Tony Romo retired Tuesday for myriad reasons, including his history of back problems, the quarterbacking coup that dethroned him as Cowboys starter, a light market for his services and an attractive offer from CBS to become its lead analyst alongside Jim Nantz. Though Romo's final eight months in the NFL were rough - he went from the starting quarterback of the NFC favorite to a backup to a pawn to an unwanted old man over the course of the fall and winter. Shed no tears for Tony though; he made $137 million in his career, gets to walk away from the game while he's still upright, has one of the four cushiest gigs in television sports and, oh yeah, has a beautiful wife and family that he'll get to spend more time with as his kids grow up. It's a good day for a quarterback and a good man.
But let's quit with the hagiography of Tony Romo. I like the guy. He was a fine quarterback, was a tough guy playing the pretty-boy position, possesses smarts beyond the game, is funny and was a stand-up dude even after the many haunting defeats of his career. (And this is coming from someone who grew up as a fan of the arch-rival Washington Redskins.) But Romo was, at his best, a very-good, but not nearly great, NFL quarterback who was overrated by virtue of the blue star on his helmet. He's Eli Manning without the playoff success. Drew Bledsoe with more accuracy. Mark Brunell or Donovan McNabb without the speed.
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Tony Romo's approximate value ranked him No. 173 in NFL history
NFL stats are notoriously suspicious. Instead of going into the dozens of problem with them, it's easiest to say: The NFL ain't the MLB or NBA. But stats and eye tests (the latter of which are completely unreliable when you're blinded by that Cowboy blue and silver) are all we have so lets go with a rudimentary, but telling, tool from pro-football-reference: approximate value. Its purpose is fairly clear and it does its job well enough: The top 10 players are Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Ray Lewis, Jerry Rice, Reggie White, Brett Favre, Drew Brees, Fran Tarkenton, Bruce Smith and Dan Marino. (The metrics are slanted toward the stat-happy eras of today, so let's only consider recent comparisons.) With that, Romo ranks behind (in ascending order) Brunell, Dave Krieg, Vinny Testaverde (longevity helps, which hurts Romo who basically played only eight full seasons), Rich Gannon, Steve McNair, Bledsoe, Boomer Esiason, Carson Palmer, Donovan McNabb and Randall Cunningham. None of those quarterbacks will sniff the Hall of Fame. They're one tier, or two rings, below the level of an inductee.
Since Romo didn't start until he was 26 and missed most of his 30-year-old season, his career wasn't half as long as some of the other quarterbacks on that list. So in order to go down as one of the game's greats, he needed to have some shooting-star moments. There are literally none from his career. What will we remember most? His Mexico trip with Jessica Simpson, the botched snap in the playoffs and his confusing December play, which was at first underrated and then a little overrated.
Romo wasn't Kurt Warner - another guy who didn't have a long career - but had tremendous highs and made three Super Bowls. Eli Manning is "better" than Romo too, but not by much, though he's probably a HOFer because he played in New York and won two titles. Romo? He's in the Hall of Pretty Good. And there's nothing wrong with that.
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Romo finished with two playoff victories
QB wins are overrated. We all know this. But in the absence of other good metrics to evaluate quarterbacks, they're a natural statistic to look at. Anyway, it's not as if quarterbacks have no say on a team's ability to win the playoffs. This isn't Mike Trout floundering on a mediocre Angels teams. Except in years in which an exceptional defense carries a team (think the 2000 Ravens or 2015 Broncos), a quarterback is what makes it all go. Romo played in years with good defenses and bad. In the good years, the Cowboys tended to make the playoffs but failed to win any divisional playoff game. Has there ever been a great NFL quarterback who didn't play in a championship game?
Six playoff starts might be the most damning statistic. Even Dan Marino, the most notorious playoff "failure" in NFL history, played in 18 playoff games and won eight. Romo won a pair, going 2-4. Again, these were on Cowboys teams that were generally favored to win and, in some cases, Super Bowl contenders. Other quarterbacks with two playoff wins and a record of .500 record or worse: Alex Smith, Chad Pennington, Jeff Garcia, Jake Plummer, Michael Vick, Vinny Testaverde, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Everett, Wade Wilson, Rex Grossman, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox. Apples to apples it's not, but Tony Romo wasn't a guy who carried a team on his back and excelled when his offensive line and/or defense was stacked. Good, not great.
Winning a ring is overrated, but playoff victories/appearances aren't
If the NFL's rule book wasn't an insane mess of legalese, perhaps Dez Bryant gets that catch against the Packers and the Cowboys go on to the Super Bowl. They were easily one of the four best teams in the NFL that year. Maybe Romo's fumble against the Seahawks in his "rookie" season prevented a ring. What if, what if, what if? You can play it all day and not just with the Cowboys.
What if Adam Vinatieri misses some field goals, a few bounces go the Colts' or Ravens' way in AFC championship games, the Seahawks and Falcons don't collapse? Then Tom Brady has a Jim Kelly-like Super Bowl record and is a clear second- or third-place in the G.O.A.T. discussion, if even that high.
The difference between victory and defeat is never thinner than in the NFL. Romo had some bad breaks. So to call him a playoff dud because he didn't get the ring is misguided. But to dismiss it entirely is equally as foolish.
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But Tony Romo has the fourth-highest QB rating in NFL history!
It's true. Romo retires behind Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady in the category, immediately ahead of Steve Young, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. It's the most impressive part of his resume. But what does it mean? About as much as everything else. We know Romo is a good NFL player, the same way as Philip Rivers (No. 8 on the passer-rating list), Kirk Cousins (No. 11), Chad Pennington (No. 14) and Matt Schaub (No. 15) - OK, maybe not Matt Schaub.
Tony Romo's career was a jumble of contradictions. He was a tough guy who got injured, a choker who excelled in the fourth quarter, a playoff goat who narrowly missed being a playoff hero. If he had played for any other team, his football memory would fade away. But when you have the highest profile job in sports - quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys - it's all magnified, good or bad. Romo was neither as great as some will remember nor as bad as others will. He was simply a good NFL quarterback with a couple great seasons.