Monday, May 25, 2015

Email Bag: Romo's Play of the Year

In lieu of this week's Cowboys mailbag, I have elected to offer a thorough, well researched answer for one email, rather than many short answers for many emails.

I had to make a call, but I hope you are ok with the outcome.  Here is the email:

Dear Sportssturm, 
Given that the catch in Green Bay was recorded in the history books as nothing more than an incomplete pass and a turnover on downs, I was hoping you could look over the near-MVP season of Tony Romo and select his best play of the season.  I have my ideas, but I want to see what you came up with if you were asked to produce a single play to demonstrate his quality.   
Ok.  This is a good one, Roger.  

I have selected 3 plays from 2014.  Of course, he had dozens of great plays in this 2014 season, but many of them were based on him playing an incredibly sound decision-making season.  That means, he did not have to do magic tricks and gun slinging on a regular basis.  He made his read and made great throws, but did so in a clinical sort of precise way.  

But, that doesn't mean he didn't have to do crazy things at times.  What is particularly amazing is that I thought his 3 best magic tricks were all in an 8-day span back in October.  Forgive me if I am missing a good one or two.  

What is also interesting about these 3 plays in 2 games was that it was at a place in the season where some of us - at least I was chief amongst this group - were closely studying his every move as a sign that his back had healed and he could resume being a functional, upper tier, NFL QB again.  At the time, it was certainly unclear as he spent most of September doing very few things that appeared to risk his body.  

But, then these 3 plays happened and he removed all doubt about his abilities.

Let's review the 3 plays in the order they happened (with what I wrote the week of each of these games) and then we can all vote:

Candidate #1 - Vs Houston - 3Q - 3:14 - 2/4/43 - Romo to Williams, 43 yards, Touchdown

The Cowboys are in Shotgun 11 personnel, with double WRs to the Right with Williams wide and Bryant in the slot. Witten is tight on the right tackle, with Devin Street out left by himself. Meanwhile, the Texans are starting to get antsy and are showing a blitz look with 6 across the front, but as they normally do, the LBs drop off at the snap into the shallow zones. The Texans are basically only bringing 3, with a 4th coming on a delayed blitz depending on what the Cowboys do at the snap.

Romo appeared to have some sort of pump and go to the right, but the play appeared destroyed at the snap. To run a pump and go, Romo needs time, but when JJ Watt blew past Tyron Smith at the snap without Tyron barely getting out of his stance, Watt has a chance to drill a QB who has back issues from the blindside. There is no telling what might be the result of a QB who is looking to his right, trusting his All-Pro left tackle to protect his backside, and waiting for a play to develop. Smith had no help, because he never needs help. But, this time he needed it badly.

What happened next was amazing, and yet, if you have watched every Tony Romo snap of his career, you have seen it no less than a dozen times (just not that often recently). Somehow, Romo felt what was about to hit him from behind. If you watch the replay, you will marvel at how Romo knew JJ Watt was bearing down on him. It must have been something he heard, because it is difficult to say it was anything he saw. Regardless, with Watt having a free run at a QB with a bad back, Romo pulled out his text book, blind-spin back against the grain to his own end zone and then off to the offensive left. Watt who surely was 100% certain he had the sack got both hands on Romo but rolled past when the QB was able to shake him off. Now, Romo had bought just another second as Danieal Manning was bearing down on him from the delayed blitz. Romo lets a throw go deep down the field where Williams is running a deep post pattern against Kendrick Lewis. The throw hits Williams right in the chest as Romo watches from the ground.


The biggest question out of that play has been whether JJ Watt jumped the snap illegally, or was he simply that fast? I have slowed it down and I think his anticipation is DeMarcus Ware-like. It looks offsides to the naked eye. But, partly with Romo having a snap count that doesn't vary much and even the silent count on Sunday, I think Watt was guessing and guessed so correctly that Tyron Smith hardly even moves before he is gone. Amazing.

The other point is that once Tyron got beat so badly, he sort of checked out of the play as Manning runs right by him to have another free run at Romo. Come on, Tyron. I know you don't get beat much, but when you do, try to limit the damage!


Candidate #2 - Vs Houston - OT - 10:09 - 3/8/D32 - Romo deep to Bryant +37 yards, TD

Same game, which was very lose-able.  This is in overtime and at the moment, it looks like they are headed for a tie or loss if they don't pull this play off.

Again, the Cowboys brought in Shotgun 11 with a 3x1 look, but this time, it was Dez off by himself on the left. And this time, the Texans once again rushed 6. That left DJ Swearinger with a free run at Romo after Murray had to get Brian Cushing on the blitz pickup. Romo had to contort his body to make the throw while falling to avoid the hard-hitting safety, but he put the ball far enough down the field to give Dez a chance on a stop and go route against the very good corner, Johnathan Joseph.

What Dez did next might be his finest catch ever when you consider what was at stake combined with the degree of difficulty. He jumped high enough to get over Joseph, but the corner's arm was right in the middle of the hands of Dez, who somehow held onto the tip off the ball and then pulled it off of Joseph's shoulder as they both hit the turf. If you had to choose between which play was more amazing, the Romo twirl or the Dez catch, you might split the audience 50/50.

Romo's "bailing" here is called self-preservation or "smart". That DB in particular would have happily ended Romo's afternoon and the Cowboys need to be ready for that pressure next time. Travis Frederick had no feel for what was happening and he went to help on Watt which seemed like a good idea at first. And Murray should be credited with another perfect blitz pick-up with Cushing, something he does nearly every time.


Candidate #3 - At Seattle - 4Q - 4:55 - 3/20/D31 - Romo to Williams, +23, FD

Behold, for the 3rd time in 2 weeks, we have a "Play of the Year" candidate.

If they don't get this play converted, they have to punt, down 23-20 with less than 5 minutes to go. To convert this is vital and quite possibly the ball game. The Cowboys are in max-protection, with Witten and Murray in protection until they can slide out and get in a late route.

Bryant is out left, Williams wide right, with Gavin Escobar in the right slot and Witten tight to Free to help if necessary.

This is one of those cases where the All-22 is actually worse than TV, but you can definitely see below what Romo was looking at. I think the key point of strategy to look at is DeMarco's poor chip on 51-Bruce Irvin. If he is going to "assist" Tyron, then he has to make sure he actually knocks Irvin back to where Tyron can take over. In this case, his chip doesn't really move Irvin off his path at all, and also he gets in Tyron's way. Bad combination. They would have been better without any chip at all.

But, now Irvin, a rusher with incredible speed, has Romo in his sights - once again from the blindside. How Romo feels that, spins out, and then stays alive is a story. The fact that he then converts a 3rd and 20 (something that the league does less than 10% of the time even when conditions are ideal) is nothing short of miraculous. Then, Williams awareness and technique to complete the catch in bounds... Wow.

There is some question about who Romo was throwing this ball to, but I feel this angle proves that it was Williams and that he might not have even seen Witten since he knows Witten is not on a route long enough to move the sticks. You cannot imagine how fast this is happening in real-time as the Seahawks rushers and your linemen are all swirling around as you try to make this play.

I have watched this play dozens of times and it doesn't get any less impressive with each viewing. Romo is a special talent who appears to have the ability to still make plays that most QBs wouldn't even attempt.


So, mirror, mirror, on the wall, which of those 3 plays was the fairest of them all?  

I think I will take the 3rd and 20 in Seattle.  But, let's not sleep on any of them.  He had a truly special year and these 3 plays are a testament to his game still being at the top of his abilities.  

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