When Tony Romo finds Miles Austin for the duo’s first touchdown of the 2013 season, it will be Romo’s 178th career touchdown pass and the 35th career score for Austin. Those numbers are both pretty remarkable when you consider that most of the players’ peers—undrafted free agents from their respective draft classes—are long gone from the NFL. Romo and Austin have been able to overcome long odds to become successful despite being passed over 250-plus times.
Romo and Austin are the cream of the undrafted crop, but the Cowboys have managed to find other gems after the draft. Although the team’s recent mid and late-round picks have been poor, they’ve added depth and even starters with undrafted players such as center Phil Costa, safety Barry Church, and wide receiver Kevin Ogletree. The Cowboys hit on two other undrafted free agents that they let slip away in recent years—quarterback Matt Moore and wide receiver Danny Amendola. Statistically, the ‘Boys are an above-average team when it comes to finding undrafted talent. Since 2000, they rank in the top 10 in starts from undrafted free agents.
And it isn’t as if only the highest-drafted players matter; finding talent after the draft is critical to teams’ success. Actually since 2000, the top seven teams in overall winning percentage all rank in the top 12 in games started from undrafted players. Every single one. And those top 12 teams in terms of finding undrafted players have actually won over 22 percent more games than the bottom 12 teams in undrafted success rate. That’s pretty remarkable over a period of 13 seasons.
As it has for the past seven seasons, the success of the Cowboys will ride on the arm of their biggest undrafted free agent steal of all time. It’s been Romo and his 95.6 career passer rating—the highest ever for an undrafted quarterback—that’s given the Cowboys any sort of hope over the past half-decade. If the team wants to make the jump from playoff to contender to a true winner, they’re going to need to give Romo help by filling out the bottom of their roster with late-round picks and, hopefully, a handful of undrafted free agents who can make real contributions. But they better strike quickly, because the next Romo—a franchise quarterback who manages to get overlooked for seven rounds—might not ever come around again.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.