Tony Romo: The NFL's Greatest Loser


Portions of this originally appeared in a post entitled “Tony Romo’s Career Day and the Merchant of Venice” on October 7th, 2013, in the aftermath of Dallas’ 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos.

Antonio Ramiro Romo, known to you and me as Tony, retired today. He’ll take his talents to CBS, supplanting Phil Simms in the No. 1 booth for the network. He also closes the final lines on his playing career, allowing us to put his truly unique position in the game in perspective.

T’was the character Antonio who lamented to Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice:

"I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano– A stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one.”"

The beauty of sports is that story arc is not decided until there is no more time on the clock, no more outs left to make, no more holes to play. A man is not pre-destined to play his part alone. History is littered with those that overcame injuries, personal demons, and labels to reach the top.

Romo, with his retirement, is closing that option when it comes to labels. Tony Romo played his role, and is not returning for an encore to try to change it, John Elway or Peyton Manning-style, at the end of his career. Tony Romo will go down as the NFL’s Greatest Loser. Romo’s career is a litmus test for what we see as fans.

Is calling him the Greatest Loser a compliment or a pejorative?

It depends on your perspective. Being the greatest implies rare ability; the loser label implies failure. Romo, at his best, was truly great at managing the quarterback position. His career, though, will be remembered for what he did not do (win playoff games and Super Bowls), compared to those he otherwise should accompany. Romo should be the ultimate underdog tale–a small town kid who was spurned by big colleges, went to Eastern Illinois, went undrafted, and then became a multiple time Pro Bowler and nine-year starter in the league. Because it is Dallas, though, he is not viewed as such.

The greatest game that Romo played in high school was a precursor for what was to come. Romo had begun his junior year as the third-string quarterback, having never started a game. After the offense struggled, he was inserted and passed for 300 yards in his first-ever start. In his senior year, his Burlington team lost to a bigger school in Racine, Wisc., that physically dominated. Nevertheless, Romo passed for 392 yards, and came back into the game after a hard hit that required stitches in his chin. The local reporter in Racine, after praising the hometown team, added “Oh, and while we’re at it, could a kid named Tony Romo ever throw the heck out of a football.”

Romo went on to Eastern Illinois, eventually winning the Walter Payton award. Still undrafted, he signed with America’s Team, where he backed up former first overall pick Drew Bledsoe. He replaced Bledsoe at halftime of a Monday Night game in 2006 against the Giants, after Bledsoe threw a costly goal line interception. He would lead the NFL in yards per attempt that season, and did not relinquish that spot, absent injury, until this offseason.

His first prominent moment on a national stage, in the wildcard playoff game against Seattle after that season, also began the narrative. It was not because of his passing, but rather a ball slipping through his hold on what should have been a chip-shot field goal at the end of the game.

Romo ranks fourth all-time in career passer rating, at 97.1. He is third all-time in net yards per pass attempt. Those on either side of him on the passer rating career list? Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees. All have at least one Super Bowl title.

While he developed a reputation for notable interceptions in the 4th quarter, he also led the league in fourth quarter game-winning drives during his career. Some of that perception is a function of Dallas being overly represented in primetime, and some of the volume of comebacks is a function of being on mediocre teams that were good enough to compete but not to dominate, so that there were more close game opportunities. Even so, if you look just at counting stats for passing in the final 5 minutes of a game when trailing by one score, Romo is 3rd (out of 21 passers with at least 100 attempts over that span) in passer rating, behind only Peyton Manning and Cam Newton.

Romo, though, has the reputation as putting up the stats without the wins (Dallas is 78-49 when he starts since 2006, 23-26 including last year when he does not).

In early October of 2013, Tony Romo’s role as Greatest Loser in the NFL’s drama played out in overdrive when Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos came to Dallas. Romo made play after play en route to the greatest day any Cowboys QB has ever had. But in the end, Romo threw the decisive interception at the two minute warning in a tie game, setting up Denver’s winning field goal.

Romo set his career high in passing yards, with 506, and set the franchise record for passing yards. He tied his career high in touchdown passes, with five. The Dallas Cowboys scored 48 points . . . and they lost. The 48 points scored in a loss ties for the most ever in NFL history. In an AFL game, the Houston Oilers lost 52-49 in 1963 to the Raiders, and George Blanda threw five touchdowns and two interceptions.

In a 2004 game between the Browns and Bengals, Kelly Holcomb of Cleveland threw a pick-six to seal the defeat. Before that, it was a 1983 game between Kansas City and Seattle, won by the Seahawks,51-48, in overtime. That game featured Bill Kenney playing brilliantly, but Nick Lowery missing an extra point after the go-ahead touchdown with 90 seconds left (with Kenney as holder), allowing Seattle to tie it with a field goal as time expired, and win it in overtime.

If you believe that Romo is the chokiest choker that ever choked, you can focus on that interception, how he had a chance for greatness, and could not take the final step. If you believe that Romo is genuinely a great quarterback, well, you can point to play-after-play-after-play when he did things to keep Dallas in the game, often creating magic out of nowhere. If you are inclined to say that Romo catches too much blame when the Cowboys lose, well, you now have a game where the defense gave up 51 points and never forced a punt.

Romo was not perfect. For fifty-seven and a half minutes, he was close to it. You could make a case that he played as well in a loss as any quarterback in NFL history. Here’s a list of the best games by adjusted yards per attempt, which takes off for interceptions. A few guys are higher (he’s 4th on the list) but threw less than 25 times and their teams each scored less than 24 points.

Tony Romo will retire without any Super Bowl rings or appearances. He will retire as one of the quarterbacks who lost a game while scoring 48 points, most in history. He will retire as the highest passer rating to not reach a Super Bowl. He will also retire and walk away on his terms and we shouldn’t feel bad for him. He’s going to try his hand at a different role.