Tony Romo vs. Troy Aikman
April 18, 2017 by Brad Oremland • Print Story •
Last week, I wrote about Tony Romo's retirement from football and transition to the broadcast booth. I also examined Romo's Hall of Fame résumé, and while I concluded that Romo falls short of HOF greatness, there is an intriguing comparison to be made with fellow Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who is in the Hall of Fame. Subjectively, I rank Aikman ahead, mostly based on his fine postseason record, but I really don't know how this is going to turn out. Let's dive in.
Before we get to anything too complicated, let's start with some numbers. A straightforward reading shows Romo far ahead: their completions are almost identical, but Romo needed fewer attempts, his completions produced more yardage and more touchdowns, and he committed fewer turnovers.
Unsurprisingly, Romo leads in efficiency metrics, as well, just as convincingly.
"The numbers don't lie," we sometimes say. But the numbers do mislead occasionally, and this is such a case. Tony Romo became a starter in 2006, following the "illegal contact" policy that created the modern passing game and effectively blew away all the old records held by players like Dan Marino and Steve Young. Romo also played most of his career with the rule prohibiting contact to the quarterback's helmet, the "Tom Brady rule" that protects quarterback's legs, the elimination of 5-yard face-mask penalties (they're all 15 yards now), and perhaps most importantly, the defenseless receiver rule, which has revolutionized offensive strategy. He's playing the same sport as Aikman, but it's a different game. Stats that were impressive when Aikman played are barely average today. A straight statistical comparison can't give us an accurate picture of these two players.
Fortunately, there's still a way to compare statistics that makes sense: instead of raw numbers, we'll move forward with the statistical concept of gray ink. The numbers you see below show the number of times each player ranked among the NFL's top 10 in that category. Higher numbers are better.
I didn't include interceptions this time, because the guy with the fewest interceptions in a season is almost always a backup with 12 attempts all year. I will include interception percentage, though, when we look at the averages.
Looked at this way, the numbers are basically equal. Romo has 51 "points" of Gray Ink, compared to 48 for Aikman. It seems a little weird if you look back at the numbers on top, but I think the statistics are basically a tie. And contrary to what I would have guessed, Aikman has the more impressive rushing stats: more yards, higher average, more TDs, and fewer fumbles.
Some of you may be familiar with QB-TSP, my preferred system for evaluating quarterback statistics. That also shows these players essentially tied. Aikman has 13,375 TSP and Romo has 13,052. Going by career value ratings, Romo comes in at 20.0, compared to 18.9 for Aikman. One point is not enough to make decisive proclamations, and 300 TSP is nothing when you talk about careers.
Romo had more outstanding seasons, and that's to his credit, but I'm moving forward with the idea that Aikman and Romo are more or less equal statistically.
Any time you're looking at players as successful as Aikman and Romo, you have to look at the players around them. Quarterbacks may be the most important players on the field, but they don't win championships by themselves.
This is the most important category, but it doesn't represent an obvious argument in either player's favor. Aikman played with All-Decade receiver and Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, as well as Pro Bowl tight end Jay Novacek and downfield threat Alvin Harper. Romo played most of his career with either Terrell Owens or Dez Bryant, plus future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten. I'd call that more or less a wash.
Emmitt Smith is one of the five greatest running backs in history, and he was well-rounded, including consistent production as a receiver. Fullback Daryl Johnston will never make the Hall of Fame, but he should. He was the outstanding fullback of his generation, at a time when that still mattered, and no one else was close.
Romo's cast has shifted. The Cowboys' leading rushers in the Romo era were Julius Jones, Marion Barber (three times), Felix Jones, and DeMarco Murray (four times). There are only three 1,000-yard seasons in there. Emmitt rushed for over 1,500 yards three times, and over 1,000 for each of Aikman's last 10 seasons.
That's a gigantic edge for Aikman, with one equally giant caveat. Aikman's Cowboys were first and foremost a rushing offense, while Romo's Cowboys were more often a passing offense. That limited Aikman's production, though it's also to Romo's credit that he was the central player for an effective offense. This is why I like QB-TSP: it accounts for both arguments, and sees them as essentially a draw. The one subject that potentially could tip the balance in Aikman's favor is goal-line offense. Emmitt Smith still holds the record for most rushing touchdowns in a career; he may always hold it — if the league never moves to a 18-game schedule, Smith's record could stand forever. A low TD total is the one glaring inadequacy in Aikman's statistical record, and it is partly explained by Emmitt's effectiveness near the goal line.
The Cowboys had a good offensive line for most of Romo's career. They had a great offensive line — The Great Wall of Dallas — for most of Aikman's career.
I'm lumping the whole defense together, since it has less direct impact on a quarterback than the various offensive positions do. Troy Aikman got much, much better support from his defenses than Romo did. Romo's Cowboys ranked among the top 10 in points allowed only once (2009), but ranked among the bottom 10 three times. Aikman's Cowboys were consistently a top-10 defense. A good defense can put the quarterback in scoring position (by generating takeaways), take pressure off by keeping him out of must-pass situations, and facilitate the playoff and championship appearances that get him recognition. Defensive performance provided Aikman with a massive advantage.
Troy Aikman played five seasons for Jimmy Johnson, four with Barry Switzer, and three at the end of his career with Chan Gailey and Dave Campo. Romo had about half a season with Bill Parcells, followed by Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett; he effectively played his whole career with Garrett running the offense. I count this as an edge for Aikman, basically on the Jimmy Johnson/Norv Turner years.
Aikman got much better support from his team than Tony Romo did, almost across the board. A fair comparison of their careers has to account for that. If the regular-season stats were roughly equal, a consideration of the context in which those stats were created has to shift the advantage to Romo.
In the Clutch
Troy Aikman went 94-71 (.570) as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. Probably that number seems low to you — I know it surprised me. But remember that Aikman went 0-11 as a rookie and 4-7 his last year. Take those out, and he's 90-53 (.629), which probably feels more like what you'd expect. Remove his first three seasons (14-24) and his last three seasons (18-18) — which, obviously that's not fair — and he's 62-29 (.681). That doesn't leave a lot of wins remaining, but it's a hell of a winning percentage, about 11-5 per year.
Tony Romo's record as starter was 78-49 (.614). Aikman's 94 wins, compared to Romo's 78, is a big difference, so you might argue that it's once again close enough to be called a tie. But given that Romo didn't have Emmitt Smith or Erik Williams or Deion Sanders, Tony wins this round.
Aikman's postseason résumé, however, is a lot better than Romo's. The Cowboys were 11-5 in the playoffs with Aikman, and his playoff stats are better than his regular-season averages: 320/502, 3,849 yds, 23 TD, 17 INT, 88.3 rating. Aikman had nine postseason games with a passer rating over 100, all wins, and he was MVP of Super Bowl XXVII: 22/30, 301 total yards, 4 TDs, and a 140.7 rating. Aikman raised his level of play for the postseason, and the more important the game, the more he raised it. I'm skeptical that Aikman had some special clutch "ability" — why wouldn't you play your best in every game? — but he really did play well in the postseason, and that's an important part of his legacy.
Dallas went 2-4 in the postseason with Romo. He played three postseason games with a passer rating over 100, winning two of those. The loss was his final postseason game: January 11th, 2015, at Lambeau Field. You may remember that FOX tried to brand it as "Ice Bowl II." Romo went 15/19 for 191 yards and 2 TDs, a 143.6 rating. But he also got sacked 4 times, Dez Bryant lost a critical reception to the Calvin Johnson rule, and the Cowboys lost 26-21. Romo's per-game stats in the postseason are more impressive than Aikman's, on the surface: 114/185, 1,316 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT, 93.0 rating. But again, that doesn't account for changes in the passing game, nor for quality of competition or Aikman's excellent play in the late rounds of the postseason.
Early in his career, Romo had a reputation for making critical mistakes in the late moments of close games, but later in his career, he was among the finest clutch QBs in the NFL. In 2014, his repeated clutch performances and league-leading passer rating earned him second-team all-pro honors. Aikman never had a reputation as a great comeback QB, and his "clutch" credentials rest mostly on his three Super Bowl rings, but he never had to fight accusations of choking.
Given Aikman's distinguished postseason record, he wins this category — pretty clearly, I think.
I've thrown a lot of numbers at you, but sometimes it's hard to be confident that you've interpreted the stats correctly. How were Aikman and Romo evaluated on a yearly basis?
Aikman was named to six Pro Bowls, and in 1993 the Sporting News named him their all-pro quarterback. Romo was named to four Pro Bowls and he was second-team all-pro in 2014. Aikman leads here, even without counting his Super Bowl MVP award.
This methodology is rough, and most of the differences between Aikman and Romo's accomplishments are small. I think the available evidence suggests a "winner" with some clarity, but let's acknowledge that we are comparing two very fine quarterbacks. I don't think it's particularly controversial to suggest that Aikman is one of the weaker quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or that Romo is a borderline Hall of Famer. Neither had an especially long career; Aikman retired at age 34, Romo at 35. Both established their greatness with peak performance: Aikman during the Cowboys' Super Bowl seasons, and Romo when he could stay healthy.
The gap between these two Cowboys — the second- and third-best quarterbacks in franchise history — is not large, but it favors Troy Aikman.