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.