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Tony Romo Was A Good QB In An Era Of Great Ones

Tony Romo entered the NFL as a humble undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois and leaves a superstar. With his release from the Cowboys on Tuesday and the announcement that he’s joining CBS as an analyst, Romo has completed an incredible, and perplexing, career arc.

He started more games for the Cowboys than any quarterback not named Troy Aikman, went to four Pro Bowls and won the Cowboys three NFC East titles. Yet he never quite vaulted above the best QBs of his generation, and his lack of durability and postseason success complicate his legacy.

Romo’s undrafted status is often dropped as a did-you-know trivia nugget, but it’s worth pointing out how rarely a talented quarterback slips entirely through the cracks in the draft-industrial complex. Of the 43 quarterbacks who made the Pro Bowl during Romo’s career, only three other than Romo weren’t drafted. Among all four, Romo was the only one with multiple appearances. In fact, Romo is the highest-rated undrafted passer of all time.1 The only two whose totals and rate stats even compare are Warren Moon and Kurt Warner — both of whom have already been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But Romo’s résumé may not be enough for the Hall. Because the Hall of Fame’s selection committee winnows potential candidates over the course of a year’s selection cycle, players are often compared with others from their era who played the same position. And Romo’s career stats don’t stack up well against his contemporaries’.

Romo was signed by the Cowboys in 2003 and spent three seasons waiting for an opportunity to play. When he finally did, he took over a 3-3 Cowboys team yet went 6-4 down the stretch, led the Cowboys to their first postseason appearance since 2003 and even made the Pro Bowl. He completed 65.3 percent of his passes, led the NFL in net and raw average yards per attempt and posted an NFL passer efficiency rating of 95.1.

That 2006 season would be a microcosm of Romo’s career: a long time spent on the bench, statistical output that rivals the best of his generation, and eventually an underwhelming end. In the playoffs, Romo bobbled the snap on a game-winning field-goal attempt during a wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks, a moment that began a run of playoff futility that none of his peers experienced.

Romo’s postseason record, 2-4, matches that of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith’s — and the lightly regarded Smith will not receive any Hall of Fame consideration. Yet in the playoffs, Smith has a better touchdown rate, interception rate, passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt than Romo.

To compare Romo to his competition, I looked at all other quarterbacks who were active last season and who entered the league between 1998 — when Peyton Manning was drafted — and 2005 — two years after Romo was signed. To find the top-tier within that crowd, I then sorted them by career pass yard totals. There are plenty who passed for more yards and won more accolades than Romo. (Although Manning retired before last season, I kept him in for comparison.)

NAME STARTS YARDS SUPER BOWL WINS MVP AWARDS 1ST TEAM ALL-PRO PRO BOWLS
Peyton Manning 265 72K 2 5 7 14
Drew Brees 232 66 1 0 1 10
Tom Brady 235 62 5 2 2 12
Eli Manning 199 48 2 0 0 4
Ben Roethlisberger 183 47 2 0 0 5
Philip Rivers 176 46 0 0 0 6
Carson Palmer 174 44 0 0 0 3
Aaron Rodgers 135 37 1 2 2 6
Tony Romo 127 34 0 0 0 4
Romo’s career totals aren’t as impressive as his peers’

Quarterbacks with the most career pass yardage who entered the league between 1998 and 2005 and who were active last season. (With the exception of Peyton Manning, who is included for context.)

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Of this nine-player cohort of Romo and his contemporaries, Romo ranks last in games started and last in career passing yards. He’s one of just three with no Super Bowl championships, MVP awards or First Team All-Pro nods, and is tied for second-fewest Pro Bowl appearances. Unlike a Dan Marino or Dan Fouts, Romo doesn’t boast eye-popping production to counter his lack of a championship; he threw for fewer total yards than Jim Everett or Matt Hasselbeck despite being a player during nine of the NFL’s top 10 pass-happiest seasons.

The seven active quarterbacks in this group are all slated to turn in at least another full season of stats, which will drop Romo even further behind his contemporaries. Worse yet, players like Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco — drafted in 2008 — are already eclipsing some of Romo’s totals.

But things get more complicated when you look at Romo’s rate stats. Within that same elite group, Romo is fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt and tied for second in touchdown rate. His career NFL passer efficiency rating is 97.1, just a tenth of a point shy of Brady’s.

PLAYER TD RATE INT RATE ADJ. NET YARDS/ ATTEMPT NFL PASS EFFICIENCY RATING
Aaron Rodgers 6.40% 1.55% 7.48 104.1
Tom Brady 5.50 1.85 7.09 97.2
Tony Romo 5.70 2.70 7.03 97.1
Peyton Manning 5.70 2.68 7.17 96.5
Drew Brees 5.30 2.51 6.91 96.3
Philip Rivers 5.30 2.64 6.84 94.7
Ben Roethlisberger 5.10 2.70 6.67 94.1
Carson Palmer 4.70 2.98 6.24 88.0
Eli Manning 4.70 3.15 5.96 83.7
Romo’s rate stats aren’t so bad, though

Quarterbacks with the most career pass yardage who entered the league between 1998 and 2005 and who were active last year. (With the exception of Peyton Manning, who is included for context.)

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

In the end, Romo spent a decade in the conversation as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. But he was never quite the best — and thanks to the three years he spent on the bench at the beginning of his career and the 27 starts he missed from 2007 to 2015, his passing totals are perilously low to make the Hall of Fame.

Unless voters go deep into what Romo did on the field, and look past how many years he wasn’t on it, he may be remembered as good, but not great.

Footnotes

  1. For quarterbacks who started at least 50 games.

Ty Schalter is a husband, father and terrible bass player who uses words and numbers to analyze football. His work has been featured at VICE, SiriusXM and elsewhere.

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