Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

11 Aug 2016

Film Room: Tony Romo

by Cian Fahey

Two Darren McFadden runs and a false start penalty against La'el Collins set up Tony Romo's first pass attempt. Rain pelted Romo as he stepped back in the shotgun, 1 yard deep in his own end zone and 5 behind his center. The Dolphins sent five defenders after the quarterback when the ball was snapped. One of those five, a linebacker who lined up over the left guard, was left unblocked. Romo dropped deeper into the end zone after catching the snap from his center. He had just set his feet at the top of his drop when he turned his eyes to find the arriving linebacker. Romo reflexively pivoted away from the defender, turning his back to the coverage downfield and running into the right defensive end. Just as the defensive end was about to sack the Cowboys quarterback, Romo flicked the ball away with his left hand. McFadden was waiting at the line of scrimmage. He caught the ball in space and ran downfield for a 9-yard gain.

McFadden came up a yard short of a first down, but it was a fitting first play for Romo after his seven-game absence.

Romo has often resembled a matador throughout his career, someone who has had to bait and escape free rushers in tight spaces to extend plays both inside and outside of the pocket. When Jerry Jones decided to shift the philosophy of his franchise a few years ago, Romo's role altered slightly. His creativity outside of structure became less important as his precision within structure rose to prominence. He wasn't being asked to throw off uncomfortable platforms or into tight windows against overwhelming pressure with the same regularity as he had been previously. The Cowboys gave him the best offensive line in the NFL, and this didn't lift Romo up as much as it enhanced his already astounding ability as a passer.

Romo's relationship with his offensive line is a mutually beneficial one. It's easy to see the time and space his line gives him, but what's less obvious is how he rarely ever wastes it. Romo understands when and how to be patient in the pocket, moving his eyes and maintaining his mechanics so the good work around him isn't being negated. What Romo does to help his linemen is set protections as well as any other quarterback in the league before the snap while constantly resetting in the pocket to give his linemen leverage advantages in their matchups. He can also deliver the ball quickly and accurately against pressure to highlight their work on blitz pickups.

Putting one of the smartest, most composed quarterbacks in the league behind that offensive line resulted in a passing game that was extremely difficult to disrupt. Romo threw one interceptable pass every 40.4 attempts in 2014; only Alex Smith had a better mark. Smith's ball security, however, was the result of an extreme level of caution that ultimately curtailed his output and hurt his team's chances of winning games. Romo was the biggest reason the Cowboys won 12 games in 2014. DeMarco Murray got most of the headlines because of his production, but Romo was responsible for elevating his receiving corps. He could rely on Dez Bryant, one of the best receivers in the league that year. After Bryant, though, Romo was working with an old, broken down Jason Witten; a frustratingly inconsistent Terrance Williams; and a largely limited Cole Beasley. Romo still threw for 3,705 yards and 34 touchdowns with just nine interceptions in 15 regular season games. His 8.5 yards per attempt ranked first in the NFL.

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Regardless of how good your line is, it takes a lot of poise to hold the ball in the pocket in the NFL. Holding the ball in the pocket requires that you remain aware of your immediate surroundings while focusing your attention on the coverage downfield. Needless to say, that is difficult on its own but even more so when your immediate surroundings are collapsing at your feet or threatening to pummel you into the ground. Romo has poise and awareness in abundance. That can be seen in the above GIFs. In the first GIF, you can see how Romo is forced to hold the ball because all of his receivers are blanketed throughout the initial stages of the play.

The second GIF is more interesting. Look how Romo never panics. He initially has his eyes on the right side of his offense, where the defensive backs have used a double-team in the back of the end zone and swapped the crossing routes underneath perfectly. Romo gives his receivers every opportunity to adjust to the coverage and find space, but he knows he can't stay in one spot for too long. When he decides to move his eyes, he also moves his feet. This is critical. Romo moves backwards before gliding towards the opposite side of the field. His movement slows the pass rush, helping his offensive linemen maintain their blocks. He moves slightly too far though, inviting Ezekiel Ansah to come around left tackle Tyron Smith.

Even at his advanced age, Romo has the balance and quickness to rectify his error quickly. He works back towards the middle of the pocket and climbs to recover some of the leverage that he had cost his left tackle. From there, Romo throws a precise pass before Ansah collapses his legs from beneath him.

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Romo's feet and eyes are constantly in motion. Moving your feet and eyes this rapidly can be a negative for a quarterback, but it's not for Romo. If you are moving this frantically you can be misreading the defense or knocking yourself off balance. Romo's movement appears frantic, but it is controlled and comes with consistently good decisions. In the above GIF, Romo is working in the red zone against the Seattle Seahawks defense. The Cowboys offensive line is very smart in how they handle the Seahawks four-man rush. On the left side, the center and left guard initially double-team the right defensive tackle before the guard drops off to double-team the right defensive end. This knocks the defensive end to the ground, and the defensive tackle ultimately falls over him because Romo has glided towards that side of the field.

What Romo did on this play that was impressive was settle in his drop for a split-second before moving again. He altered the point of attack for the defensive line trying to rush towards him. The Cowboys offensive line obviously deserves a huge amount of credit for not being overwhelmed by a great Seahawks defensive line, but Romo's actions are important to note too. With the Seahawks only rushing four in a situation where there is less space than further afield, Romo knows he has to hold the ball. He eventually fits it into a tight window for a touchdown, something he wouldn't have had an opportunity to do if he had rushed his decision.

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This play against the New York Giants also comes in the red zone. Again, the protection here is very impressive, but Romo's work shouldn't be overlooked. His actions on this play are more pronounced, and the results are easier to see than on the previous play two plays. The protection clock layered over this GIF is unfair to Romo. It suggests that the offensive line did all the work. From the moment Romo got the ball, he was working to read the defense and create time in the pocket. He began with a subtle pump fake, essentially just dropping his shoulder to his left before bringing his eyes back to the middle of the field. Only then did he reach the top of his drop, at which point he stepped forward slightly and used a more aggressive pump fake that stopped all four pass rushers from moving towards him. The left defensive end stopped and turned back upfield towards the line of scrimmage. The right defensive end had been put on the ground by Tyron Smith, and when he got up he moved towards the line of scrimmage also.

Jason Pierre-Paul, the right defensive end, had a moment of hesitation before he located Romo. Romo couldn't step directly forward because the left defensive end had pushed his way infield. Instead, Romo moved slightly to his right and rounded his movement like a receiver running a bad route so that he avoided both defensive ends and created a pocket to step into. By this stage he had located Bryant in the back of the end zone. Romo released the ball with a defender in his face, but put it in a perfect spot for Bryant to catch.

Playing passively has become a more prominent defensive strategy in the red zone over recent years. Defensive coordinators realize that they can flood the coverage and force the quarterback to hold the ball so a four-man rush is more likely to get home. Romo's patience and precision allows him to still be effective against this type of defense.

One of the specifics of Romo's game that allows him to play with such poise is his ability to recognize the numbers rushing immediately after the snap.

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A quarterback who can recognize when the defense is blitzing, when they are rushing four, and when they are rushing three defenders immediately after the snap is a quarterback who knows how much time he should have. When defenses rush three and drop eight, they are essentially betting on the quarterback to beat himself. They are giving him time in the pocket and daring him to be brave enough to hold onto the ball. Against three-man rushes you have to not only hold the ball but also use your eyes to manipulate the coverage. You have to create space because the defense has eight defenders against five receivers at most. In the above play against the Indianapolis Colts, Romo's recognition allows him to create space for his tight end, Witten, to run into.

Romo focuses his eyes on the right side of his offense from the beginning of the play. He likely isn't even looking for a receiver on that side of the field because his timing turning back to find Witten was in sync with the tight end getting behind the inside linebacker. Romo still had to fit the ball past the trailing linebacker, but he didn't need to worry about an arriving safety because of process in the pocket.

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This ability to manipulate coverage is something you see a lot from Romo when the defense doesn't blitz. When the defense does blitz or his process is rushed due to unexpected pressure, Romo's timing is impeccable.

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In the above GIF, the defense's alignment before the snap is critical. The Philadelphia Eagles have 10 defenders within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage. It's third-and-7, a passing/blitzing down, and the Eagles have defenders in press alignment against the Cowboys four receivers on the line of scrimmage. When the inside linebacker allows his weight to drag him forward just before the ball is snapped, Romo will have known that a blitz is coming. He knows that he only needs to hold the deep safety with his eyes before getting rid of the ball to Bryant in single coverage at the bottom of the screen. Romo's quick release and quick feet allow him to maintain the timing of this play without rushing his process in the pocket. He delivers a perfect pass just before the Eagles defenders converge on him in the pocket.

This play was a pre- and post-snap read for Romo. He had to adjust after the snap, but the defense did what he was expecting it to do. It's tougher to adjust after the snap when you face unexpected pressure.

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Much like arm strength, a quick release on its own largely useless. If you have the skill set to complement it, though, a quick release can be hugely valuable. Romo's quick release contributes to his poise. He knows that he can get rid of the ball quickly so he doesn't need to panic when pressure arrives. On this play, the Cowboys run play-action that both of Washington's safeties badly fall for. When Romo settles at the top of his drop, he can see both safeties turning to sprint back into their deep positions. Neither has their eyes faced towards the line of scrimmage. The two cornerbacks outside are playing man coverage, with their eyes trained on their assignments as they sprint down both sidelines. Romo holds the ball for as long as he can, allowing both receivers to sprint as far downfield as they can, dragging both cornerbacks out of the play.

Just before the defender arrives to hit Romo, he releases the ball to Murray in the flat. Romo didn't take a moment to look at Murray, he knew he was open because of what he could see over the middle of the field. Murray was wide open and able to run free down the sideline because the safeties and cornerbacks were looking in different directions.

These plays aren't necessarily spectacular in appearance, but they are spectacular in terms of playing quarterback. Romo consistently gets rid of the ball when he should get rid of it, and it normally goes where it's supposed to go too. Nothing is more conducive to consistency and efficiency than a quarterback who has mastered those elements of the game. Romo has evolved from a matador who was prone to bad mistakes into a master who makes fewer than most of his peers.

He's still capable of the spectacular plays too.

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In the 2014 playoffs, Romo completed 34 of 50 passes for 484 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He averaged an incredible 9.7 yards per attempt. Those numbers would have been greater had Bryant's non-catch been called correctly in the divisional round. That non-catch and an untimely fumble from DeMarco Murray prevented the Cowboys from potentially reaching the NFC championship game that season. Health derailed Romo and the Cowboys in 2015, but that lost season could prove to be a blessing. It allowed them to draft Ezekiel Elliott, a back capable of replicating and even improving on the impact of DeMarco Murray from 2014.

The Cowboys could contend in 2016. Even with all of their suspensions on the defensive side of the ball, the offensive outlook is such that they could have the most dominant unit in the league. A Romo-Bryant-Elliott trio working with the best offensive line in the league should make for an explosive, efficient and disciplined unit.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 11 Aug 2016

10 comments, Last at 21 Aug 2016, 5:12am by theslothook

Comments

1
by Will Allen :: Thu, 08/11/2016 - 4:26pm

Romo and Rivers are certainly among the best qbs to get their careers substantially stunted by poor ownership. Archie Manning, Jim Hart, Vinny Testeverde (minus respite with Jets), and I'm sure others deserve mention, but I've always thought Romo was terrific, especially in how made up for terrible o-line play, poor pass defense, and bad coaching after Parcells left. Now, he's unlikely to stay healthy, even with the great blocking he gets, the defensive talent is simply hideous, and the owner remains a football moron, even if one who is more and more buffered by his son.

It's kind of frsutrating as a football fan, even as one who has always said that one of the best t.v. shots in all of sports is the look on Jerrel's face as his team loses again.

7
by Independent George :: Wed, 08/17/2016 - 11:23am

Testaverde gets double bonus points because Cleveland - one of the greatest "What-If's" in NFL history.

2
by t.d. :: Sun, 08/14/2016 - 4:32am

Play his career out ten times, and he ends up with a ring in a few of them, maybe several. Really unlucky that Parcells decided to retire when he did. He was a lot more fun to watch than Aikman ever was

3
by Michael.Edits :: Sun, 08/14/2016 - 1:13pm

He's too old. It's Dak Prescott time.

9
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 08/20/2016 - 11:16pm

Romo isn't even the oldest QB to win an MVP or SB.

But that's OK. I would love to see Jerry Jones dump Romo for a training camp hero. It would be delicious when they fall flat on their faces.

4
by Kaelik :: Sun, 08/14/2016 - 5:27pm

What has this world come to, when Eli Manning gets a 2000 comment megathread, and Tony Romo can only muster up three people?

6
by t.d. :: Mon, 08/15/2016 - 4:24pm

With all of the gifs, I had a hell of a time loading the page, maybe other people did, too. Perhaps have them defaulted to only play when you click on them? I think Romo is past the controversial portion of his career. Everybody knows he's good, and unless he wins a couple of Super Bowls, he'll never get credit on par with his talent

8
by LionInAZ :: Sat, 08/20/2016 - 10:04pm

1: East Coast comment bias. N, NY, PHI, and WAS have the noisiest fans, and they comment on everything because they have too much idle time at work.

2: DAL fans are noisy too, but can't figure out how to get to this site.

3: Everyone's finally learned from the work here that you can't blame Romo for the Cowboys' problems.

5
by RobotBoy :: Mon, 08/15/2016 - 4:33am

Nice to read one of these about a quarterback who is actually good. See, Fahey can say nice things about someone. I never bought the 'choke' narrative but this is the most convincing piece on Romo that I've come across.

10
by theslothook :: Sun, 08/21/2016 - 5:12am

Romo seems to have the most volatile future of any good qb in the league. His contract, injury proneness, and Jerry Jones means he could be one injury marred season from being jetisoned for the cowboys. After all, Jerry was wanting to draft both Manziel and Lynch but was talked out of it twice. One can only imagine what it would take for Jerry to be satisfied with Romo.