The Week in Overreactions: Tony Romo is a choker

By Ryan Wilson | CBSSports.com

Romo's 506-yard, 5 TD effort will be remembered for one thing: That 4th quarter interception. (USATSI)

New storylines emerge every week. Some are reasonable, most are not. "The Week in Overreactions" focuses on the latter. Those items that offer a cursory "How do you do?" as they blow past reality straight for THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER! We're here to keep everything in perspective. Questions, comments, casserole ideas? Hit us up on Twitter at @ryanwilson_07.

'Just as we suspected, Tony Romo is a choker'

For 58 minutes Sunday, Tony Romo was, without question, the best quarterback on a field he shared with Peyton Manning. Then, with the game on the line and the ball in Romo's hands, disaster.

Another interception at the worst possible moment, another Cowboys loss that could've been avoided. All of which leads to the predictable week of critics and their all-encompassing "Romo is a choker" talking points, despite the fact that Romo, by almost every measure, is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

This isn't hyperbole. According to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, Romo ranked fourth in QB efficiency in 2011 (behind only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady), seventh in 2012, and he was fifth this season before Sunday.

Oh, by the way:

But here's the thing: Does it matter? Does it matter that Romo can hang with anybody for three-and-a-half quarters? And if the answer is "yes, yes it does," let us ask you this: Can Romo, 33 years old and 11 years in the league, change?

Because, really, those are the only two questions that matter. After the game, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones didn't sound like a man on the wrong end of another late-game Romo interception.

“This is a moral victory,” Jones said afterwards. “It's not a loser talking here. It's just this has a lot of the feelings of a victory with it. …

“Tony played the best game that I've ever seen him play in his career, not only from the standpoint of how he executed, not only how he created plays but his leadership, “Jones continued. “That was unfortunate that it came down to that at the end, but you can see the very best over on the other side of the ball, it can happen to them, too.

“He played the best game that he's ever played for us. If we can have that kind of play from him and others, especially on the offensive side of the ball, then we'll win most of our football games left.”

The reactionaries will dismiss Jones as a rich old coot who doesn't know anything about football. In general, it's a fair gripe. But this time, Jones is right. Moral victories in the NFL are worthless -- with one exception: the Cowboys play in the NFC East, the league's worst division. Near-wins against the AFC's best team does count for something, even if it's not quantifiable by any standard measure.

The Redskins, owners of one of the league's worst defenses and the Cowboys' opponent next week, will likely come out of Tuesday's film session wondering how the hell they're going to stop an offense that went toe-to-toe with the Broncos and Peyton Manning.

Romo's biggest problem isn't limited by his physical skills but by his impeccably horrendous timing. According to ESPN Stats & Info, since 2006, Romo has the fourth-highest fourth-quarter QB rating (behind Peyton Manning and Brees). Over that span, it includes 19 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, which ranks fifth. Heading into Sunday's game, Romo had just one interception this season, and his 13 touchdowns was second only to Peyton Manning.

But the story changes when you break down Romo's fourth-quarter QB rating (again, from 2006 to present). In the first 12 minutes it's 80, second-best to Peyton Manning. In the final three minutes it drops to a below-average 44. He also has eight fourth-quarter interceptions, most in the league over that time.

But you know who else is on that fourth-quarter interceptions list? Tom Brady (7), Matt Ryan (7), Matt Schaub (6) and Chad Henne (6).

No one would be surprised by Schaub or Henne, but Brady and Ryan? Turns out, they make mistakes, too. In fact, Brady's Sunday afternoon against the Bengals ended with one of the worst interceptions you'll ever see. We didn't hear much about that because -- fairly or not -- Brady has three Super Bowl rings and Romo has a single playoff win.

So, back to the second question we posed above: Can Romo change?

"You are trying to win it, but you don't have to win it by yourself," former Colts coach Tony Dungy said on NBC's Sunday night pregame show. "If I'm [Cowboys coach] Jason Garrett, I would remind him every time he goes out there in that situation. Just take the ordinary play. It doesn't have to be spectacular. Take four, five, six plays to go down there and win it. You don't have to get it [all] in one play."

It's a reasonable request, one Romo has undoubtedly heard before. And on occasion, he's heeded that advice. In fact, he may have been trying to do just that Sunday but couldn't get out of his own way.

With the score tied 48-48 and 2:04 remaining, Romo dropped back, looking for tight end Gavin Escobar across the middle. It's a pitch-and-catch we've seen Romo complete hundreds of times, a play he could probably pull off blindfolded. Except this time, the Broncos' pass-rush collapsed the pocket, Romo's plant foot got tangled with the right foot of left tackle Tyron Smith (see below). And what should have been a straightforward -- and relatively safe -- throw (green arrow) went FUBAR (red arrow) in the split-second it took Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan to make a diving interception in front of Escobar.

Because Romo's plant foot got tangled with his offensive lineman, he missed his window on what should have been a relatively easy pass. (CBS)

Eight plays and the final 1:57 later, Matt Prater kicked the winning field goal and the focus went from Romo's otherworldly 506-yard, 5 touchdown afternoon to those seven seconds that have come to define his career.

"It's embedded in him," said Rodney Harrison, Dungy's NBC studio colleague. "It's a mental block that he has right now. And when he [plays inside] of two minutes, he can't think about making mistakes."

Dungy added: "It's hard [to change that mindset in the final two minutes]. It doesn't seem like it's happening but you just have to relax and take that ordinary play."

Whether it does happen is another matter. But we'll reiterate what we wrote last week, after the Cowboys lost to the Chargers.

Yes, the Cowboys lost a game they shouldn't have. And yes, we've seen this before. But Dallas plays in the NFL's sorriest division, and the other three teams have huge issues -- the Redskins and Eagles have two of the worst defenses you'll ever see, and would anybody be surprised if the Giants ended up with two wins?

More good news: The Cowboys' have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the NFC East in the coming weeks. Their next two games are against Washington and Philly. Win those and the Cowboys are 4-3 (3-0 in the division), and San Diego and Denver are distant memories.

Is Romo going to lead this team to a Super Bowl? Almost certainly not.

Are the Cowboys a playoff team? Absolutely, thanks to their three-ring circus of a division.

Here's the bottom line: On paper, Romo is elite. And 95 percent of the time, that's who we see on the field. It's just that those moments -- whether bad luck or dumb decisions -- have haunted him throughout his career. Never mind that other legit franchise quarterbacks make those very same mistakes, or that the Cowboys' defense was steamrolled Sunday, a recurring theme this season that includes allowing three quarterbacks to throw for more than 400 yards.

Romo's skeptics can easily ignore those facts, and they'll continue to do so until he wins something. It's not fair but fairness doesn't have a dog in this fight. Jones' "moral victories" remarks aside, the NFL is a bottom-line business, and the Cowboys, but not the quarterback -- it's an important distinction -- have been mediocre during Romo's tenure.

Even Brett Favre, whose gunslingin' ways reminds us a lot of Romo, thinks the Cowboys' quarterback has been unduly criticized.

“It's the ultimate team sport,” Favre told the Dallas Morning News back in April. “I think it's misleading to say that a quarterback has wins and losses and say he was a part of one playoff victory. I think there are a lot of factors that go into the success of not only Tony Romo but any player. Just what little bit I've watched the last couple of years, it seems like they were a little bit in disarray offensively. I thought he did a good job, from what I saw, of managing and making plays. Does that get you in trouble sometimes when you try to do too much? Sure it does. But I think I'd rather have a guy who's willing to take those chances.”

And that's the point.

Now, through the confluence of awfulness that is the rest of the NFC East, Romo has the perfect opportunity to silence his critics. If his next 11 games look anything like his first five, not only will Dallas run away with the division, Romo will end up on the short list of MVP runners-up behind Peyton Manning.

Yes, I'm serious and, no, I'm not high.

Lions still can't hang with the Packers

It's easy to dismiss the Lions as looking like the same ol' team that limped to four wins a year ago, but here's the reality: They're still 3-2, which is tied for first in the division with the Bears, and more importantly, they played Sunday's game in Green Bay without Calvin Johnson, arguably the most important non-quarterback on any NFL roster.

Also not helping: Detroit was without Nate Burleson after the Great Pizza Incident of 2013. The result: The Packers could focus on the Lions' only remaining playmaker: Reggie Bush.

Below is an example of something we saw all afternoon: Green Bay played a single-high safety, which meant man coverage across the board. The Lions' receivers had to win at the of scrimmage, which rarely happened, and it left quarterback Matthew Stafford with few downfield options.

On this play, Stafford's first read was Bush in the slot. He was blanketed by the Packers' best corner, Tramon Williams, and Stafford instead tried to force the ball outside to Patrick Edwards. The pass fell harmlessly to the turf.

At the snap, the safety creeps towards the line of scrimmage, indicating man coverage. (FOX)

Stafford's first read, Bush, was blanketed by Williams. As Stafford went through his progressions, he saw what you do: No one was open. (FOX)

For an idea of just how important Megatron is, the Lions' offense was held to a season-worst 286 yards Sunday. Coach Jim Schwartz said Detroit's poor performance had little to do with Johnson's absence but, well, no one believes him.

"It's all about execution," he insisted, via MLive.com. "We took a lot of negative plays and when we've played well on offense, we haven't taken those negative plays. Obviously the five sacks, but also a couple loss yardage runs and a few more penalties than we've had on offense."

Sure thing, Jim.

Back on earth, there's a chance Johnson could play this week against the Browns. And the sooner that happens, the better for the Lions' playoff chances.

The 49ers' offense is back (again)!

On Sunday, the Seahawks finally lost their first game of the season, and the 49ers had a statement win over a hapless Texans team. San Francisco is now a game back of Seattle in the division and the knee-jerk reaction is that the 49ers are back, poised to regain control of the NFC West and make another championship run.

Let's ease up on the Super Bowl reservations for two simple reasons. First, Matt Schaub. David Carr never looked that rattled at any point in his Texans' tenure. Second, Colin Kaepernick isn't nearly the dynamic do-everything quarterback we saw last season, and a lot of that has to do with the blip-on-the-radar success of the read-option offense.

"According to research from Pro Football Focus (@PFF), the 49ers have averaged a piddly 1.1 ground yards when they've run the read-option this year," the Sacramento Bee's Matt Barrows wrote Saturday. "That includes both plays in which Colin Kaepernick keeps the ball and those in which he gives it up to a tailback."

On Sunday, the 49ers didn't need Kaepernick to do much because Schaub took care of that. Kap's numbers are noteworthy nonetheless; he finished the evening 6 of 15 for 113 yards and a touchdown.

There are several issues here, including the aforementioned demise of the read option. Also not helping: The lack of big-play receivers, something we've mentioned before.

Tight end Vernon Davis returned (he had 3 catches for 88 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown, and along with Anquan Boldin, the 49ers effectively have two of the league's best tight ends. There is still no deep threat, and Kaepernick continues to struggle through his progressions.

The good news is that San Francisco thoroughly dominated what was supposed to be a pretty good Houston outfit, and did so without linebackers Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith. It gets better: The 49ers face the Cardinals, Titans and Jaguars before their bye week, and then have the Panthers, Saints and Redskins. They could lean heavily on Frank Gore and the running game, and be head into December with an 8-3 record.

They close out the regular season with the Rams, Seahawks, Bucs, Falcons and Cardinals. San Francisco could easily be 11-5, and that's assuming Kap doesn't recapture his 2012 form.

 
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