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Is Romo better than Aikman?

Tim's picture

I knew that headline would get you to read this. You're probably very angry that I would suggest such a possibility (even though Aikman did so himself.) After all, everybody knows that Romo is a bumbling turnover machine, right? He's just not a winner like Aikman, right? Aikman was one of the most accurate passers of all time, and owns three Super Bowl rings.

Let's take a look at a few things that might surprise you.

First, Tony Romo has the lowest career interception percentage of any starting quarterback in Cowboys team history. Lower than Aikman, lower than Staubach, lower than White or Meredith. Even if you don't count Aikman's rookie year, Romo is still less likely to throw an interception than Troy Aikman was.

But Romo has these meltdown games, where he throws multiple interceptions – Aikman didn't do that! Let's take a look, shall we? In his 165 games, Aikman threw two or more interceptions 41 times – that's one out of every four games.

Romo has thrown two or more interceptions in 18 of his 89 games – that's one out of five. Let's stipulate that multiple interception games are always bad. But let's also acknowledge that Tony Romo is less likely to have one than Troy Aikman.

Through his career, Aikman completed 61.5% of his passes; Romo 64.9% - most accurate starting QB in team history. And while one of every 28 Aikman passes went for a touchdown, for Romo, it's one of every 19.

But Aikman was a winner! His 1990s record is the winningest decade by any quarterback in NFL history! Winning is the only stat that matters!

Funny you should mention that. Aikman won 94 career games, 57% of his starts. Right now, Tony Romo has a career win percentage of 59.6 – higher than Aikman's. So who's "just a winner?"

Oh, I know, those numbers don't prove anything, because Romo is just so up and down. Either he's really great, or he's really terrible. The Romocoaster!

There is a measure of quarterback play that might help us quantify consistency. In 89 career starts, Romo has had a passer rating below 50 exactly seven times. Aikman, in 165 career starts, was below 50 a total of 26 times, or nearly twice the frequency of terrible performances that we get from Romo. Romo's lowest rating ever was a 29.6, while Aikman actually posted three games with a passer rating below 5, including one of 0.0 (no, not in his rookie year.)

How about the other end of the spectrum - games with a passer rating above 100? Aikman did that 44 times. Romo has done it 46 times – again, in a little more than half as many starts. In other words, while Romo, like any other quarterback, has had bad days, they are not nearly as frequent as Aikman's, and not nearly as bad as Aikman's worst.

Romo's had excellent days in more than half his games, and almost seven times as often as he's had terrible days. Aikman's excellent games were far less frequent than Romo's, and not even twice as common as his own terrible games. Romo will post a stinker from time to time, like every other quarterback, but the record says his individual performances are more consistently good than Aikman's.

Ah, but (you are thinking) what about DECEMBER-JANUARY? That clutch, vital time of year when Aikman was king and Romo (as everybody knows) just falls apart?

Well, since you asked... Romo in December-January (post-Thanksgiving) has an 11-14* record, completing 64.1% of his passes, with 40 TDs, 23 INTs and a 91.5 passer rating. (One of Romo's losses, by the way, was a game in which he left injured after two pass attempts and a minute and a half of play.)

Aikman? Completed 60.4% of his passes with 40 TDs, 34 INTs and a 79.1 passer rating. He won 21 and lost 20 of those games. (One of Aikman's "wins" by the way, he threw 3 passes before leaving the game injured. It was the last game of his career.)

So was Aikman better in December-January? Maybe by a little, but it doesn't look like a very strong argument in the cold light of facts.

You don't remember it that way, do you? It surprised me, too, but go ahead and look it up for yourself. Super Bowl rings can block out a lot of bad memories. But if the argument is that Romo is not good enough to win a Super Bowl, just remember the numbers above, because those are not opinions. They are facts.

I could have waited to see how this December ends up before writing this, but why? Dallas has some tough games coming up, doesn't play very good defense, and I frankly don't expect them to win more than one or two of them. That, by itself, won't change my opinion of Romo. Romo's the main reason they have a chance to win any of them – but it's a team game.

For the record, I don't think Romo is better than Aikman, but I do think that if he were the biggest problem this team's got, he'd already have a couple of rings.

====
* This total includes one "virtual December" game, when the 10-1 Cowboys played the 10-1 Packers in the first week post-Thanksgiving. The schedulers put the game on Thursday, November 29th. The rest of the league played that week's game on December 2d.

Tim
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In another forum, a commenter brought up Staubach, also. Here is a paraphrase of my response:
 
 
I've said it before, and I'll say again: stats don't mean everything, but they do mean something, and all quarterbacks have bad games. ALL of them. The numbers (and my own eyes) say that Romo has fewer of them than most.
 
Examples?
 
Roger Staubach once went 9 of 20 for 98 yards in an NFC Championship Game loss. He went 10 of 21 for 89 yards, with no TDs and 4 INTs to lose another NFC Championship the very next year.
 
His next play-off run? He "choked" in the Super Bowl, throwing three interceptions in a loss to the Steelers.
 
He followed that up the very next year with a first round home play-off loss in which he completed 15 of 37 with no TDs and 3 INTs.
 
The final two play-off games of Staubach's career were both losses, including another Super Bowl "choke" and another first round loss at home.
 
But all of that happened after he'd already won a Super Bowl, so you couldn't say "he just doesn't have what it takes." We already knew he had what it took, and that's why we don't really remember those embarrassingly horrible, brain-freeze, choker, big game moments. Because Staubach's career is done, and we know he was a winner with two Super Bowl rings.
 
He is rightly remembered as one of the best ever to play the game.
 
Is Romo as great as Staubach? As great as Aikman? Nobody can seriously say that he is right now.
 
My only point is that right now, based on everything we've seen from him, I also don't think we can seriously say that he isnt - or can't be - that great, either.
 
Until (unless) he wins a Super Bowl, Romo's bad days will be the ones we remember; the ones we use to prove that he will just never be any better than that. But Romo has great days, too. Greater and more frequent than most quarterbacks playing in this league right now. If he wins a Super Bowl, all those bad days will be completely forgotten and forgiven.
 
I don't know if Dallas will ever win a Super Bowl with Romo, but if they don't, it won't be because Romo is holding the team back.
 
Just my opinion, and I know it isn't worth more than anybody else's.
 
 

humbulpi
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Tim,
As always, I enjoy and appreciate you sharing your thoughts, opinions, insights and research with us all.
This was a great post! As with any athlete comparison, there are so many intangibles that make comparisons difficult. We all have our bias and do our best to be objective when it comes to athletes that we are fans of.
The stats you've compiled are eye opening to say the least. I knew Tony had great career stats but had no idea he led Troy in son many categories.
It's pretty clear Tony is the better athlete. His speed and agility are certainly superior to Troy. Troy had better arm strength and could thread the needle much better than Tony.
Troy was the better pocket passer, Tony is better when the play breaks down.

We all know they are very different in many ways. The one thing I always go back to in my mind is leadership. I don't recall Troy sitting on the bench during the game 10% of the time Tony does. Troy walked the sidelines talking to guys, near Jimmy, near the receivers...involved! Tony often seems to get inside his own head a lot during the teams defensive series'. Down on himself at times. Dez and the younger guys need a QB to lead by example.
Troy seemed to control the huddle better, guys seemed to know he was the man. He garnered respect. I don't know that Tony has the same respect within the huddle.
Perhaps it's the team culture. Perhaps it's the revolving door on the o-line, inconsistency at RB and former circus atmosphere with TO and now with Dez.
The two had very different supporting casts. I'd love to see what Tony could do with Michael, Emmitt and that O-line!!! I promise he'd have a few rings, too.
I'd also love to see what Troy's superior leadership could have done with TO and the current cast of characters.

For my money, I'll take Troy, his physical tools and his leadership.

Get Tony a consistent O-line, RB and a ring and I may change my mind in a year or two!

Tim
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That's funny, because I remember people complaining at the time that Troy was not a vocal enough leader - especially after Irvin retired. By all accounts, the young guys (in particular Dez) have enormous respect for Romo and want to perform well for him. I think he's doing his part, but I also think "leadership" is over-rated. When a team is doing well, there are all kinds of "leaders." When they aren't, it's everybody's fault.
 
Just for the record, the title I used is a question, and I did say I don't think Romo is "better" and I totally agree there are a lot of non-statistical factors that are part of evaluating players.
 
The main point I was trying to make is that the common criticisms of him (inconsistency, too many bad games, etc) could be made about any quarterback. Romo gives us way more good games than bad, but ultimately it's a team game. 
 
But it ain't Romo that's holding this team back.