Tony Romo: Choke Artist or Not?

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 15, 2011



By Scott Kacsmar
Cold, Hard Football Facts Investigative Reporter


In case you missed it, the NFL world is ablaze with analysts and fans alike wanting to brand Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with the “Choker” label after another disappointing loss to the Jets, 27-24, on Sunday Night Football.
 
Romo played a very strong first three quarters, but in the fourth quarter he lost a fumble near the goal line when the Cowboys could have went up by two scores, then later threw an interception right to Darrelle Revis, which set up the winning field goal for New York.
 
Since 2010, Romo is just 1-6 as a starter, and members of the media are coming out the woodwork to say that Romo has a history of losing games in the clutch. There are actually bizarre comparisons to LeBron James out there.
 
While Romo even picks up criticism for not winning games Dallas was thoroughly outplayed in at all phases, such as the 2008 finale in Philadelphia (44-6 loss) and the 2009 NFC Divisional playoff game in Minnesota (34-3 loss), the main criticism this week is his perceived inability to win close games, to perform under pressure late.
 
NFL Network’s Steve Wyche: “It's hard to give Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo the 'first-game' pass for fumbling and throwing an interception in Sunday's loss to the Jets because his late-game breakdowns have happened too often at key moments throughout his nine-year career.”
 
The problem with this type of armchair analysis is that people selectively remember the games where the player failed to deliver, and just happen to forget the times they did come through (or vice versa).
 
Fortunately, this is exactly the kind of data the Cold, Hard Football Facts can provide. We looked at every close game Romo has played in, with ‘close’ defined as a game where Romo had the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime and was either tied or trailing by 1-8 points.
 
Has Tony Romo been a choker? Read along with the game accounts, and if you’re still not sure, then we’ll provide the summary of stats and context necessary to answer this raging question.

2006 (3-3 Record)

Week 8 at Carolina (W 35-14) – In his first career start, Romo led a 71-yard field goal drive to cut the deficit to 14-13. Carolina fumbled the kickoff, and Romo was able to hand the ball off to Julius Jones for a 14-yard touchdown run. Romo completed a two-point pass to Terrell Owens for a 21-14 lead. The Cowboys would later turn Jake Delhomme turnovers into two more touchdowns without Romo having to drop back again.
 
Week 9 at Washington (L 22-19) – Dallas led 19-12 to start the fourth quarter. Washington ties with a touchdown. Later, after a missed field goal by the Redskins, Romo has 0:31 left at his own 39. He completes 3/4 passes for 44 yards to set up Mike Vanderjagt for a 35-yard field goal, but the kick is blocked. A facemask penalty on the return allowed Washington to kick the winning field goal with no time left.
 
Week 11 vs. Indianapolis (W 21-14) – The Colts were 9-0 at the time. Trailing 14-7, Romo converted a 4th-and-1 with a QB sneak to start the final quarter. The tying touchdown run by Marion Barber capped off a 68 yard drive. Later, Romo went 3/3 for 67 yards on the winning touchdown drive. Just before the two minute warning, Romo completed a 7-yard pass on a slant to Terry Glenn to convert 3rd-and-7 and allow Dallas to run out the rest of the clock. Romo was 19/23 for 226 yards in the game.
 
Week 13 at NY Giants (W 23-20) – With the game tied 13-13, Romo goes 5/6 for 49 yards to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive. The Giants tie the game at 20. With 1:00 and two timeouts left, Romo leads a 40 yard drive to set up the 46 yard game-winning field goal with one second left for a 23-20 victory. A 42-yard completion to Jason Witten started the drive.
 
Week 17 vs. Detroit Lions (L 39-31) – Trailing 30-24, Romo leads a 99 yard touchdown drive with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Owens for a 31-30 lead. Detroit takes a 36-31 lead. Romo is sacked and fumbles deep in his own territory, which Detroit turns into a field goal (39-31). Romo has 2:53 left, needing to go 65 yards. On 4th-and-goal from the Detroit 6, Romo scrambles towards the end zone but is stopped at the two with 0:09 left. Detroit finished the season 3-13.
 
NFC Wild Card at Seattle (L 21-20) – Is there anyone that doesn’t know what happened here? It’s only been replayed a million times since. How about some pictures? Dallas did lead 20-13, before Terry Glenn stumbled catching a pass out of his goal line (see top), fumbled the ball, and Seattle scored a safety. They took that short field and turned it into a 21-20 lead. Romo had a 3rd-and-7 at Seattle’s 8, in which he hit Jason Witten with a good pass (middle), and it was originally ruled a first down. Dallas had a chance to score the winning touchdown. On further review, Witten was short, and the field goal unit came out. Cue Romo’s bobbled hold, and then he was tackled short of the end zone (bottom). He would later get a Hail Mary attempt on the last play, but it was incomplete in the end zone.


 

2007 (2-3 Record)

Week 5 at Buffalo (W 25-24) – You had to watch this game live to believe it. Buffalo fans were ecstatic to be back on Monday Night Football, and Romo threw four interceptions in the first half (two returned for touchdowns). He turned the ball over six times in the game. In the fourth quarter, down 24-16, Romo lost a fumble, then threw an interception in the red zone. Finally he led the 80-yard touchdown drive late, but his two-point conversion pass was defensed in the end zone. Dallas recovered the onside kick, and Romo still had 0:18. He completed two short passes, and Nick Folk kicked a 53 yard game-winning field goal (twice even; timeout before the first). It was ugly, but it somehow became a victory.
 
Week 6 vs. New England (L 48-27) – The 2007 Patriots were destroying teams at this time, but Romo did have Dallas ahead 24-21 in the third quarter. This game actually escaped the Romo database for nearly four years until now, and it’s a cheap entry, as Romo had no real opportunity in the fourth quarter down by one score. The Cowboys punted on the first play of the quarter, New England scored, and Romo never touched the ball again with a deficit less than 14 points.
 
Week 14 at Detroit (W 28-27) – Trailing 27-14 to start the fourth quarter, Marion Barber capped off a 56 yard touchdown drive with a 1-yard touchdown run on 4th-and9goal. Next drive, Romo drove the Cowboys 74 yards only to see Witten fumble his pass at Detroit’s one. Detroit punted, and Romo had 2:15 left to drive 83 yards. He did, completing 8/10 passes for 78 yards and the game-winning touchdown pass to Witten with 0:18 left.
 
Week 15 vs. Philadelphia (L 10-6) – Trailing 10-6, Romo gets three drives in the quarter: he finishes a combined 4/10 for 56 yards, his last pass being an interception with 2:50 left, and he was sacked four times.
 
NFC Divisional vs. NY Giants (L 21-17) – The Cowboys were the #1 seed in the NFC and swept the Giants in the regular season. In the first half Romo led two 90+ yard touchdown drives. Dallas led 17-14 to start the fourth quarter. The Giants went ahead 21-17. On the next two drives, Romo was 3/9 for 50 yards, and sacked twice. On his last try, Romo had 1:50 and one timeout left, with the ball at the Giants’ 48. The drive only went 25 yards, and Romo’s last three passes were incomplete, including the interception in the end zone on 4th-and-1 from the Giants’ 23.

2008 (2-3 Record)

Week 2 vs. Philadelphia (W 41-37) – Trailing 37-31, Romo leads a 40-yard field goal drive (37-34). After a McNabb fumble, Romo leads a 67 yard game-winning touchdown drive (41-37), as Marion Barber scored from one yard out. Romo was 7/9 for 98 yards on the two drives.
 
Week 4 vs. Washington (L 26-24) – Down 23-17, Romo throws a trio of incompletions. Washington adds a field goal (26-17). Romo leads an 87-yard touchdown drive to make it 26-24, but the onside kick goes out of bounds and it's three knees for victory by the Redskins.
 
Week 6 at Arizona (L 30-24 OT) – Trailing 21-14, Dallas goes three and out. Arizona adds a field goal (24-14). Romo has just 3:12 left, and gets a 70-yard touchdown pass to Marion Barber (24-21). Romo gets the ball back with 0:50 and no timeouts. After a 30 yard pass to Witten, and an offside penalty on Arizona, Nick Folk sends the game into overtime with a 52-yard field goal. Dallas got the ball first, and Romo was sacked on the first play, which led to him missing Dallas’ next three games. As the Cowboys went to punt, the Cardinals blocked it (sound familiar?) and returned it for the game-winning touchdown; a NFL first.
 
Week 11 at Washington (W 14-10) – In his return from injury, down 10-7, Romo threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Martellus Bennett with 10:36 left in the game. Later, Romo converted a key 3rd-and08 with a 10 yard pass to Marion Barber to help run out the clock.
 
Week 14 at Pittsburgh (L 20-13) – Dallas led 13-3 to start the fourth quarter. After the Steelers tied the game, Romo had 1:58 left. His pass intended for Jason Witten was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Deshea Townsend. Romo now had 1:35 and all his timeouts left to atone for the mistake. After a 10-yard gain, Romo threw four straight incompletions, ending Dallas’ hope.

2009 (3-4 Record)

Week 2 vs. NY Giants (L 33-30) – Romo struggled to throw for just 127 yards and 3 interceptions on the night. Dallas led 24-20 to start the fourth quarter, but the Giants took a 27-24 lead. Dallas went three and out, and the Giants added a field goal (30-24). Romo converted a 3rd-and-8 pass to Witten, but handed the ball off the rest of the plays as Dallas scored a go ahead touchdown (31-30) with 3:40 left. The Giants used the rest of the clock to kick a game-winning field goal with no time left, and Dallas lost 33-31.
 
Week 4 at Denver (L 17-10) – Dallas led 10-7 to start the fourth quarter. Denver would tie the game with a field goal, then Dallas had to punt. Denver scored a go ahead touchdown (17-10), leaving Romo with 1:46 and two timeouts left, needing to go 80 yards. Romo converted a 4th-and-3 with a 53 yard gain to Sam Hurd. Dallas had 1st-and-goal from the 8, and Romo completed a 6 yard pass before spiking the ball. Romo had two plays left from the Denver 2. Both passes were incomplete to Hurd with Champ Bailey defending in the end zone on each.
 
Week 5 at Kansas City (W 26-20 OT) – Down 13-10, Romo led a 66-yard field goal drive to tie the game. He next hit Miles Austin for a 59 yard go ahead touchdown pass with 2:16 left. The Chiefs tied the game and it eventually went into overtime. Dallas went three and out on their first drive, but got the ball back and Austin made a move on a short catch and ran for a 60-yard, game-winning touchdown. Austin finished with 250 yards in his breakout performance.
 
Week 9 at Philadelphia (W 20-16) – Down 13-10, the Cowboys tied the game on the second play of the fourth quarter. On the next drive, Romo hit Austin on a 3rd-and-14 with a 49 yard touchdown pass with 8:04 left (20-13). After the Eagles closed to within four, Romo converted 3rd-and-3 with a 5 yard pass to Witten at the two minute warning to ice the game.
 
Week 11 vs. Washington (W 7-6) – The Cowboys trailed 6-0 through three quarters. Romo was intercepted on 4th-and-2 at the Washington 39. The Redskins would miss a 50 yard field goal, keeping it a one score game. Romo completes 7/8 passes for 60 yards and a game-winning touchdown pass to Patrick Crayton with 2:41 left. He also scrambled for a 5 yard gain on a 3rd-and-3 early in the drive.
 
Week 13 at NY Giants (L 31-24) – Trailing 21-17, Nick Folk misses a 42 yard field goal with 10:38 left. The Giants add a field goal (24-17). Romo is called for intentional grounding on 2nd down, and Dallas has to punt. The punt is returned 79 yards for a New York touchdown (31-17). Romo completes a pass for no gain on 4th-and-2 at the NYG 35. Romo would eventually hit Austin with a 22 yard touchdown pass, but the onside kick failed and the Giants ran out the clock.
 
Week 14 vs. San Diego (L 20-17) – Trailing 17-10, Felix Jones fumbles to set up a 2nd-and-15. Romo throws incomplete twice and Dallas is forced to punt. San Diego embarks on a long field goal drive to extend the lead (20-10), and Romo has just 1:47 left. His touchdown pass to Crayton with 0:02 left is too little, too late.

2010 (0-4 Record)

Week 1 at Washington (L 13-7) –  Down 10-7 in the fourth, a series of penalties on the offensive line made it 3rd-and-26. Dallas had to punt. On the next drive Choice lost three yards on a 3rd-and-2 run. Washington added a field goal (13-7), leaving Romo with 1:45, three timeouts and 81 yards to go. Romo converted a 4th-and-10 with a 30 yard pass down to the WAS 13. After two incompletions, Romo had just one play left. He scrambled to his right and threw a touchdown pass to Roy Williams, but a holding penalty on Alex Barron negated the play, and the game was over.
 
Week 2 vs. Chicago (L 27-20) – Trailing 20-17, Romo misfired on a 3rd-and-8. On the next try, David Buehler missed the 44-yard tying field goal. Chicago added a touchdown to the lead (27-17). Roy Williams fumbled Romo’s pass with just over four minutes left. Romo would lead a 50 yard field goal drive (27-20), but the onside kick failed and Chicago ran out the clock. Romo was 5/8 for 57 yards when he trailed by a field goal in this one.
 
Week 5 vs. Tennessee (L 34-27) – Down 20-17, Romo was 4/4 for 40 yards on a tying field goal drive. Romo’s next pass would be deflected at the line, intercepted, and returned to the Dallas 1, where Tennessee scored a touchdown (27-20). Romo tied the game with an 18 yard touchdown pass to Witten. The Titans took a 34-27 lead, and Romo’s pass on 4th-and-9 falls incomplete. Romo gets one more chance with 0:47 left and no timeouts to go 77 yards, but his first pass is intercepted to end the game. On the five drives combined, Romo was 10/18 for 111 yards, TD, 2 INT.
 
Week 6 at Minnesota (L 24-21) – Down 21-14, Romo is 6/7 for 63 yards and a game-tying touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. Romo’s next pass is intercepted as he missed the linebacker over the middle, and Minnesota gets the go ahead field goal (24-21). Dallas goes three and out. Romo gets one more chance, but it’s at his own 7 with just 0:13 left. The game ends with Romo throwing an illegal forward pass on a play that featured several laterals.

2011 (0-1 Record)

Week 1 at NY Jets (L 27-24) – This game has already been well documented. It was the first time Dallas lost a game in which they led by at least 14 points in the fourth quarter. Romo took responsibility for the loss, while owner Jerry Jones thought it was one of the best games he’s ever seen Romo play.

Supporting Data

Those are the 28 games in question.
 
Add it all up and Romo has a 10-18 (.357) record when he has the ball in a close game in the fourth quarter/overtime, so he doesn’t always find a way to lose these games, as evident by his 9 fourth quarter comebacks and 10 game-winning drives. In just comeback situations, his record is 9-17 (.346).
 
As we looked at Aaron Rodgers last week, Romo’s 10-18 record in close fourth quarter opportunities fits in neatly with the 21-35 (.375) record by Troy Aikman, the Dallas quarterback Romo is trying to fill the void for. It’s also close to the 45-75 (.375) record by Romo’s idol, Brett Favre. Romo was a Green Bay fan when Favre and the Packers repeatedly lost to Dallas in the 90s.
 
It’s also a better record than Aaron Rodgers’ 5-18 (.217) mark. Green Bay and Rodgers are the kings of front-running in today’s NFL, much like Aikman’s Cowboys were, yet no one notes Rodgers' inability to win close games. Winning Super Bowls on teams with dominant offenses and defenses is not a sign of being able to win close games, which is a big part of Romo’s criticism, and completely absent in Rodgers’.
 
Does Romo take it on the chin more because he is the quarterback of “America’s Team”, and is expected to win Super Bowls? Since he hasn’t, he gets the Danny White comparison. For the playoffs, he gets Craig Morton treatment, which is a huge insult.
 
In these 28 games, Romo had 69 drives in the fourth quarter/overtime when the game was tied or down by 1-8 points. Here is the breakdown of how those drives ended.
 
Type Total
Touchdown 16
Field Goal 8
Missed Field Goal 3
Interceptions 9
Fumble (QB) 2
Fumble (Others) 2
Turnover on downs 5
Punt 20
Clock expires 4
Total 69
 
Obviously there are going to be several drives where the quarterback was not the reason for the success or failure of that drive. Whether it’s Vanderjagt failing on a winning field goal in 2006 or Tashard Choice getting stopped on a short third down run, Jason Witten fumbling at the red zone, or the “drive” against the 2007 Patriots, not everything is on Romo’s shoulders. Just like when he was able to hand the ball off to his running backs against the Giants in 2009 for a lot of yards, or being forced to start a drive with just seconds left and the multi-lateral is your last option.
 
The touchdowns/drive (.232) is a solid number, but people will probably pay most attention to the turnovers/drive by Romo, which there were 11 (.159 TO/drive). That number may be higher than a Dan Marino or John Elway (.13 TO/drive), but it’s not at Favre’s level (.220 TO/drive). Eight of Romo’s turnovers came in seven losses for Dallas.
 
When people talk about Romo’s personal history of mistakes in crunch time, they are really pointing out just a few of these games in particular.
  1. The botched hold against Seattle in the 2006 playoffs.
  2. The fourth quarter in the 2007 NFC-D against the Giants; specifically the last drive and the interception.
  3. The game-losing pick six in Pittsburgh in 2008 after Dallas blew a 10 point lead.
  4. The Sunday night debacle in New York with his fumble and poor decision to challenge Revis.
These are bad moments, but are they really enough to make him stand out as a choker? Don’t other quarterbacks have the same types of blemishes on their record? Make no mistake that three of those games being nationally televised (and the 4:15 PM Pittsburgh game probably had a wide market) has a lot to do with it.
 
Again, using Rodgers as a comparison:
  1. After forcing overtime in Arizona in a 2009 Wild Card game, Rodgers overthrew a wide open Greg Jennings and then fumbled the ball, which was returned for the winning touchdown.
  2. In 2009, Green Bay blew a 10 point lead to Tampa Bay, and Rodgers threw a pick six on 4th down to seal it. There’s a bit of a difference between playing the 12-4 Steelers with the #1 defense in the league and then paying the 3-13 Buccaneers.
  3. In 2008, Rodgers had a 2 point deficit against Tampa Bay and the ball at the TB 40 with 2:26 left. He threw two incompletions, the last being an interception as Tampa won the game.
  4. Last year in Washington, Rodgers threw an interception in overtime that was returned to the GB 39, setting up the winning field goal for the Redskins.
What about Philip Rivers?
  1. Against a 4-12 Kansas City team in 2007, Rivers was sacked, fumbled, and watched it returned for a touchdown to fall behind 30-16 in a loss.
  2. Against the 2008 Bills, Rivers was down by 6 points and threw an interception on first down at the BUF 9.
  3. To start the 2010 season, Rivers led two long drives into Kansas City territory, needing a touchdown, and threw incomplete on 4th down both times. His last two passes were incomplete at the KC 6.
  4. With the ball at the Oakland 33 and down by a point, Rivers was sacked, fumbles, argues with an official as the Raiders return it for a touchdown. Now down 8, Rivers throws incomplete on 4th down. Oakland would sweep San Diego in 2010.
  5. Against the Patriots last year, Rivers led a rally to get within 3 points. He had 1:55 and just 47 yards to go for a touchdown. He only moved the ball 20 yards and the Chargers missed a 50 yard field goal.
Rivers doesn’t have a Super Bowl ring or winning playoff record, but despite similar career rating numbers (95.6 for Romo, 96.9 for Rivers) and winning percentage (62.9 for Romo, 68.8 for Rivers), they have been treated completely differently -- Romo with mockery, Rivers with respect.

Compare the turnover numbers for these three quarterbacks in close situations.
 
QB Games Record Drives Passes INT INT% Fumbles Dropbacks TO% TO/Dr
Aaron Rodgers 23 5-18 49 171 6 3.51 1 205 3.41 0.143
Tony Romo 28 10-18 69 256 9 3.52 2 279 3.94 0.159
Philip Rivers 39 16-23 74 293 10 3.41 2 327 3.67 0.162
 
The INT% are all very similar, and the overall turnover rate (TO%) and TO/Dr are also close. Given the number of attempts we’re working with here, Romo’s interception to Revis was not just damaging to his team, but also damaging statistically.
 
When using a thorough, rational analysis that has no room for selective memories or sensationalism, these are the kind of results you get. What the numbers don’t support is this week’s popular stance that Romo is a quarterback that has a significant problem with winning close games because he can’t stop turning the ball over in key situations.

Conclusion

If you think Tony Romo is a choke artist that can’t get out of his own way in close games, then you’re going to have to expand that gallery to include some other quarterbacks, such as Rodgers and Rivers.
 
Romo has had his share of mistakes. He has underperformed in the postseason. But it is all overglamorized because everything, including the criticism, is bigger in Texas. Romo does not have the Super Bowl win to help people forget his mistakes like some other players, nor does anyone seem interested in giving him credit when he does win big games.
 
The 2006 Colts (9-0) and 2009 Saints (13-0) were undefeated teams that went on to win the Super Bowl that year, and Romo handed each of them their first loss of the season in games where he played well. He threw four touchdowns and put the game away late against a Green Bay team that was 10-1 in a much hyped 2007 matchup. He won all three meetings against the 2009 Eagles, a playoff team. He threw a 50+ yard touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter in both meetings against the 2007 Giants, another championship team, to put those games out of reach.
 
Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t a good example, since it makes the 2007 playoff loss that more disappointing, but whatever. Romo’s not the best quarterback in the league, he’s not even top five, but there aren’t many teams with a better quarterback out there right now.
 
This Dallas team also doesn’t feature the most encouraging group of smart, crunch-time players in the league. Whether it’s an absurd play like Tashard Choice’s end-of-half fumble in Washington last year, Miles Austin’s tipped interceptions and wrong routes, Jason Witten’s red zone struggles, the three blocked punt returns for touchdowns in the fourth quarter/overtime since 2008, or all the kicking problems, there’s always something going on with the Cowboys.
 
With all that said, we will keep Romo on a choker alert, as recent trends do show he is progressing down that path. Four interceptions on the last 17 drives dating back to 2010 in fourth quarter situations (five interceptions on the 52 previous drives). He has seven straight losses overall in close games.
 
While you can cool off the branding iron and put it away for now, don’t lose track of where it’s at. We will probably be revisiting this one sooner than later.

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