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In The Clutch?

Posted May 29, 2012

RTN: Figuring Out How Clutch Is Tony Romo

clutch adj.
1. Tending to be successful in tense or critical situations

January 6, 2007. At Qwest Field in Seattle, the Cowboys are on the verge of advancing to the second round of the playoffs. Down 21-20 with 1:19 left in the game, kicker Martin Gramatica is lining up for a 19-yard field goal. Shorter than an extra point, the chances Gramatica misses the kick are less than one percent. The snap is good ...

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Up until this point, Tony Romo's career has largely been defined by a single event. Despite possessing no relation to his ability as a quarterback, "The Drop" has been catastrophic to Romo's image as a pressure performer. Failing to advance deep in the playoffs and playing in one of the NFL's larger markets hasn't helped, but the perception of Romo as someone who "chokes" in critical game situations was really born on Jan. 6, 2007. It has snowballed ever since.

Those who argue that Romo "can't win the big one" cite his mishaps in both late-game and late-season situations. After Romo threw a costly interception in Week 1 against the Jets last year, NFL Network analyst Steve Wyche wrote, "(Romo's) late-game breakdowns have happened too often at key moments. ... Players grow tired of playing well enough to win and have Romo turn the ball over or make a mistake that leads to a loss."

That's a tremendous point. Except it isn't true.

Let's take a look at the numbers. Romo's career passer rating of 96.9 is the second-highest in the history of the NFL. Passer rating is far from a perfect measure of quarterback performance, but it says something that Romo ranks ahead of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

Over the past four seasons, Romo's passer rating is 97.1. If Romo were truly a quarterback who had too many "late-game breakdowns at key moments," surely that fact would be reflected in the stats, and we'd expect that 97.1 rating to be lower in high-pressure situations.

In the fourth quarter, however, Romo's passer rating actually soars to 102.9. Since 2008, the year after "The Drop," Romo has thrown an astounding 30 touchdowns to only eight interceptions in the fourth quarter. And despite the fourth quarter Revis interception to which Wyche's quote refers, Romo finished the 2011 season with 10 touchdowns and two picks in the final 15 minutes of games. What a choke artist.

Those stats are fairly well-known, but they don't stop the Romo detractors. After all, the majority of Romo's fourth quarter success, they say, comes when the team is already winning or losing by a big margin; he doesn't actually perform well in meaningful situations, right?

Wrong.

In the fourth quarter of one-score games over the past four years, Romo's passer rating of 99.8 is higher than his overall passer rating. He has thrown 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, totaling a ridiculous 8.49 yards-per-attempt in the process.
But what about late in the half? When the clock is running down and things get chaotic, Romo surely struggles. After all, since 2008, he's put up a 91.7 passer rating with two minutes or less to go in the half.

Actually, a passer rating of "just" 91.7 in late-half situations is right on par with the league's best signal-callers, all of whom record lower passer ratings in these circumstances:

Last Two Minutes of Half, Since 2008
Aaron Rodgers: 94.5
Drew Brees: 93.6
Tom Brady: 92.7
Tony Romo: 91.7
Eli Manning: 91.5

Undeterred, the anti-Romo crusade continues to argue that Romo is a frontrunner, incapable of putting up the numbers when playing from behind. Again, not true.
Since 2008, Romo has posted a 97.4 passer rating when the team is trailing or tied – right in line with his overall mark. He has thrown nearly 2.5 touchdowns for every interception over that period.

Then there are the fourth quarter comebacks. Romo has led 14 game-winning drives in his career, including four in 2011. One of those, a victory at the San Francisco 49ers, came after Romo left the contest with a fractured rib and punctured lung. He finished the game with 345 yards on only 33 attempts, including two touchdowns and no interceptions.

OK, so Romo doesn't consistently choke late in games. Or in close games. Or at the end of the half. Or when trailing.

BUT ... he obviously performs worse at the end of the season when games "mean more," RIGHT!?

Uh oh, Romo haters. Since the debacle at Qwest Field, Romo has put up the exact same passer rating in December and January as he has in September, October and November: 97.1. That includes a 2011 season in which Romo was silently magnificent in the winter months, throwing 10 touchdowns to just a single interception and posting a remarkable 115.9 passer rating.

Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Romo is unfortunately labeled as someone who chokes in pressure situations. Until the Cowboys win multiple playoff games, that perception will stick. Like a lot of perceptions surrounding Romo and the Cowboys as a whole, this one doesn't match up with reality.

clutch adj.
1. Tending to be successful in tense or critical situations

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