Monday, April 10, 2017

Bag of Footballs - April 10 - Romo Edition

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) throws a pass as guard Ronald Leary (65) provides the block in the first quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago, Thursday, December 4, 2014. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) throws a pass as guard Ronald Leary (65) provides the block in the first quarter at Soldier Field in Chicago, Thursday, December 4, 2014. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)
Editor's note: This originally ran on April 10. SportsDay is periodically bringing back past stories while the Cowboys are in their offseason. This was written right after Tony Romo joined CBS as an analyst.

It has been a bizarre week in the city as we have tried to work our way through the last chapter (maybe) of the Tony Romo story as it pertains to his time as your favorite QB of your favorite team. 
There are some similarities to a loved one with a terminal disease, knowing that he has an issue that is going to end his run, but how much time do we have to enjoy time together before it is too late?  
So, this week, I decided to rummage through my writings from the span of his career and tried to retrace the steps of just how long we have been dealing with Romo's final chapter.  QBs get hurt all of the time, so the 2010 collarbone or the 2008 thumb are just hazards of the job.  No big deal and there was no reason to believe that Romo's health was going to be an issue.  He was still the same old Romo, doing awesome things and doing crazy things and trying to compensate for an offensive line that had been diminished over years of neglect.  
It first became a theme in 2013.  As far as I can tell, this is the first time I started getting worried about where this Romo train was headed.  It was his age 33 season, but there were a few ominous issues starting to creep in that suggested he might not be the same guy that he had been.  
You may recall that spring of 2013 is when he had the "cosmetic procedure" to remove a cyst on his back.  We were assured the entire time that there was nothing really to see here and it was what they said it was.  I am not insisting that we wander down that road again.  But, I will say that almost immediately in 2013, he was showing you moments -- however rare or isolated they may be -- where Romo did not quite seem to be the same "care-free" QB that we knew.  He returned and did a few things to suggest that he knew that not everything was right and he needed to avoid big collisions as much as possible.  
I remember this one from Week 4 of 2013 in San Diego.  It may have been nothing.  But, it stuck in my head that day for quite a while as he began to "hear footsteps" and he would also employ the "chuck and duck" throws that became a bit more of a staple in 2013 and 2014.  The throws where he tries to hang in there to make the throw, but the millisecond it leaves his fingers, he bails out to protect himself rather than holding his follow-through or standing tall in the pocket.  
This one from that day against the Texans in 2014 is a great example of him making this work.  He would do this countless times in 2013 and 2014.  Sometimes it would fall incomplete and other times it would find its target, but it certainly is not the way the position is taught or fundamentally sound to duck for cover before the ball is gone.  
He was doing it out of necessity.  And as the play shows, he was pulling it off.
Which is why I became a bit stubborn about where his health had taken him.  I often liken these things to a fighter pilot.  It isn't when the pilot is actually physically unable to do things when his performance begins to decline, but rather when he mentally realizes his vulnerability and that he comes to terms with the idea that he cannot keep taking these hits anymore like he once was.  
Some people read things like this and get annoyed, but if you watch football for long enough you realize the realities of this savage occupation.  Every player has a finite amount of time to work with and it is up to him to sort through it the best he can.  
If you follow this blog, you know I have tried to identify what is going on in his game a number of times, and you can read my previous thoughts here after the San Diego game and here against Detroit and here against Chicago. I have tried to figure out what they are doing differently and I have definitely looked at play calling and the "risk aversion" theories of Jason Garrett and Tony Romo where they seem to take a "play it safe" mentality into many games - especially on the road - in an effort to stay away from the untimely interception that we also have written about at great length.
In none of those did I actually suggest that he appears afraid to get hit, because that is an incredibly insulting thing to say about a guy who plays a position that requires more courage - even at its most basic level - than most of us have ever been asked or will be asked to exhibit (assuming most of us have never been in combat, etc). He gets hit for a living, so nobody should ever consider terms of soft or wimpy or anything you can come up with for a person who plays QB for a living in the NFL.
But, if we can all agree that the more you get hit, the more it hurts; and the more it hurts, the less you want to get hit, then it would seem to me that there is a reason veteran QBs get rid of the ball quicker than the young guys do (in general). Simply because they have learned the hard way to "pick your spots" to stand in there and take a beating. Further, Romo has been the victim of extremely poor protection for a number of years that has resulted in a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a punctured lung as well as who knows what else we have not had documented. Doctors have a hard time quantifying what the wear and tear does to the body over the course of a decade of treating it like this, but they usually conclude with the statement that "the human body was not designed with this treatment in mind."
Too many times in 2013 (with the exception of the outlier against Denver where he seemed to step on the field and insist on doing everything to win that game even if it meant risking injury and health) it seems that Romo has changed his game to protect himself. Now, that is not a bad thing sometimes. Coaches demand that their QB be smart about their health because the team's success in a salary-capped world is linked the QB's health. However, if your value is someone gained by your ability to keep plays alive and "defy the Xs and Os", then check downs and conservatism seems to be the enemy of that.
Playing QB is largely about allowing your weapons a chance to get open and buying them time. You cannot run deep routes if you are unloading the ball in 2 seconds. 2 seconds goes fast when Dez Bryant is using the 1st second to get past press coverage and really is limited in the routes he can run if the ball is being unloaded too quickly. This largely goes back to protection, but in the NFL, blitzes come constantly and a QB makes his money by performing under duress and making one guy miss on your own with a side step as you stand and deliver. At the same time, if you miscalculate one time, you miss 8 weeks with a broken collarbone or a separated shoulder so we are really only talking about a few moments a game where this should apply.
What does this mean? Sometimes it means checking down for a 2 yard play on 3rd and 10. Sometimes it means hitting the ground before anyone touches you.  
Sometimes it means giving up on a 4th down play and walking off the field instead of trying to improv...
This is a 4th and 10 in Chicago in December of 2013.  So, either convert it or the ball is turned over.  He aborted the play, which may be the smart thing to do for your body.  But, it is not something a younger Romo would have ever considered.   Heck, a year later, he spun to try to make several players miss - including JJ Watt - so we know this was not a permanent issue.  But, it was when my alarms were going off for the first time.  
As you know, he then recovered from that surgery in January of 2014.  He showed up in 2014 and perhaps put together his masterpiece.  He had a team that now had studs everywhere around him and played a season that was either his best or definitely in the mix.  
Health cooperated throughout and we saw these perfect moments from different editions of the Linehan Report all season long.  2014 was truly enjoyable for Romo and a sign that maybe his health was no longer a big issue.
One of the rare times where Tyron Smith gets beaten, by JJ Watt no less, and Romo does not hit the deck.  Instead, he employs the eyes in the back of his head and spins out blindly and hits Williams deep for an amazing touchdown. 
The very next week, he possibly throws out the finest moment of his career.  Game in Seattle is on the line and they need a 3rd and 20.  
That play never gets old.  Nor, does the question of whether he was throwing to Williams or Witten, but I will let that go.  
You will be hard pressed to find many QBs who can do that.   You will also be hard pressed to find a better play in his career.  This could very well be peak-Romo. 
There was also the night where Romo and Dez were humiliating the Eagles on Sunday Night Football in December.  
And, possibly the finest moment of his career on the biggest stage -- the 4th down throw to Dez Bryant in Green Bay.
The fact that this play will not count is a real shame.  To make that throw with everything on the line is something that will unfortunately not score on his ledger in many circles.  
Like I said, talking Romo is something I have done for a long time, so it was not a big surprise to see that this week has been more insanity from both sides.
He is such a polarizing figure that you almost have to distance from both extremes to appear sane. 
One side wants to tell you he was a nobody and will soon be forgotten.  They, of course, are silly.  
But, the other side wants to tell you that he never played with good teams (wrong), great players (wrong), and his only faults were that he was sabotaged by things out of his control (also wrong, but understandable).  
He was my kind of QB.  He was a gunslinger who could never really stop gun-slinging.  We were both raised on Brett Favre, so it is hopefully understandable to see that we both prefer that to the paint-by-numbers QBs -- even if they might have both been even better if they could have harnessed that a bit more.  
As the guy who was most pessimistic about his health, I realize my Romo leanings and reputation have taken a hit in the last few years as I was labeled as a guy "trying to run him off."  That was absurd given that my older reputation was one of a Romo-apologist, but I couldn't help but see what was happening to his body as the Cowboys continued to make cap decisions that indicated they thought he was just fine.  
I won't ever forget him.  In fact, this week, I was compelled to go back to watch one of my favorite Romo games -- in Washington in 2011.  He threw two magnificent "Romo passes" that were improved and off schedule to win the game. 
That beauty to Witten was magical.  
Then, on 3rd and 15 in overtime, he had to keep another play alive to win the game on a throw to Dez Bryant.  
In my opinion, that was peak Romo, too.  Wasted on another 8-8 season that went nowhere.  
Now, he is a broadcaster and those with the energy can argue about his place in history forever and ever, if they want.  I will be comfortable saying he was one of the most enjoyable QBs to cover that I can imagine.  
Just try to remember in the end -- Romo was a miracle.  

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