Determining the Legacy of Tony Romo
Unless you live under a rock, or if you were just too hungover from celebrating a Tar Heels victory (or lamenting Gonzaga’s loss), you probably already know that Tony Romo has decided to retire and become an analyst for CBS. That’s right, instead of getting traded to the Denver Broncos or Houston Texans, the Cowboys quarterback has decided to kick Phil Simms out of the booth and join his longtime friend Jim Nantz to talk about football.
While he wouldn’t say that there’s no chance of coming out of retirement, a la Brett Favre, for now it’s clear that Romo’s playing career is done. This begs the question: what does his legacy look like? And, a question to be answered further down the road, is he a Hall of Famer?
If you have any sense of humanity, then you agree he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer solely based on the fact that joining CBS marks the end of Phil Simms.
In all seriousness, though, let’s really think about the legacy of Antonio Ramiro Romo.
Romo played college ball at Eastern Illinois, where he set virtually every passing record in program history. Some of those records were later broken by Jimmy Garoppolo, but the university still retired Romo’s number.
His impressive college résumé, which included being named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year all three years, got him an invitation to the 2003 NFL Combine. He received marginal interest from only a handful of coaches, one of which was then head coach of the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan. Interestingly enough, Shanahan himself had also attended Eastern Illinois. Another coach that was intrigued by Romo was a guy by the name of Sean Payton, who was the offensive coordinator of the Cowboys at the time. He tried to persuade Jerry Jones and then head coach Bill Parcells to draft the little FCS star, but no dice.
When Romo went undrafted, Payton got his way and they signed the player who would unknowingly become their franchise quarterback. During the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Romo played third string behind starter Vinny Testaverde and backup Drew Henson. When Testaverde left, Dallas signed Drew Bledsoe, the longtime Patriots starter who was supplanted by the out-of-nowhere brilliance of former-sixth-round-pick Thomas Brady. During 2005 and 2006, Romo became a preseason star not unlike that of Garoppolo. In fact, Jones almost traded Romo to the Saints (and new head coach Payton) before the start of the 2006 regular season.
Good thing he didn’t.
He made his NFL debut in Week 6 of the season against the Houston Texans, coming in to relieve Bledsoe in a blowout win. He threw twice and completed them both, including a touchdown to Terrell Owens. The next week, against the New York Giants, Romo came in at the start of the second half due to Bledsoe’s horrible play, including an interception and a safety. He threw a pick six before leading the Cowboys to put up 15 points, but they still lost.
Still, his play was good enough to warrant a start the next week. Romo wasn’t amazing right out of the gate, but he offered consistent and efficient play, going 6–4 for the rest of the season and salvaging the team’s year by finishing 9–7 and making the playoffs. Their Wild Card matchup was against the Seattle Seahawks, which Dallas lost by one on what is now an infamous play:
Romo had maneuvered the offense to the red zone down one. On 4th and 1, they went out to kick a 19 yard field goal and for some reason that I still don’t understand, Romo was the holder. He fumbled the snap and tried to run for the first down, but was tackled just short. And just like that, a storybook season in which he had 2,903 passing yards and 19 touchdowns was erased and he was gifted the label of a choker.
The next year, Wade Phillips was brought in to replace the retired Bill Parcells, and Jason Garrett was hired as the offensive coordinator. In his first year as the full time starter, Romo led his team to an NFC best 13–3 record. He completed 64% of his passes and threw for 4,211 yards (3rd in the league) and 36 touchdowns to 19 interceptions. The Cowboys would then lose in the divisional round to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, perpetuating the choker label.
The next year, Romo would miss three games with a finger injury and the Cowboys lost three of their last four games to finish 9–7 and miss the playoffs. Despite all of this, Romo put up respectable numbers: 3,448 passing yards, 14 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.
In 2009, though, Romo came back with a vengeance. He racked up 4,483 passing yards and 26 touchdowns with only 9 interceptions. His success coincided with the team finishing 11–5. In the Wild Card matchup, Romo went wild by throwing two touchdowns and registering an overall passer rating of 104.9 en route to a 34–14 blowout victory. This marked the franchise’s first playoff victory since 1996. The following week, though, the Cowboys were blown out by the Brett Favre-led Vikings, ending their season.
Dallas entered the 2010 season as the overwhelming favorites to win the Super Bowl. Romo picked up right where he left off, but the rest of the team faltered on their way to a 1–4 start. Then, in Week 7 against the New York Giants, Romo received a huge hit that fractured his left clavicle and put him out for the remainder of the year. With Jon Kitna as their starter, the Cowboys reached a 1–7 record before Phillips was fired. Jason Garrett then became the interim head coach and led them to a 5–3 finish, securing his future as the next head coach of America’s Team.
The next three seasons saw three consecutive 8–8 finishes for the Cowboys as Garrett changed much of the supporting cast around Romo. Specifically, the offensive line went through a massive overhaul on its way to eventually landing Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick. Despite all these personnel changes, Romo put up great performance after great performance. Over that three year period, he compiled 12,915 passing yards, 90 touchdowns, and 39 interceptions. This also included an average passer rating of 95.6 over that period, one of the best in the league over that course of time.
Also lost in all of that 8–8 madness was the world’s introduction to the tough side of Romo. In Week 2 of the 2011 season, against first year Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, Romo left the game with what was later diagnosed as fractured ribs and a punctured lung. He returned later in the game to lead a late-game drive for a game-tying field goal and then the game winner in overtime. Despite still having fractured ribs, Romo did not miss a single game for the rest of the season.
In Week 16 of 2013, in a game they had to win to remain eligible for the playoffs, Romo was injured with what was later diagnosed as a herniated disk, but he kept playing. Despite clearly being hobbled, Romo threw the game-winning touchdown. After the game, he was medically ruled out by doctors and backup Kyle Orton started in Week 17, losing the game and killing the Cowboys’ hopes of making the playoffs.
The 2014 season would unknowingly be Romo’s last full season, but he made the most of it. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan introduced a more balanced attack, giving the ball more to DeMarco Murray and taking pressure off of the 34 year old quarterback. Still, he completed 70% of his passes for 3,705 passing yards and an astounding 34 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage and passer rating (113.2) en route to a 12–4 finish. He led the Cowboys to a Wild Card win over the Lions, in which he went 19/31 for 293 yards, 2 touchdowns, and no interceptions. The next week in Green Bay, he offered up another stellar performance, going 15/19 for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns, again not throwing a pick. He even made a beautiful throw to Dez Bryant that, depending on who you ask, was or wasn’t caught at the 1 yard line. If the infamous play was ruled a catch, the Cowboys likely would have scored to win the game and progress to the NFC Conference Championship game, but that’s not what the referees ruled.
Of course, the next two seasons brought significant injuries to Romo. The 2015 season began with him leading the offense downfield for an impressive game-winning touchdown against the Giants, and the next week he got the team up big early on against the Philadelphia Eagles before breaking his collarbone. Backup Brandon Weeden struggled and was eventually replaced by the equally unimpressive Matt Cassell. Romo returned for a win against the Miami Dolphins in Week 11, their first win since Romo’s injury. Four days later, in the Thanksgiving Classic against the red hot Carolina Panthers, Romo once again broke his collarbone. They managed one more win without Romo, finishing 4–12 and in perfect position to draft Ezekiel Elliott. But Romo once again injured his back in the 2016 preseason, seemingly ending the season before it began. But you all know that the out-of-nowhere brilliance of former 4th-round-pick Dak Prescott saved their season while also leaving Romo jobless.
And thus we are at this point, where he has decided to retire.
It’s been quite a roller coaster of a career for a guy who was just some undrafted free agent from a small-time FCS school. Remember that Romo was really never even supposed to see a meaningful snap in his entire career. His 80 career wins, 11th most among active quarterbacks, is undeniably impressive. Furthermore, he used his career to set almost every passing record in Cowboys franchise history, breaking records previously held by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach.
Romo also holds several league-wide records, namely the highest career QB rating in the month of December and the highest career QB rating in the 4th quarter. Both of these records work to dispel the whole “choker” myth, but if you’re still not convinced, consider that from 2006–2014, Romo led all quarterbacks in fourth quarter comebacks, with 23, and game-winning drives, with 27.
Oh, and lest we forget that Romo finishes his career (at least, for now) with the fourth-highest passer rating in NFL history. His career passer rating of 97.1 finishes better than other greats like Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Kurt Warner, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Brett Favre, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino.
I mention Kelly and Marino last because, out of all those great quarterbacks in history, Kelly and Marino are the only two who never won a Super Bowl. For Kelly, it was largely because of Aikman’s Cowboys. For Marino, Montana and Young’s 49ers and Elway’s Broncos were a big reason why he never got a ring. Similarly, Romo’s one big hole in his career is the absence of a championship. And similarly, he faced other legends in the making that kept him from a ring, such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Brett Favre.
But nobody would dare say today that Kelly and Marino don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. With time, I’m confident that the same will become of Romo. I mean, he holds records that have surpassed those who won rings over Kelly and Marino, as well as records that surpassed Kelly and Marino themselves. And he did all of that as an undrafted quarterback from an FCS school.
So what’s Romo’s legacy? One of the greatest quarterbacks in Dallas Cowboys history, easily. A top 25 all-time quarterback in NFL history, arguably. A first ballot Hall of Famer? An unequivocal yes. Thanks for the memories, Tony.