What’s required from a great NFL quarterback is triumphalism. Anything else is insupportable, especially if you’re Tony Romo and you have a $100 million contract, a beauty pageant wife, and you show your critics too much dimple, cleft chin and fashionable stubble, and not enough substance. But say what you like about Romo, he always picks up the tab for that. Whatever goes wrong with the Dallas Cowboys, he’s willing to be the guy at fault, you can always assign it to him and he will take it.
Romo meets the harshest judgments with courtesy. He doesn’t offer up any psychic defenses for failings, doesn’t nurse grudges for slights, doesn’t flinch or flex, just accepts it all with a regretful curl of pretty lip. At this point in his career Romo is fighting a heavy undertow: His critics increasingly label him a stat-flamboyant loser who runs up big numbers but can’t win in December, and he understands there’s not a thing he can do about it – except to win in December.
How is he supposed to explain that he’s hardly the sole cause of a malfunctioning, underachieving 7-7 team, that there are complications? That yes, he makes misjudgments, has flaws, maybe even private frenzies of self-contempt, yet it’s not all his fault, he’s not quite the wastrel that he seems? Romo doesn’t even try. After every shame he stands at a podium and takes the blame, just as he did after last Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. There were several reasons why the Cowboys blew a 23-point lead, Romo’s pair of late fourth-quarter interceptions merely the most fatally obvious. Yet Romo took it on, all of it, even what Coach Jason Garrett ungraciously dumped on him, when he publicly blamed Romo for audible-ing out of a run.
“No one cares how the game went, they just care did you win or lose, and we lost,” Romo said. “You know, I throw an interception at the end, that’s what it is. No one cares how it happened, what happened throughout the game, that’s the ultimate thing that it comes down to, did you win or did you lose, how did it end. Okay, well, no one feels sorry for you.”
He has a 13-21 record in December-January games and just one solitary playoff victory. He also has a knack for splashy early-season statistics that promise much, but then provoke a backlash when the Cowboys fail, triggering a huge riptide in the opposite direction. He’s a user-friendly target for critics who can’t resist lancing a bull. And also for weird, sneering man-jealousy, of the type voiced by former defensive end Travis Johnson, who last summer called him “a thief and a loser,” who doesn’t earn his salary.
Asking for understanding for Romo is like asking for a tax cut for the rich. Nevertheless, an equally good case can be made for Romo as a superior quarterback. For every number suggesting he’s an overpaid choker, there is an opposing number that suggests the opposite. Example: According to ESPN Stats, since Romo became a starter in 2006, he has thrown an NFL-high seven interceptions when tied or up by one possession. But if you consult Fox Sports graphics, Romo also has a 102.9 passer rating in the fourth quarter, and has led a league-leading 11 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime the past three years. We simply forget how many games he wins.
In that light, let’s re-examine some of the game-killing interceptions for which he has been blamed. In a 21-17 division playoff loss to the New York Giants in 2008 , he was picked off in the end zone with less than 30 seconds to go and no timeouts. Sounds simple – Romo cost them the game, right? Actually, circumstances weren’t so clear. You know what else happened? The Cowboys were penalized 11 times – the entire team had a meltdown.
In 2010, the Cowboys were embarrassed by the Minnesota Vikings, 34-3, as Romo gave up two fumbles and an interception. Again, Romo was the choker-culprit, right? Well, only partly. If you go back and look, you find his offensive line collapsed under the pass rush, subjecting Romo to six sacks and 32 pressures.
The Cowboys have suffered four playoff-elimination losses since 2008, all of them conventionally blamed on Romo. But according to an intriguing analysis by Bleacher Report’s Brad Gagnon, the more blameworthy (if less glamorous) culprit is a defense that gave up 34.3 points per game in those critical contests. If you examine Romo’s December numbers from 2009 to 2013, you find that he actually ranks in the top five of all quarterbacks over that span. His line reads like this: a 65 percent completion rate, with 27 touchdowns to seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 103.5.
Romo has his supporters, including some credible ones like Kurt Warner and Troy Aikman, both of whom have remarked that Romo gets unfairly censured for carrying the largest performance burden of any Cowboy. To them, he’s a player who has managed to be consistently excellent despite a chronically unstable team. “Whether they win or lose it’s rare that he doesn’t at least put them in a position to win,” Aikman has said.
There are at least three good reasons why the Cowboys have lost seven games this season that have nothing to do with Romo: a defense that couldn’t stop Miley Cyrus from undressing, brainless play-calling, and receivers who blow routes. None of this is to say that Romo doesn’t provoke outbursts of exasperation. Just that maybe the real choker on the Cowboys team is Garrett, who is 28-26 and has never made the playoffs. And whose panicked reflex, when confronted with a question about his collapse of good sense down the stretch against Green Bay, was to blame his quarterback. Now there was a choke.
It’s also to say that what’s most interesting about Romo is not his profligacy, but the way he grapples with responsibility. Vanity, anxiety and irritability must surely be his occasional companions, but we’d never know it. He has a great deal of personal steadiness in the face of failure, and there is something estimable about that, maybe even moral. It’s hard not to hope that one of these days he can will outplay all the default rhetoric about choking, prove it all definitively wrong.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post