Howdy Barkers! I've been more scarce that I'd prefer around these parts of late, and one of the big reasons is that I'd been heads down working on a pretty cool project. I got to work with the staff over at SBNation's Cowboys site, Blogging The Boys, to create a Season Preview Guide for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys. It's now on sale in the iTunes iBookstore for a mere 99 cents, and it's chock full o' goodness including position reviews, opponent previews, editorials, free agency breakdowns, salary cap rundowns and more. After the jump you can check out one of my pieces on Tony Romo that appears in the guide. Give it a look, and remember - for just pennies a day, YOU can help turn the life of a troubled football writer around!
Believing in Romo
"Football is blocking and tackling. Everything else is mythology."
- Vince Lombardi
Football is a game of myths, and of legends. The game’s success in transforming its best players through the years into legendary heroes likely has as much or more to do with its primacy in our national sporting mind than all its immediate and uniquely American charms of compelling action, fascinating intricacy and visceral, bone-crushing violence. It’s fascinating, then, that a man who surely occupies as lofty a seat as any in the game’s pantheon would offer such a clear-eyed view on the fundaments of success. While he was an inspiring man, he was never known to rouse his Packers with speeches about their manifest destiny as champions. While he was a deeply religious man, it’s highly doubtful that he ever viewed Paul Hornung and Bart Starr as instruments of divine providence. Lombardi was a great proponent of the power of will, but he didn’t count on will to mystically elevate a player’s abilities in some cinematic fourth quarter fourth-and-long. Instead, he counted on will to sustain a player’s drive to practice – eagerly, grindingly, relentlessly – until he was perfectly practicing those skills most crucial to success. And in the halcyon days of the Packer Sweep, those most crucial skills were blocking and tackling.
If football fandom is evocative because of the game’s tradition, it is continually captivating because of the game’s evolution. The pass now holds primacy, with a team’s ability to effectively move the ball through the air (and to stop its opponent from doing the same) of paramount importance. Now we’ve always known that quarterbacks were very important – let’s be honest, the dating patterns of high school cheerleaders indicate that they’ve had this figured this out since as early as the 1950’s, so it’s not totally revelatory – but they’ve never been more vital. Thus, their importance is suitably reflected in their legends:
Tom Brady – A cool-headed leader and precision passing dynamo whose indomitable will created a dynasty.
One might say a guy who amassed a Field Goal Dynasty on the basis of the Tuck Rule and out-dueling the legendary Jake Delhomme and Vomitous McNabb in consecutive title games, but Brady’s career passing accomplishments do speak for themselves – he’s a tremendous QB by any assessment. Carry on.
Peyton Manning – A dominating presence in the pocket whose impeccable bloodlines ensured his destiny as a champion.
It can be easy to forget how overcoming a colossus like Rex Grossman erased a half-decade of ‘can’t win the big one’ chatter, or to gloss over how the presence of one ring absolves him of all blame for the back-breaking interception that closed out Super Bowl XLIV. But considering his body of work certainly places him among the game’s all-time greats. Please continue.
Dan Marino – An empty stats-monger who could never elevate his team when it mattered.
Um, you do realize that prior to 1989 there were eleven 4000+ yard passing seasons, and that Marino had four of them, right? And that’s when teams were still allowed to play defense! Just because the Dolphins never chose to didn’t mean that other teams weren’t doing it!
Kerry Collins – A clutch, gutty presence who elevated his game to make the vital throws at the most critical moments!
Yeah, but the defense was kind of important, wasn’t it? I seem to remember the defense being kind of important.
Brad Johnson – An amalgam of Napoleon, George S. Patton and Scipio Africanus, his unparalleled field-generalship motivated his teammates to heroic deeds!!!!
The point is that while winning a Super Bowl ring is the task laid on every quarterback by his fan base, possessing one is not an all-encompassing career whitewash any more than lacking one is an all-tarnishing stain. This is because while the quarterback is the most important man on the field, he is not the whole team. As critical as his abilities are to the cause, victory or defeat all too often turns on factors outside his immediate control - sometimes an opponent’s unlikely success, sometimes a teammate’s unlikely failure, and quite often pure, random luck.
Now, constructing a coherent narrative out of an all-too-random sequence of events is a very human trait, and it has always been an integral part of talking about sports. Be wary, though, when you start to see certain phrases creeping in to the narrative. Phrases that purport to describe the ineffable qualities whose presence in a player (typically the QB) were responsible for victory, or whose lack pre-destined him and his team for defeat. Phrases like:
The "It" factor.
The will to win.
The heart of a champion.
These are not things. These are not attributes. These are myths. These are frothy sentiments and platitudes that, at their best, help to buttress some harmless post-career legend-making. At their worst, however, they are barbs tossed out by lazy old men who are paid to tell you and me about the game despite having no real knowledge of it. Since they lack that knowledge – or at least the way to convey it and discuss it in a compelling way – they rely instead on trying to cloud your own understanding of what you’re seeing every Sunday. They want poke you with a stick, rile you up and prompt a barrage of angry phone calls/emails/tweets that prove to their employers how loyal a follower of theirs you are. (These guys may not be bright, but their bosses are certainly no brighter). Above all, they want to turn a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamentals of football into an angst-filled existential crisis over your quarterback’s intangibles because that’s the only level at which they’re intellectually equipped to discuss the game.
I would urge you to deny them this, to ignore them and to let them fade into well-earned and long-overdue irrelevance.
Instead, focus your attention on the things that really matter in winning football games, and the attributes that really matter in being a successful quarterback. Fortunately, there has never been a moment in the history of the game in which fans have more terrific resources, forums and communities to gain and share real knowledge. There are lengthy and thought-provoking conversations to be had on wrinkles of QB play as diverse as Total QBR, Passing Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, Bad Decision Percentage, Time in the Pocket and more - and hopefully you’ll join us on BloggingTheBoys this season as those conversations unfold - but for the purposes of this immediate discussion we can distill a lot of that down to one simple concept.
That is the sound of the most potent weapon in all of football going off – the vertical pass. It’s the most efficient and effective way to defeat a defense, for the very simple reason that you throw it over most of them and accomplish your goal in a few plays rather than giving your opponent eight, ten or twelve chances to stop you. The execution of the vertical pass eviscerates a defense, and the mere threat of it can open up every other facet of offense. You don’t need advanced statistics or high-concept analysis to know the truth of this – if you’ve been watching football for any length of time you know in your gut what that bang means. And when it comes to bringing the bang, Tony Romo has few peers.
You can prove it with statistics, both familiar and arcane. Traditional passer rating? In the best year for passers in NFL history, Romo ranked fourth with a 102.5.
Vertical Yards per Attempt (VYPA), Football Scientist KC Joyner’s measure of a quarterback’s performance on mid-range, deep and bomb throws? Romo ranked third with an average of 13.6 yards on every vertical attempt.
Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt, Profootballreference.com’s metric that aims to present a complete picture by factoring in YPA as well as touchdown passes, interceptions and sacks taken? Romo ranks second – in the history of the League.
You can prove it with your own eyes as you consider how many QBs can make the plays you’ve seen Romo make.
The perfect front-pylon bullet to T.O. in 2007 over Darrelle Revis – who has surrendered two of his eleven CAREER touchdown passes to Romo?
The dodging, scrambling, 18-yard, back-corner laser to Laurent Robinson to put away the Dolphins this Thanksgiving?
The endless procession of seam beams to Witten, sideline ropes to Austin and matador scrambles culminating in throws that connect with everyone from future Hall of Famers to reality show contest winners?
BANG. BANG. BANG.
The in-stride crossing route strike and perfectly placed end zone rainbow to Patrick Crayton, either of which would have ensured Dallas’ first playoff victory since 1998 over the hated Giants?
Huh? Oh, that’s right – Crayton stone dropped the first one and inexplicably slowed up his route on the second. As you may have noticed, Romo hasn’t always gotten what you’d call consistent support from his teammates. Now it’s the quarterback’s job to pick up his teammates more often than not, and more often than not Romo has done so. But picking each other up is a two-way street, and outside of Nick Folk’s field goal heroics against Buffalo a few years back it’s hard to recall too many instances where Tony’s teammates stepped up when he was having a tough game. The highly-interconnected nature of the game makes the critiques of those who lay all of Dallas’ postseason struggles at Romo’s feet ring pretty hollow.
In the 2006 playoffs, Bill Parcells’ Rush Limbaugh-conservative game plan against a depleted Seattle secondary was the only thing that kept the game close enough for the last-second field goal foible to matter. And you know what? Since then Dallas has just gone ahead and let other guys hold the field goals and it seems to have worked out just fine. Crayton, along with a second half disappearing act by the OL, secondary and punt coverage unit put paid to the Cowboys’ 2007 playoff effort against New York. If you want to blame Romo for 2008’s team-wide collapse or 2010’s refusal to so much as try for coach Wade Phillips then I suppose that’s your prerogative, but he’d appear to rank far down the list of suspects for those seasons flaming out. Romo did log the first Cowboys’ playoff victory in over a decade against the Eagles in 2009, before losing a game that no QB in history would have won in his place while getting belted by Vikings defenders at step three-and-a-half of every five step drop. And despite Romo turning in the best season of his career in 2011, he was unable to overcome Terence Newman and his secondary mates’ all-out effort to sabotage Dallas’ playoff chances in the season’s second half.
To be sure, the road has also been sprinkled with some head-shaking moments on Romo’s part, and twin second-half disasters against the Jets and Lions last season reinforced the notion that his game is just too turnover-prone to succeed. And the truth of the matter is this – Tony Romo does throw interceptions. As does every single quarterback. The more aggressive and vertical a team’s passing game, the more likely that interceptions will result. And while Romo’s interception numbers don’t compare to the simply incomparable Aaron Rodgers or the spread-out and short pass-intensive attacks led by Tom Brady and Drew Brees (just go ahead and whitewash over Brees’ 22 INTs in 2010), his 94-40 TD-INT ratio since 2008 looks pretty shiny next to the rest of his peers. Like literally every QB besides the three just mentioned, Romo can stand some further improvement in this area. But focusing only on his interceptions against the Jets and Lions while ignoring both the context of his offensive scheme and the rest of his positive results isn’t penetrating football insight – it’s called confirmation bias.
So if we can do away with the notion that Romo is the sole reason for Dallas’ paucity of playoff wins, and accept that his penchant for picks is largely over-blown, what’s the last bastion for those who’d have you write off Romo’s chances of ever seeing a Super Bowl?
The "It" factor.
The will to win.
The heart of a champion.
The intangible, un-knowable, ineffable reasons that Romo will never be the kind of player that can LEAD men to the Promised Land.
Can a teammate be inspired and elevated by someone he respects as a leader? The history of human endeavor certainly suggests that he can. Would a good display of such leadership be, say, marshaling a comeback victory on the road against the league’s best defense while a piece of shattered bone is stabbing you in the lung?
Yes. Yes, I think it would.
Can a person be turned off by someone and doubt his leadership abilities if they see him wearing a baseball cap backwards? That person certainly could – if he is a middle-aged sportswriter. Now if you can tell me how a fat, Cuervo-addled 50 year old with mustard stains on his shirt can help you convert a third and long then I’ll eagerly await your answer, but I highly doubt he’ll be of much use. No, to convert a third and long – or accomplish anything else between the lines, where the things that actually MATTER take place – I think you’re much better served to rely on a 22- to 30-year old NFL athlete. Are THOSE folks turned off by, and liable to doubt someone’s leadership abilities because he wears a baseball cap backwards?
No. No, they are not.
OK, glad we got that last one sorted out.
As you get ready for this season and the seasons to follow, Cowboys fans, I’d urge you to do this one simple thing. Cast aside whatever Romo myths you’ve been fed, and focus your attention on Tony Romo the quarterback. Because with the skills he brings to the table, he still has time to become a legend.