Lost in the shuffle of the Cowboys’ memorable Week 17 collapse in the nation’s capital is the fact that quarterback Tony Romo actually played quite well down the stretch. We’ll all remember Romo’s horrific showing against the Redskins, and for good reason; Romo’s 54.1 percent completion rate, 5.89 YPA, and 55.9 passer rating were all the worst of any game in 2012. There’s no way around it; Romo stunk in Week 17.
The Cowboys’ 28-18 loss was so bad for Romo that he actually threw as many interceptions (3) in that game as he did in the eight prior games combined. During those eight games, Romo completed 65.5 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, three picks, and 327 yards per game.
Romo’s outstanding late-season play will be forgotten, but it’s also reflected in his off-target passes. I track every one of Romo’s throws as being either “on-target” or “off-target.” It helps determine how well Romo is really playing because it accounts for things like drops and receivers failing to get open. It’s really a gauge of whether or not Romo is making the throws that he can.
Romo threw 93 off-target passes in 2012—14.4 percent of all throws—or nearly six per game. A lot of times, Romo actually plays either better or worse than his stats indicate, and the off-target throws reflect it. Against the Chicago Bears, for example, Romo tossed five interceptions, prompting many to call it one of his worst games ever. The truth is that Romo didn’t play all that bad against the Bears; he threw only five off-target passes all game—one fewer than in his average contest.
Similarly, Romo sometimes plays poorly but gets lucky in that the defense doesn’t capitalize on his mistakes. Against the Bengals, for example, Romo was below-average. Cincinnati dropped numerous potential interceptions, however, so the one interception Romo threw wasn’t representative of a day that included 10 off-target attempts.
As the 2012 season progressed, Romo actually became more accurate. His percentage of off-target passes decreased in every quarter of the season except the last.
Games 1-4: 25 (16.6 percent)
Games 5-8: 24 (14.4 percent)
Games 9-12: 21 (12.7 percent)
Games 13-16: 23 (13.9 percent)
The final game in Washington aside, Romo’s off-target rate in the three prior games was just 11.7 percent. We can’t take the Redskins game out of the sample—nor should we—but it shows that a lot of people might be overreacting to Romo’s 2012 struggles due to a recency bias, i.e. the tendency to weight recent events more heavily than prior ones. The quarterback doesn’t have many years of elite play left in him, but he’s not on a steep decline just yet.
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.