Is Tony Romo Done as an Elite Player?
As an analyst, if not a football fan, my fear is that Tony Romo is never going to be remembered as a good quarterback. Of course, if you look at the best passing seasons in Dallas Cowboys history, there’s a lot of Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman at the top of the list. And there’s just not that much doubt that Tony Romo and Don Meredith are neck and neck as the third best quarterback in the history of the franchise. Era adjusted metrics agree that Tony Romo had four of the strongest quarterback seasons in Cowboys history from 2006-2009. And he was on that pace again in 2010 before a fractured collarbone ended his season.
The rise of Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers to the game’s most elite level of performance over the last two years has combined with the aforementioned injury to hurt Tony Romo in the eyes of the fan. He’s no longer believed to be a top five NFL quarterback despite no meaningful drop in his production at any point. He’s just been passed by the players who have enjoyed playoff success as well as regular season success in 2009 and 2010. Romo’s the same, top-tier player he has always been.
Or is he? The numbers say: of course he is. But Romo’s injury is responsible for obscuring the fact that he was 30 years old in 2010. And while it’s undeniable that good players often have great quarterback seasons after the age of 30, the trend for players who excel between ages 26 and 30 is usually downward and can be quite sharp.
Many of the players most similar to Tony Romo are in the hall of fame or will be in the hall of fame, but it was because of accomplishments in their age 25 to 29 seasons much moreso than anything they did after that. Take perhaps the most similar player to Tony Romo, Boomer Esiason. Boomer was an elite performer for the late 80’s Bengals. By the time he reached his 30’s, he was largely unwanted by the Bengals and was sent to the Jets for a third round pick. Boomer continued to pile up accomplishments throughout the 90’s, but he only had one above average, pro-bowl season after leaving Cincinnati the first time. I do not think Tony Romo is a bad season away from getting traded from the Cowboys, but it couldn’t be considered surprising if Tony Romo only had one more NFC pro bowl season in him, though plenty more personal accomplishments. Boomer Esiason isn’t in the hall of fame, but his overall body of work is on par with guys who are in the hall, and that’s why I like him as such a good comparable for Romo.
Another guy on the Tony Romo comparable list is Brett Favre, who had already put together a nice hall of fame resume before the age of 30. Favre, however, tacked on another ten years to his NFL career beyond that. And unlike the late career resurgence of guys like Fran Tarkenton and others like him, this wasn’t anything close to a second hall of fame career tacked on to a hall of fame career. Favre was elected to six pro bowls between ages 30 and 40, but was elected a lot based on reputation. Favre was in decline from 2002 through 2006, and did happen to put together two nice seasons at the end of his career, but the fact that Favre was never really a legitimate MVP candidate after a strong 2001 is often obscured by the awards heaped on him during that timeframe.
Mark Rypien shows up on this list, and he was pretty much done as a player after his age 30 season. To be fair to Romo, he’s already more or less buffered against a Rypien-type fade by his contract with the Cowboys: he’s not ten starts away from being kicked out of town. But now we’ve already seen Esiason and Rypien at the point where Romo is in is career be less than a year away from a trade out of the city where he made his name. And tack on another one: the Greatest Show on Turf era Kurt Warner. Warner was the MVP at age 30. At age 31 he lost is first four starts, got replaced in the starting lineup by Marc Bulger, then started (and lost) the season opener the year after that and was done for good. Warner never won another game with the Rams following the 2001 NFC Championship.
Tony Romo’s decline — perhaps imminent decline — is worth wondering about. He’s not in danger of being out of the league any time soon: pretty much every player with his brief statistical history was in the league eight years later if they so choose. But even though these players were all perennial pro bowlers through age 30, it wasn’t uncommon to see a lot of below average seasons on the other side of 30 for these players.
Perhaps, then, that’s what we might expect out of Tony Romo. He isn’t likely to play his whole career in Dallas. In fact, the end in Dallas might come sooner than anyone realizes. He’s likely to make another pro bowl, perhaps with the Cowboys, certainly within the next five years, but that season might be isolated in a group of very average ones. By the standards that Tony Romo has set for himself, an average season is going to look very poor in comparison, and Romo might be peppered with questions about his future until a change of scenery becomes good for him. The bottom line is that the expectation for Tony Romo’s performance will likely exceed his ability to perform to those expectations. And the fallout from this likelihood is going to put stress on the Cowboys’ decision makers to either get behind Romo and go for it all, or make a move to send Tony Romo elsewhere.