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Running the Numbers: Tony Romo’s Best and Worst Routes

Posted Nov 13, 2012

One of the new aspects of the Cowboys’ offensive plays that I’ve begun to track in 2012 is the route run by each receiver. I decided to monitor routes for a few reasons, but primarily as a way to gauge Tony Romo’s efficiency when throwing to various areas of the field. Every quarterback excels on different types of throws, depending on their particular skill set and repertoire of receivers, and Romo is no different. Let’s take a look:

  • Angle: 0-for-1
  • Back Shoulder: 2-for-4 for 13 yards, 1 TD
  • Comeback: 11-for-16 for 129 yards
  • Corner: 2-for-6 for 41 yards
  • Dig: 15-for-24 for 195 yards, 1 TD, 4 INT
  • Drag: 11-for-16 for 124 yards
  • Check-Down: 15-for-15 for 112 yards
  • Fade: 0-for-4
  • Flat: 15-for-18 for 98 yards
  • Go: 8-for-21 for 294 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
  • Hitch/Curl: 42-for-56 for 335 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • Hitch-and-Go: 2-for-2 for 62 yards, 2 TD
  • Out: 33-for-42 for 300 yards, 1 INT
  • Out-and-Up: 1-for-3 for 66 yards
  • Post: 7-for-15 for 170 yards, 2 INT
  • Scramble Pass: 14-for-22 for 177 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT
  • Screen: 10-for-13 for 31 yards
  • Seam: 2-for-5 for 38 yards
  • Slant: 30-for-37 for 362 yards
  • Smash: 2-for-3 for 12 yards
  • Swing: 8-for-11 for 41 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
  • Wheel: 0-for-3

First, note that the numbers above come very close to Romo’s overall stats on the year, but don’t match up perfectly. This is due to a few spikes and balls Romo threw away that obviously weren’t on a designed route. The interception on which Romo had the ball knocked out of his hands against the Bears is also excluded from the sample, meaning only 12 of Romo’s 13 interceptions are reflected above.

At first glance, you can see just how successful Romo has been when things break down. On the passes he has thrown that have come after scrambling behind the line, Romo has totaled 8.04 yards per attempt (YPA) and a passer rating of 109.3. Having watched Romo work his magic to avoid sacks for years, those numbers come as no surprise.

You can also see Romo has thrown particular types of routes a whole lot, including hitches, outs and slants. One reason we see so many out routes in particular is that tight end Jason Witten runs them in abundance. Of the 42 outs that Romo has thrown this season, 33 have been to Witten.

Although many routes can get quite complex, there are really only four directions a receiver can go on most routes: up, out, in and back. Thus, we can break up Romo’s passes based on whether he threw to a route that has either no break or a subtle one (such as a go, post, or seam), a break toward the sideline (such as an out or corner), a break in (such as a dig or slant), or a break back to Romo (such as a hitch or comeback). Note that some throws – check downs, scramble passes and screens – don’t fit into any category and thus aren’t included in the sample.

No Break: 22-for-57 (38.6 percent) for 643 yards (11.28 YPA), 6 TD, 4 INT – 87.1 passer rating

In-Breaking: 56-for-78 (71.8 percent) for 356 yards (4.56 YPA), 1 TD, 4 INT – 63.8 passer rating

Out-Breaking: 60-for-80 (75.0 percent) for 492 yards (6.15 YPA), 1 TD, 2 INT – 84.0 passer rating

Comeback Routes: 53-for-72 (73.6 percent) for 464 yards (6.44 YPA), 1 TD, 1 INT – 89.1 passer rating

Passer rating is certainly important, but over relatively short timeframes, such as a period of only 10 games, it can get skewed by a couple of poor or outstanding throws. Touchdowns and interceptions, especially, are fluky occurrences that can dramatically alter passer rating. That’s not to say passer rating isn’t important, but the best way to decipher Romo’s success on particular routes is to look at a combination of completion percentage and YPA. After all, YPA is by far the most predictive stat of both individual and team success in the future. Actually, no individual stat can predict future team winning percentage better than passing YPA.

First, let’s take a look at completion percentage. You can see Romo’s accuracy has been relatively even on all types of routes except non-breaking routes. The reason should be fairly obvious, non-breaking routes like fades are generally thrown deep downfield. We would never expect Romo’s completion percentage when throwing go routes to come close to matching his completion rate on swing routes, for example.

The question is whether or not the gaudy 11.28 YPA on non-breaking routes makes up for the low completion rate. In certain situations, I think it does. Specifically, any time the Cowboys get in situations with high upside and relatively low risk, they should generally take shots downfield. As I’ve explained in the past, the best of these is probably second-and-short, a time at which the potential for a deep strike far outweighs the downside of an incompletion.

At other times, it’s more advantageous to take the sure thing. Romo has a 75.0 percent completion rate on hitches and curls, for example, and an 81.1 percent completion rate on slants. In situations such as second-and-long, it’s probably preferable to take what the defense gives you, usually underneath routes with high probabilities of completion.

Of course, just because the completion rate on non-breaking routes is low doesn’t mean the Cowboys shouldn’t run more of them. Take a look at Romo’s completion rate on check-downs (swing passes not included). It’s 100.0 percent. Romo is 15-for-15 this year when going to his last option underneath, throwing for 7.47 YPA. A lot of those passes have come as a result of other receivers running deep to clear out defenders, so not all of the benefits of looking deep are actually reflected in the stats of Romo’s passes on non-breaking routes.

It’s also worth noting that such a high completion rate on underneath throws increases the value of passing over running. One of the primary reasons teams rush the ball is because it’s safe. There’s no risk of an incompletion, so the drop in yards-per-play is sometimes sustainable. If the Cowboys can drop back to pass without much risk of an incompletion, however, that’s probably preferable to running.

Think of it this way: Would you rather pass the ball on first down and see a 71.2 percent completion rate and 7.0 YPA, or run it and total only 3.1 yards per catch? That might seem like an extreme example, but those are actually the Cowboys’ first down stats thus far in 2012. And those who are crying out that dropping back to pass puts the offense at risk of allowing a sack and killing a drive, consider that the Dallas has allowed all of one sack on first down all season.

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