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Running the Numbers: How Much Money Is Tony Romo Worth?
This article isn’t going to debate whether or not Tony Romo should be the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys after the 2013 season. I’ve already laid out arguments that Romo is capable of winning – and winning in Dallas – even entering his age 33 season. If the Baltimore Ravens can win a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco, the Dallas Cowboys can win a championship with Romo.
Instead, this article will be an attempt to determine how much money Romo is worth, whether he signs in Dallas or elsewhere. And yes, I know it seems like Romo couldn’t possibly dare sign with another team, but if he were currently a free agent, he would be quite a hot
commodity on the open market.
To determine Romo’s current value, I looked at the biggest quarterback signings since 2009 in terms of the average value per season. The top 14 deals include everything from Matt Hasselbeck’s three-year, $20 million deal in 2011 to Drew Brees’s five-year, $100 million contract extension this past year. Sandwiched in between those two contracts are players like Peyton Manning ($19.2 million per year), Michael Vick ($16 million per year), Tom Brady ($15.7 million per year), Eli Manning ($15.3 million per year), Matt Schaub ($13.2 million per year), Jay Cutler ($10 million per year), and Alex Smith ($8 million per year), among others.
The most difficult part of determining how worthy a quarterback is of a certain level of compensation is deciding upon a quantifiable measure by which we can grade players. I chose expected points added per play (EPA/play) because it’s highly predictive of future success.
I’ve discussed the concept of “expected points” in the past; in a nutshell, an offense can be expected to score a certain number of points on any given drive based on various game situations, such as down-and-distance and field position. A first-and-10 at your own 20-yard line has historically been worth an average gain of 0.34 expected points, for example. By tracking the change in expected points that a quarterback generates on a per-play basis, you can get a really good idea of how well he’s performing.
Below, I plotted the top-paid quarterbacks’ EPA/play in the season prior to their big payday, along with the average per-year value of their contract.
The correlation is pretty staggering. Whether they know it or not, organizations around the league are paying quarterbacks at a pretty predictable rate that coincides remarkably with EPA/play. The black line in the graph represents the average salary quarterbacks should be paid based on their efficiency and the compensation of comparable passers. Quarterbacks who generated around 0.07 EPA/play have earned an average of just under $10 million per year, for example, while those who posted in the range of 0.21 EPA/play have hauled in just under $16 million per year.
It’s really amazing how well the majority of the biggest quarterback contracts have coincided with each player’s EPA/play. The biggest outlier is Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. He generated exactly zero EPA/play in 2011, but the Jets still handed him a five-year, $58.3 million contract before the start of the 2012 season. Interestingly, the chart
also suggests that Drew Brees is actually nearly perfectly compensated at $20 million per year.
So the big question is “what’s Romo’s market value?” Well, in 2012 Romo posted 0.14 EPA/play, tied with Andrew Luck and Eli Manning for 13th in the NFL. That number is down from the 0.19 EPA/play Romo recorded in 2011, but up from 0.13 EPA/play in 2010. Thus, Romo’s 0.14 EPA/play is probably a pretty accurate representation of his “value” in concrete terms.
Want to know what the going rate is for a quarterback coming off of a season in which he posted 0.14 EPA/play? Simply follow the black line on the graph. The answer is $13 million per season. Yes, coming off of a season similar to what Romo just had, NFL quarterbacks have recently signed deals in the neighborhood of $13 million per year.
Now, you might think the ’Boys could catch a break because of Romo’s ripe old age. Not so. The average age of the 14 highest-paid quarterbacks I charted (when they signed their deals) was 32, the same age as Romo. The quarterback could very well have another birthday before inking his next deal, but that won’t be enough to drop his value too much.
And don’t forget that quarterbacks have historically maintained a high level of play well into their 30s.
If the Cowboys restructure Romo’s deal this offseason to include four new years, it will run through the quarterback’s age 37 season. So if you’re worried about Romo’s play dropping off near the end of a contract extension, don’t.
Ultimately, I think you’ll see Romo’s next contract look very much like that of Matt Schaub’s recent deal. The Texans quarterback signed a five-year, $66.2 million contract in 2012. That’s an average of $13.2 million per year, the market rate for quarterbacks who have recently played at the same level as Romo. If the Cowboys sign Romo for much more than that – say, above $15 million per season – they probably overpaid, while anything below $13 million per season, like it or not, is great value.