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On Romo, Lions, and Bets

Since 2006, no NFC Quarterback has been more productive than Tony Romo of the Cowboys.  Not Kurt Warner, Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, or even Drew Brees.  He’s not without his flaws, certainly, interceptions and turnovers among them.  But considering the investment: an undrafted signing in 2003, he’s been one of the best value signings of the last decade.

Which brings me to a bet made the other day by a friend: that the Lions quarterback will have comparable or better statistics than Tony Romo (the most valuable QB in the NFC over a three year period) will this season.  Keep in mind that we don’t even know who the Lions quarterback is going to be this year.  On the surface: it’s an insane, unwinnable bet.  However, the reason I’m writing about this is because things often aren’t what they seem.

I guess a good place to start would be to decide if we can determine which Lions quarterback is more likely to start.  Daunte Culpepper is in a tough spot: he’s trying to resurrect his career on a franchise that became the first to lose 16 games in a single season, and spent the first overall draft pick on a quarterback, which makes any gains that Culpepper makes by virtue of system useless to him in the long term.  But, the offensive coordinator is Scott Linehan, who coached Culpepper in his best years with the Vikings, when Culpepper could be mentioned with the best players of the pre-Manning/Brady era passers.  His career has gone downhill very fast since his record setting 2004 season, but reports are unanimously positive on his preparedness this year.  Stafford, on the other hand, is a highly touted rookie who, according to many scouts, needs seasoning on the practice field before he plays in games.

Knowing Jim Schwartz’ philosophy, Stafford will play as soon as 1) he is ready to play, and 2) the Lions have little to gain with Culpepper anymore.  Culpepper is not going to be on this team in 2010, so for there to be a situation where Stafford plays not at all, the Lions would have to be competing for a playoff spot in 2009, which seems unlikely.  In all reasonable cases, Stafford is going to play sooner than later, but thanks to the hire of Linehan, I think Culpepper is going to get a shot.  In the most likely case, both quarterbacks should get about half a season.

Of course, if Culpepper gets pulled for Stafford’s future prospects, it’s safe to say he probably did not resurrect images of his 2004 season.  So if this bet is to be won, two things need to happen: Culpepper needs to avoid having a horrific 5 INT game (like he did in Cincinnati in 2005), and Stafford must do the same, while Tono Romo produces his worst statistical season of his career.  There are reasons to believe that both of things may occur.

For the first time in his career, Tony Romo will not be playing behind a pro bowl line, and his one pro bowl receiver will be his tight end.  The Dallas OL posted a 4.5% adjusted sack rate (ASR) in 2007, and that number rose to 5.8% last year.  The players on that line are aging badly, and the Cowboys only used one pick on a lineman this year: a 4th rounder on Ball State’s Robert Brewster, who does not figure to make an immediate contribution. In addition to this, the Cowboys running backs and tight ends are, on the whole, not a very helpful pass blocking unit.  Marion Barber is the best of the bunch in that respect, and it’s the weakest part of his game.  The offense is about Romo, and spreading the field, not about protecting the quarterback.

The receiver situation is significantly worse, as any move toward the middle of the pack in that aspect relies on either an unexpected rebound from Roy Williams, who may simply be a poor fit in the Cowboys offense, or a big jump in development from third year player Miles Austin.  Jason Witten is going to be good for his normal production, but with a declining unit around him, Tony Romo’s numbers are the ones that will be affected, not Witten’s.  The Football Outsiders’ projections have Romo’s Net Yards per Pass figure declining by 0.6, a significant amount.  That’s enough to take him from a top ten quarterback in 2008 to a middle of the pack NFL quarterback in 2009.  Put simply: Tony Romo is likely to miss the 90.0 threshold in QB rating for the first time in his career.

Of course, that’s only one element of the bet.  It may very well be the hidden element; one who bets on Romo outproducing the Lions probably is naturally expecting top ten production from Romo, but this bet also requires marked improvement from the Lions quarterbacks over last year.  The most productive Lions QB from last year, Dan Orlovsky, was good for 5.7 net yards per attempt, or roughly 3/4 of a yard less than this year’s Romo projection.  Orlovsky has moved on to Houston, leaving the Lions to replace his production with Culpepper and/or Stafford.  Orlovsky had a QB rating of 72.6, which would have been unacceptable in the context of the bet.  There is, however, reason to believe that Culpepper can improve on the baseline set by Orlovsky and at least challenge the numbers that I expect Romo to produce this season.

When this bet was made, it was made under the assumption that Culpepper would get all the snaps in Stafford’s rookie year.  Now, Daunte Culpepper has always put up the numbers.  In fact, if you want a cautionary tale for Tony Romo’s career, look at Culpepper.  It wasn’t the sudden inability to produce that turned Culpepper into a journeyman, it was the inability to hold onto the football.  The most probable way this bet is lost involves Culpepper starting off strong, but leading into the bye week with two or three 3 turnover games, costing him his starting job six games in.  If Matt Stafford starts between 11 and 8 games this year, it’s probably not a good indicator for the Lions, compared to say, if he wins the job out of training camp, or the Lions remain in the playoff hunt until after Thanksgiving.

The Detroit offensive line isn’t great, but it’s better than the one that Dallas will run out there.  The Lions are strong at the guard positions, very mediocre at the tackles, and have a top of the line center in Dominic Raiola.  They signed RB Maurice Morris, a good pass blocker, to back up Kevin Smith.  The selection of TE Brandon Pettigrew in the first round shows a flexibility to build their passing offense around the concept of protecting their quarterback as opposed to spreading the field.  Pettigrew also brings them a middle of the field presence, which Culpepper has never had, and in his third year Calvin Johnson looks to establish his place among the game’s best receivers.  For all the flack the Lions are going to catch for their 0-16 offense from a year ago, this is not a winless unit.  More significantly, it’s the strongest offensive unit that Daunte Culpepper has had since leaving the Vikings.

That, in part, is why Daunte Culpepper has a decent, if turnover-prone, projection from Football Outsiders.  He’s projected for a respectable 6.2 net yards per pass attempt in the Lions offense, which would put him up in the middle of the pack over the whole season.  But he’s projected by the same source to fumble 10 times and throw 16 interceptions, and you and I both know that there’s no way that Culpepper makes it through this whole season without cutting down on the turnovers.  If Matt Stafford plays, he’ll probably be less prone to the turnover than Culpepper, but an increased sack rate might contribute to a lower level of productivity.

In essence, this bet boils down to a few unlikely things occurring, and the probability certainly says it’s a going to be a losing effort, especially at 1 to 1 odds.  But based on a few factors, such as the health of both Daunte Culpepper and Tony Romo, the coaching plans by the Lions for their quarterbacks, and the overall decline of the Cowboys’ passing game, I find this a far more interesting bet than you would think because underlined by a bunch of critical story lines regarding the 2009 NFL season, and it’s a fun way to make a statement if you really buy into the new Lions offense–what this all this optimism really is, at it’s core.

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