to the 2007 Patriots and a 41-35 game against the Giants last year, which is the game Romo broke his clavicle and was lost for the season during the first half.
 
It’s not just Romo that dominates in November, but Dallas allows just 14.7 PPG.
 
Meanwhile Rivers leads the Chargers to about the same high number of points in every month of the regular season. Their points allowed go down each month, bottoming out in December at 16.9 PPG.
 
A defense truly is a quarterback’s best friend, but it’s not the only one.
 

Running Game

How about the performance of the running game throughout the year? While it’d be nice to have a set of data for each game that is built on success rates of each individual carry, we’ll have to settle for something more conventional.
 
A quarterback’s rushing support can be defined by all the carries in a game from non-quarterback positions. Why penalize a quarterback for rushing for yards on his own? Why make his running game look less effective by counting three kneel downs for -3 yards? It’s all about the production that came squarely from handing the ball off.
 
This time, the playoff games were mixed in with the regular season game(s) for January.
 
Tony Romo - Rushing Support
Month GS Record Carries Yards YPC Att/G YPG
September 14 10-4 353 1833 5.19 25.2 130.9
October 12 6-6 282 1234 4.38 23.5 102.8
November 17 15-2 447 1894 4.24 26.3 111.4
December 17 7-10 355 1373 3.87 20.9 80.8
January (All) 5 2-3 141 721 5.11 28.2 144.2
 

Philip Rivers - Rushing Support
Month GS Record Carries Yards YPC Att/G YPG
September 16 8-8 427 1715 4.02 26.7 107.2
October 20 10-10 495 2242 4.53 24.8 112.1
November 20 15-5 487 1989 4.08 24.4 99.5
December 22 20-2 666 3181 4.78 30.3 144.6
January (All) 9 5-4 211 859 4.07 23.4 95.4
 
What else did you expect? When things are going well, it’s easier to hand the ball off more and pile up the rushing yards. Rivers sees his most productive running game in December, and that’s by attempts, yards and yards/carry. It hasn’t been as effective in September, when they’re .500.
 
Last December against the Raiders, San Diego backed Rivers with just 7 carries for 16 yards in their first December loss.
 
The Cowboys have their best success in September, though that is skewed some by a game in 2009 against the Giants where Dallas ran the ball 28 times for 248 yards. Romo was just 13/29 for 127 yards and 3 INT that night, and the Giants won on a last-second field goal.
 
When Romo’s struggled in December, he could only wish he had a running game like that to help him out. That is Dallas’ worst rushing month, which again falls in line with their offense’s worst scoring output, and Romo being pressured to do more passing against the better teams and defenses he’s facing.
 
In the aforementioned 2007 Washington game, Dallas ran the ball 15 times for 1 yard. In 17 December games, Dallas hit 100 yards rushing in only 6 of them.
 
It’s only a couple games, but it should be noted Romo did underperform in the playoffs despite help from the running game. Against Seattle in 2006, Julius Jones rushed for 112 yards, and then Marion Barber had 129 yards the following year in the NFC Divisional loss to the Giants.
 
Rivers had 123 yards rushing from LaDainian Tomlinson in his first playoff loss to the Patriots, but in his last two playoff losses, Rivers had only the “help” of 27 carries for 72 yards combined against the Steelers and Jets.
 

Conclusion

So what is it about December? In football, it’s nothing magical. Chances are if you swapped the September and December schedules for the Chargers and Cowboys since 2006, we’re probably having the exact same discussion, just with Romo as the hot December quarterback that erases slow starts, and Rivers as the early-season stud that doesn’t have a winning record in any December.
 
Overall, Rivers deserves the credit for being more consistent than Romo. They each have a really dominant month, but Rivers at his worst has never had anything like Romo’s December track record.
 
What Rivers doesn’t deserve extra credit for is the December streaks, because we can see that it’s been a result of the easier part of his schedule consistently coming at that point. Where’s the carry-over effect of playing well in December been? The Chargers entered the playoffs in 2006 on a 10-game winning streak, and then an 11-game winning streak in 2009. They lost the first playoff game at home both times.
 
This month the Cowboys get Arizona, two games against the Giants, at Tampa Bay, and the Eagles. Romo deserves the criticism if he doesn’t get through this stretch. Right now those teams are 24-31 (.436). What does Romo historically do against such competition? He plays well and wins.
 
The Chargers get Jacksonville, Buffalo, Baltimore, and then go to Detroit and Oakland. Those teams are 30-25 (.545). At the rate they’ve been going, who doesn’t expect San Diego to have a losing December this year?
 
We started by comparing these two quarterbacks evenly, and after all the research, we still think they are players of similar caliber in different conferences. One just gets the tougher part of his schedule out of the way early, while the other gets it late.
 
No matter which month they’re the hottest in, at the end of the season, they both have ended up on the losing side of things in January. What’s so different about the game of football in that month?
 
It’s all about who you play.
 
Scott Kacsmar is a football researcher/writer who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. "December Stars Could Never Match Your Eyes" is a song from Houston, Texas band Die, Emperor! Die! You can send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.

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