Tony Romo’s back may explain quite a bit

Let’s start with an admission that I am not a doctor, have almost no knowledge of how the human back affects athletes performances, and certainly have no clear details about his surgery from the spring of 2013 that I originally considered nothing more than the cosmetic procedure that they told us it was.

However, for the benefit of this exercise, I was hoping I could receive a little latitude to link some pieces together in hopes of explaining some things (maybe, just to myself) about the odd season of Tony Romo.

Statistically, Romo’s season was very solid.  In fact, when you look at a +21 TD/INT ratio, a completion percentage up in the range of his career best years, and a passer rating that was in the high 90s again, it would be difficult to say that the offense was not playing optimally because the QB play was poor.  And, that is not the intent of this column today.

But, before the season disappears too far into our memories, I want to make sure I put something on paper about what my eyes saw when watching Romo play this year that seemed very disconcerting at the time, but now is perhaps justified by his mental and physical approach that are all resulting in his play slipping a bit.  Moving forward, you can understand the entire trend causing questions about what level of play we should expect as he now starts his 6-year extension that he signed, ironically enough, last spring within spitting distance of the back procedure.

Romo is a special player because of his athleticism that allows him to make plays that don’t appear to exist.  If there is a component of QB play that is vital to almost every player who rises above the pack of ordinary at this position to place them in a category where $100 million contracts are possible, it would have to be the improvisational skills.  Just this week, we saw it on full display in the playoffs where Colin Kaepernick and Aaron Rodgers put on a show in arctic temperatures that involved several plays on both sides where the play broke down and the QB figured something out on his own.  This, while coached to some extent and practiced to teach the receivers and linemen to respond properly to the "2nd part of a play" comes down to a precious balance of instincts, athleticism, wisdom, and yes, the willingness to risk your own well-being to move the chains.

When Romo is right, he is amongst the very best at making this all happen.  He can elude a man, break contain, and allow his receivers and tight ends to bust open in the middle of the field for big plays and touchdowns.  You cannot design your offense to count on this type of play too often, but it clearly is something that is being sought by personnel experts, and a reason nobody should assume Johnny Manziel is not a prime candidate to go in the top half of the the 1st Round this year despite his other warts.  QBs who can defy the Xs and Os of a play and simply find something in the chaos is one of the most sought-after characteristics in the sport today.  And as I said, take one look at the 1st half of the 2013 Denver game, or dozens and dozens of other moments in Romo’s career, and even his harshest critic would have to concede that he is very good at this particular aspect of QB play.

That is why 2013 was dumbfounding for the entire year.  As people were lauding his play that was efficient and safe, many of us who study the film every week were noticing a similar trend.  He was playing differently than he ever had before.  He still very good and still throwing for over 2 touchdowns a start and less than 1 interception a start, so the final results were impressive statistically from that measure.  But, overall productivity was way down for Romo from a yards per attempt standpoint, which is a metric that is pretty universally accepted to show how a QB is moving an offense with his arm.

Romo’s YPA for his career is 7.8 yards per attempt.  From 2006-2009, his YPA for his first 4 years of his career was a stunning 8.1.  I say stunning, because that ranks him #1 in the entire NFL for YPA during a 4 year span in front of the likes of Philip Rivers (7.8), Aaron Rodgers (7.8), Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady (all 7.7).  It wasn’t just good, it was elite.  This offense made the most of its passing attempts and while Romo was having a few more passes picked off than those on that list, he was still making the venture worthwhile with big yards, big plays, and of course, playoffs in 3 of those 4 seasons.

In the next 4 years, from 2010-2013, many of the QBs on that list have remained right where they were, as Brees, Manning, and Brady all remain at about 7.7 YPA.  Aaron Rodgers shot up to an absurd 8.5 YPA, Russell Wilson is at 8.1, with Rivers and Kaepernick at 7.9 before the usual suspects.  But, what happened to Romo?  Once #1, he has dropped down to #11 at 7.57 YPA.  That is a drop that is a bit bothersome, but still up in the top half of the league.  But, what if we slice it down to 2012-2013, then it is 7.38 for Romo.  And just 2013?  7.16.  And if we erase the results of the Denver game outlier where he averaged 14.1 YPA and simply focus on the rest of 2013?  Then it drops again to 6.65 YPA.

The difference from the 8.1 where he was before 2010 to the 6.6 where he spent much of 2013 is basically the difference in a passing game that features Aaron Rodgers to one that features Ryan Tannehill or Brandon Weeden.  In other words, a QB who you happily pay $20m a year versus one that Miami is wondering if they may need to keep shopping.

Now, these numbers are not cited in fantasy football much, because you would be nuts to ignore 31 TDs in 15 starts.  That is really the name of the game in fantasy or real football, but why is Romo’s production that once exceeded the entire league for a 4 year span, seemingly falling every season since?

If you follow this blog, you know I have tried to identify what is going on in his game a number of times, and you can read my previous thoughts here after the San Diego game and here against Detroit and here against Chicago.  I have tried to figure out what they are doing differently and I have definitely looked at play calling and the "risk aversion" theories of Jason Garrett and Tony Romo where they seem to take a "play it safe" mentality into many games – especially on the road – in an effort to stay away from the untimely interception that we also have written about at great length.

In none of those did I actually suggest that he appears afraid to get hit, because that is an incredibly insulting thing to say about a guy who plays a position that requires more courage – even at its most basic level – than most of us have ever been asked or will be asked to exhibit (assuming most of us have never been in combat, etc).  He gets hit for a living, so nobody should ever consider terms of soft or wimpy or anything you can come up with for a person who plays QB for a living in the NFL.

But, if we can all agree that the more you get hit, the more it hurts; and the more it hurts, the less you want to get hit, then it would seem to me that there is a reason veteran QBs get rid of the ball quicker than the young guys do (in general).  Simply because they have learned the hard way to "pick your spots" to stand in there and take a beating.  Further, Romo has been the victim of extremely poor protection for a number of years that have resulted in a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a punctured lung as well as who knows what else we have not had documented.  Doctors have a hard time quantifying what the wear and tear does to the body over the course of a decade of treating it like this, but they usually conclude with the statement that "the human body was not designed with this treatment in mind."

Too many times in 2013 (with the exception of the outlier against Denver where he seemed to step on the field and insist on doing everything to win that game even if it meant risking injury and health) it seems that Romo has changed his game to protect himself.  Now, that is not a bad thing sometimes.  Coaches demand that their QB be smart about their health because the team’s success in a salary-capped world is linked the QB’s health.  However, if your value is someone gained by your ability to keep plays alive and "defy the Xs and Os", then check downs and conservatism seems to be the enemy of that.

Playing QB is largely about allowing your weapons a chance to get open and buying them time.  You cannot run deep routes if you are unloading the ball in 2 seconds.  2 seconds goes fast when Dez Bryant is using the 1st second to get past press coverage and really is limited in the routes he can run if the ball is being unloaded too quickly.  This largely goes back to protection, but in the NFL, blitzes come constantly and a QB makes his money by performing under duress and making one guy miss on your own with a side step as you stand and deliver.  At the same time, if you miscalculate one time, you miss 8 weeks with a broken collarbone or a separated shoulder so we are really only talking about a few moments a game where this should apply.

What does this mean?  Sometimes it means checking down for a 2 yard play on 3rd and 10.  Sometimes it means hitting the ground before anyone touches you…




 Sometimes it means giving up on a 4th Down play and walking off the field instead of trying to improv…



Other times it simply means that if he would not give up on the play for just a moment longer, someone was coming open down the field.  It happened over and over again this year.  Again, there are times where he is making the right decision, but, if you do it too often, you cease to be the threat to defenses that you once were.

And honestly, it was troubling to all of us that want to see him do well.  Because at other times, like his final play this year against Washington, he showed that he still has it in him.

So, I guess in a very odd way, this is why I was happy to hear that he was hurt.  Not because I want my QB to ever have 2 back procedures within a year of each other before he even starts his new contract and right before his 34th birthday, but rather because I have some hope that he wasn’t preserving his "after football life" by taking the easy way out and avoiding contact.  It is odd logic, but if he was only making these decisions because all season long he knew that one hit (like the one that did end his season) could end his year, then there is some hope for the future.

The trouble with this theory is that it seems that now, he is always going to have his back looming over his play.  This will invite more pressure if teams start thinking he is unloading the ball quickly to avoid taking a huge hit.  Defenses will not show mercy or compassion.  They attack the weak animal in the herd, and if you paid that QB what you paid him, you better hope opponents fear him, not that opponents cannot wait to scare him.

Again, I am not a doctor.  The procedure last May may not have been linked to his play.  And that play may not have been linked to the Washington injury.  But, if you are a fan of the Cowboys and their immediate future, then you may join me in actually hoping that this explains many moments this season where I said to myself that, "the old Romo tries to make a play right there."

Then, since hope may have to be our strategy here, we may have to also hope that he can erase back concerns the way Peyton Manning has in Denver.  Adjust your game accordingly, but still remain a QB that scares defenses, not one who might appear a bit scared of them.

It will be very interesting to see what Tony Romo appears in 2014.  Even if his back is fixed, will he trust it to hold up again when he is going to have to get smashed to make a play?  Or, is this downward trend going to continue?  They paid him as if he was going to remain the QB from 2006-2009.  But that Romo may not live here anymore.