Tony Romo has been a mini-theme of late in my Running the Numbers blog; that's in part because I have a lot of statistics on him, but also because there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding the quarterback. I've already shown Romo is a clutch quarterback who succeeds throwing the ball deep, and today I'm going to discuss why the signal-caller is superior at pre-snap reads than many people believe.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and the rest of the NFL's elite quarterbacks get credit for breaking down defenses before the snap. Manning in particular is considered a wizard while under center, barking out commands and dummy audibles at an unprecedented rate.
I think there are two primary reasons people believe Romo isn't as competent as the league's other premiere quarterbacks when it comes to diagnosing defenses. First, there's a general consensus that the nature of Romo's game is one of improvisation. He experiences a lot of his success on broken plays, so people don't necessarily give his mind the credit it deserves for identifying and subsequently exploiting defenses.
Secondly, Romo doesn't say a whole lot pre-snap. One of the reasons for this is that the Cowboys often call two plays in the huddle. The first play is the one they generally run. If Romo sees something in the defense that signals to him the original play might not work, he issues a "Kill" call. When you hear Romo yelling "Kill, Kill, Kill!" at the line of scrimmage, he's "killing" the first play, alerting the offensive players to run the second one called in the huddle.
Thus, whereas other quarterbacks need to call an entirely new play at the line, Romo doesn't. It isn't that he hasn't read the defense or he has failed to put the offense in the best position to succeed, but rather that he does the majority of his work behind the scenes. He's Miles Austin to Manning's T.O.
I thought an interesting way to show how Romo dissects defenses before the snap would be to take a look at his numbers against the blitz. Since 2009, Romo has generated a passer rating of 95.6 against the blitz – similar to his 99.2 mark when not blitzed. For the sake of transparency, I labeled a blitz as any play on which the defense rushed more than four defenders.
Over the past three seasons, I've also tracked whether or not the opposing defense shows blitz before the snap. To make this determination objective, I labeled a defense as showing blitz if six or more defenders were either lined up on the line of scrimmage or creeping toward it just before the snap.
Now here's the cool part; Romo's success rate skyrockets if the defense shows their intentions pre-snap. That is, if a blitz (or non-blitz) isn't disguised, Romo reads the defense and generally gashes them for big plays.
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You can see above that Romo's passer rating when the defense sticks with its pre-snap alignment is remarkable. When the defense shows a blitz pre-snap and then actually blitzes, Romo's passer rating is 120.9. If the defense doesn't show blitz and then sits back in coverage, Romo's rating is still outstanding at 110.4. When Romo anticipates the defense doing one thing and they do another, however, his passer rating is far lower.
Note that although both passer ratings against the blitz are higher than those when the defense doesn't blitz, the overall non-blitz passer rating is slightly higher because defenses generally fail to show blitz and then sit back in coverage. Actually, defenses have lined up in a standard alignment and then not blitzed on 48 percent of the Cowboys' plays over the past three years. In comparison, defenses have lined up in a traditional alignment and then blitzed only 13.9 percent of the time.
I think this information is so intriguing because it shows Romo is doing a fantastic job of identifying and beating defenses based on his pre-snap reads. If he were simply snapping the ball and looking for an open receiver, as some believe he does, we wouldn't expect such a gap in his passer rating.
It's worth noting that some quarterbacks have a higher passer rating when defenses disguise their intentions. Even though it can cause confusion for a quarterback, disguising defenses means lining up in a sub-optimal position. Defenders can find themselves in vulnerable spots if they fake blitz and then back out, and disguised defenses are really high risk/high reward. That's one reason teams don't disguise their intentions on every play. It also explains why some quarterbacks excel even when they don't anticipate what a defense will throw at them.
Romo's success when operating against defenses that show their intentions proves the quarterback isn't all about improvisation. He uses his mind just as much as his legs and arm to force defenses to unravel. When it comes to being a cerebral quarterback, as usual, Romo doesn't receive the credit he deserves.