Tony Romo’s ring-less legacy

Photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys

I was talking with Steve Young a few years back about quarterbacking legacies.

Young was the best quarterback in the NFL from 1991-93, arguably the best player in the entire league. He won three consecutive NFL passing titles and was voted the league MVP in 1992. Young won 70.8 percent of his starts (34-14) but lost consecutive NFC title games to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1992-93 seasons.

Joe Montana won Super Bowls for the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Young didn’t – not until 1994, anyway, when his 49ers finally overcame the Cowboys in an NFC title game and then went on to crush the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl.

Young understood the significance of that game and that season.

“Super Bowls define us,” said Young, who now has a bust in Canton. “You can spend the rest of your career playing terrific football, even MVP football. But it won’t do what a Super Bowl does.”

Which brings us to Tony Romo, who retired from the NFL this week.

What is the legacy of a quarterback who passed for Dallas franchise records of 34,183 yards and 248 touchdowns but couldn’t win in January?

Romo passed for more yards than Hall-of-Famers Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach. He threw for more yards than Danny White and Don Meredith. But Staubach took the Cowboys to four Super Bowls and Aikman to three. White took the Cowboys to three consecutive NFC title games in the 1980s, and Meredith took them to back-to-back NFL title games in the 1960s.

Romo never won a Super Bowl. He never played in a Super Bowl. He never even reached a conference championship game. Twenty-one players on the field get paid to play football. One player gets paid those $100-million contracts to win games and deliver championships – the quarterback. That’s how paychecks are earned and legacies defined.

So how should we judge Romo? He was 2-4 in his 10-year starting career in the playoffs. His Cowboys were the top seed in the NFC in 2007 but failed to win a game. Like it or not, Young is right. It’s all about those championship rings when it comes time to judge quarterbacking careers.

There are 32 quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Twenty-four of them won championships. Of the eight who didn’t win titles, Jim Kelly took his team to four Super Bowls, Fran Tarkenton took his team to three and Dan Marino took the Dolphins one.

Y.A. Tittle took his team to an NFL championship game, and Dan Fouts took his team to an AFC title game. Bennie Friedman played in the 1920s and Ace Parker in the 1930s, and they picked up their busts in Canton as senior candidates after extensive waits.

So the only modern-era quarterback enshrined in Canton who never played in a conference championship game was Warren Moon, who passed for 15,000 more yards than Romo – and that doesn’t count the 21,228 yards he passed for in Canada and the five consecutive Grey Cups he won north of the border.

What Romo has are his statistics. Playing in an era that favored aerial football, his 34,183 passing yards are plenty by Dallas standards… but not by NFL standards. Steve DeBerg passed for more career yards. So did Jim Everett and Kerry Collins. Matt Hasselbeck, Dave Krieg and two of Romo’s predecessors in Dallas, Vinny Testaverede and Drew Bledsoe, also threw for more.

To my knowledge, there are no Hall-of-Fame campaigns being mounted for any of those quarterbacks – and Bledsoe, Collins and Hasselbeck all played in Super Bowls, and Everett, Krieg and Testaverde all reached conference championship games.

Romo has a passer efficiency rating of 97.1, fourth best in NFL history. But Staubach ranks 41st in passing efficiency, Aikman 54th, Bart Starr 61st, John Elway 69th, Johnny Unitas 81st, Ken Stabler 104th, Terry Bradshaw 142nd, Joe Namath 167th and Bobby Layne 170th. Those Hall of Famers played their best in the games that mattered most. That’s the definition of greatness, the definition of a Hall of Famer.

For that reason, I’d be hard-pressed to place Romo higher than fifth on the all-time list of Dallas quarterbacks behind Staubach, Aikman, White and Meredith. They won. They put their teams in position to win championships. Romo didn’t. And, like it or not, that’s how legacies are measured at that position.

It’s all about the rings.

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  1. Martin Sexton
    April 4, 2017

    I cannot argue that Tony Romo is HOF qualified. Clearly, for lack of SB’s and playoff success it is a given. Understood. Just curious though, of the Dallas QB’s, Tony I believe is the only one who played under the restrictions of the Salary Cap. Even Aikman, won two of his three SB’s before the Salary Cap started in 1994, and won his third in 1995 when it had just started. Makes it easier when you keep the team basically together from year to year as opposed to losing key players every season. Not that it has stopped the Patriots. Wonder how Tony might have faired if he played with the same core players every season. Or if he had been fortunate to play with defenses that could hold a lead. In the end, I guess we’ll never know. However, going from an undrafted free agent QB, who basically had to volunteer to be a “camp arm” at the NFL combine, to the leading passer in Cowboys history is not too bad.

  2. Rasputin
    April 4, 2017

    Romo’s real stats are his top 4 career passer rating, top 5 completion percentage, and averaging almost 270 yards/game. No one’s arguing on behalf of Romo over career total yardage (he didn’t even start until age 26 and was never going to make his mark there), so that’s something of a straw man, and anyone who knows anything about NFL history knows there’s no point in comparing passing stats from eras decades apart.

    He also led the league twice in yards/attempt, helping to usher in a return to long passing gains not seen since before the West Coast offense emphasizing short, high percentage passing became popular, and frankly since the 1960s given the general passing stat deflation of the 1970s. Romo accomplished LONG high percentage passing. For a while, around 2009, the career y/a leader board consisted mostly of a bunch of guys from the 1960s or earlier like Otto Graham (who still holds the record at 8.6) , Sid Luckman, and Norm Van Brocklin…..and Tony Romo up there with them like some glorious anachronism. Since then a few other current players have joined them and Romo has slipped slightly (a byproduct of the more “careful” past few years), but he still ranks high on the list.

    Romo’s real legacy is his brilliant and exciting improvisational skill and his clutch play closing out a half or game, which ranks among the all time greats. At least as of 2013, when Fox Sports and USA Today published this study, Romo….

    – Ranked #1 in career 4th Quarter passer rating (then at 102.9). In fact Romo got better each quarter, finishing his career with a 106.1 OT rating.

    – Romo had the highest career passer rating in the final two minutes among active QBs (then 93.1).

    Romo also posted 30 game winning 4th Q/OT drives in his career, and 28 from 2006 through 2014, his last full season, which is tied for 1st in that span with Eli Manning.

    I think if the Cowboys had played Romo last year once he was healthy there’s a good chance Dallas wins the Super Bowl, the franchise solidifies its relevance in the 21st Century, and fans and players get the story book ending they wanted. Instead the “brain trust” didn’t even allow that chance, opting instead for a myopic course of action that was doomed to failure from the start, squandering the season that was their best opportunity so far this century to win the SB.

    If Romo had combined all these impressive statistical accomplishments with a single Super Bowl win he’d have a solid Hall of Fame case. If he’s really retiring, then he’s a borderline candidate.

    He has no realistic chance to make the Hall of Fame any time soon when Dallas’ own HoF rep immediately comes out with a column arguing AGAINST his candidacy (seriously, what other rep does that to their own team?). Even when Dallas finally has a new HoF rep, given the more clear cut Cowboys still excluded from Canton, I won’t hold my breath waiting for Romo’s induction.

    HoF or not though, he was a legitimately great QB who almost single handedly gave millions of fans a reason to keep watching and believing for a decade.

    • Martin Sexton
      April 5, 2017

      Great breakdown. Nothing to add. Well done, young man.

  3. Rick Gosselin
    April 8, 2017

    Thanks for reading and writing. Like I’ve always said, if it weren’t for folks like you reading, there’d be no point in me writing.

  4. Mr. Bamboozaul
    April 20, 2017

    Rick once again you hit the head of the nail. Tony the Romo was the 5th best qb in the Cowboys historical food chain of quarterbacks.

    First of all, Romo had some talent around him, to receive a ring, in 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2014. Romo couldn’t get the Cowboys over the hump.

    Fans, tend to forget, that Romo played a horrible game against the Detroit Lions, and if it wasn’t for a few home cooking calls by the refs, the Cowboys would have lost that game, in 2014 playoffs season.

    I truly believe that some of the players, felt slighted by Romo’s close relationship with Jerry Jones, and just wouldn’t put it all on the field, like for a Staubach, Aikman, and now Dak.

    Notice, last year how energize the Cowboys played with Dak, instead of going through the motions with Romo. I remember wide receiver T. Williams, quoted ad saying he came back to play for the Cowboys, due to loyalty and that Dak played the quarterback position with the same calm demeanor, instead of being moody, rather the team was winning or losing.

    Just something to think about, why Not, all Cowboys teammates, where all in with Romo, especially, after the TO incident.

    It just appears to me, in my opinion, that the Cowboys play harder for Dak, than with Tony the Romo, under center, in some scenario.

    • Rasputin
      April 20, 2017

      Tony Romo Passer Rating 2014 Playoffs

      Versus Detroit – 114
      Versus Packers – 143.6

      Dak Prescott Passer Rating 2016 Playoffs

      Versus Packers – 103.2

      Dak Prescott Playoff Record – 0-1

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