Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tony Romo Retires and Moves to CBS

By Brad Oremland

Last week, in a move that managed to be surprising and somewhat expected at the same time, longtime Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo announced his retirement from football. After two years sidelined by injury, Romo — who has dealt with serious back injuries — is moving on from the Cowboys, but he's not leaving football. Instead, the former Eastern Illinois QB will find a new home in the broadcast booth, replacing Phil Simms as the top color analyst for CBS.

There's a lot to talk about here:

1. The retirement of a player who, when healthy, might be a top-10 quarterback
2. The shake-up at CBS
3. The Pro Football Hall of Fame

To address the first point, let's begin in 2014. Romo led the NFL with a 113.2 passer rating, and the Associated Press named him second-team all-pro. In the two seasons since, injuries have limited Romo to four starts and 125 pass attempts. In his one appearance last season, Romo went 3-of-4 for 29 yards and a touchdown. He looked great. But Romo is 36, and with 23-year-old Offensive Rookie of the Year Dak Prescott signed for less money, the Cowboys are moving on. No one traded to acquire Romo, since they knew the Cowboys were going to release him. Romo probably could have landed a starting job with a good team like the Texans or Broncos, and taken one or two more runs at a Super Bowl. It's a shame; I think we all wanted to see what Romo would do if he came back.

Instead, he's jumping into broadcasting. That makes sense. Tony is charismatic and bright, he knows the modern passing game as few others do, and the money is great. He's replacing Phil Simms as the lead booth analyst for CBS. Simms tried hard — maybe too hard sometimes — but he wasn't a popular analyst. Romo is getting thrown into the deep end, facing a national audience without any chance to learn the ropes first, and there are likely to be some hiccups. I, for one, will probably be unfairly harsh toward Romo a couple times this fall. But I'm also cautiously optimistic that this represents a step forward by the worst football network on television, and I'm excited to find out what Romo will bring to the table. His biggest challenge, other than the general adjustment to his new job, will be providing honest and candid criticism. The problem with using recently retired players as analysts is that they're often reluctant to criticize their friends in the game. That's understandable, but it makes for a boring and untrustworthy analyst.

But I suspect that for many fans, the final question is the most interesting. Is Tony Romo a Hall of Famer? That's really two separate questions — does he deserve it, and will he make it? The second question is easy to answer: not a chance. There are three ways to really impress Hall of Fame voters. One is to win a bunch of championships, but Romo never appeared in a conference championship game, to say nothing of winning the Super Bowl. Another is to play forever and accumulate impressive stat totals. But Romo got a late start, struggled with injuries, and is now retiring earlier than he had to. He ranks between 20th and 30th in both passing yards (34,183) and touchdowns (248), totals which are pretty good, but don't scream HOF.

Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger — contemporaries who are on the Hall of Fame bubble — all out-rank Romo by over 10,000 yards and 50 TDs. Slam dunks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are ahead by more like 30,000 yards and 200 TDs. HOF voters are traditionally more impressed by raw totals than by averages, and Romo's totals aren't HOF-level in today's game.

The third way to impress voters is to utterly dominate in your prime. Tony Romo was a good QB every season, but he was never the best and he was never especially close. He never led the league in passing yards or TDs, and the one year he led in passer rating, he only attempted 435 passes. So no, Tony Romo's not going to the Hall of Fame. I'd be surprised if he's ever a Finalist.

Now, none of that means Romo doesn't deserve serious consideration for Canton. He started at least half the Cowboys' games eight times, and in all eight seasons he was a good player; his passer rating was over 90 all eight years. That kind of consistency is special. He's 10th all-time in touchdown-interception differential (+131), right between Joe Montana (+134) and Steve Young (+126). Speaking of Young, he — like Romo — only had eight productive seasons. Fellow Cowboys QB and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach only played eight productive seasons. Romo's short career limits his Hall of Fame credentials, but it isn't disqualifying.

What separates Young and Staubach is that they were the best QBs of their generations. Young was all-pro six times. He won two MVP awards and a Super Bowl MVP. In the 1990s, Young led the NFL in every rate stat apart from interception percentage, where he ranked 2nd. He's also the greatest run-pass dual threat in history. Staubach retired with the highest passer rating in NFL history. He started four Super Bowls in eight years, won twice, and was named MVP of Super Bowl VI. He was the first-team QB on the NFL's All-1970s Team, and his +45 TD/INT +/- in the '70s nearly doubled the second-place tie between Fran Tarkenton and Ken Anderson (+24). Like Young, he was a brilliant runner, ranking among the top 10 rushing QBs every full season of his career. Staubach was regarded as a great clutch player, nicknamed Captain Comeback.

Perhaps the most hopeful comparison for Romo is newly-elected HOFer Kurt Warner, who only had four healthy seasons in his NFL career. But even Warner has obvious advantages: he played in three Super Bowls, winning once, and he was NFL MVP twice. There's precedent for quarterbacks with short careers to make the Hall of Fame, but only with substantially more hardware than Romo.

The most intriguing comparison for Romo is fellow Cowboy and first-ballot Hall of Famer Troy Aikman. Reasonable people can disagree on whether Romo was better than Aikman. Aikman himself has said so, though some might attribute that to graceful modesty. Personally, I score it the other way, a slight edge for Aikman. Romo's stats are probably a little better — a lot better out of context, but you can't directly compare stats from 1994 and 2011 — but Aikman played on a much different offense, and he was one of the most successful postseason QBs in history, winning three Super Bowl rings. I feel like Aikman is a deserving Hall of Famer, albeit a weak one, and Romo is not. But I also feel like the gap between Aikman and Romo is small enough to suggest an argument on Romo's behalf.

Two years ago, I ranked Tony Romo as the 34th-best quarterback of the Modern Era. He's barely played since then, and Ben Roethlisberger has clearly passed him, so that puts Tony 35th on my list. 35th is good. It's probably not good enough for the Hall of Fame. I wouldn't vote for him.

But Tony Romo was a very good player, and his "unclutch" reputation is exaggerated and unfair. He went 78-49 (.569) as starter. In 2011, Romo led a game-winning comeback with a broken rib and a punctured lung. In 2012, he led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks. In 2013, he threw a season-saving, last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass — on the road against a major rival — while playing with a season-ending back injury. In 2014, he played through two transverse process fractures in his back, and he was acclaimed as the greatest clutch QB of the season. I wish Romo would play football in 2017. But he's not leaving the lives of pro football fans, and hopefully he brings the same talent to the broadcast booth that he did to the field.

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