The title of this post might give away that I’m a skeptic when it comes to the case for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to win the NFL MVP award this year. When I first heard the topic broached on ESPN’s First Take earlier this week, I just wrote it off as pundit Skip Bayless making his latest jump off the deep end on behalf of his beloved Cowboys. I went in to research Dallas top-to-bottom and disprove the Romo-for-MVP case. Instead, I find myself at least respecting the argument.
What I want to do is place Romo’s play within the overall performance of the Dallas team itself, as measured by basic statistical performance and their scores from ProFootballFocus.com, which grades every player on every play in every game of the NFL season.
I was convinced that placing Romo’s play in context would show that the Cowboys’ run to the NFC East title was really driven by the offensive line, and that their MVP candidate was running back DeMarco Murray.
And make no mistake about it, the PFF film review shows good things for the Dallas front five. Travis Frederick scores as the second-best center in the league. Zack Martin ranks seventh among the 64 starting guards. Tyon Smith and Doug Free are each in the upper third of the league at the tackle position.
Murray’s numbers are spectacular. He’s been a workhorse, easily carrying the ball more than any other back in the league and still posting a 4.7 yards-per-rush, which is eighth among qualifying running backs. That’s a terrific average off that kind of volume.
Murray’s 1,745 yards are over four hundred yards more than the next-leading rusher. To put it in perspective, the yardage gap between Murray and runner-up Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the same as that between Bell and the #12 rusher on the list.
But running the ball alone wouldn’t deliver Dallas. Even though their defense improved from being the worst in the NFL to ranking 16th in points allowed, if you want to build around the rush game, it requires a strong defense to go hand-in-hand, a la the Seattle Seahawks. A league-average defense won’t cut it unless you can throw the ball.
This is what Romo has done throwing the football—he’s completed 70 percent of his passes. The yards-per-pass average is 8.49, best in the league. He’s only thrown eight interceptions, seventh-best in the NFL. This is in spite of pass protection that’s average, as the Cowboys rank 14th in the NFL in sacks allowed—Cowboy offensive lineman grade out better in run-blocking than in pass-protection.
There is a minor wart—the interceptions come in spite of Dallas attempting the second-fewest passes in the league, so you can still argue that “The Romo-Coaster” throws picks at a rate slightly higher than what should happen based on the number times he throws. And you can fairly point out that Romo’s got two great targets in wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten.
But the wart is minor and when it comes to weapons, it’s not as though Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning are throwing to a bunch of stiffs. Tom Brady doesn’t have the same kind of weapons, but plays with a better defense, that loosens the pressure on him each possession.
What it all adds up to is that Tony Romo is completely an insanely high percentage of passes, still getting very good chunks of yardage on those passes, making relatively few mistakes and putting points on the board for a team that depends on its offense to win.
I don’t know that I’ve come so far as to actually pick Romo for MVP. But earlier this week, I muttered to myself that if he won the award I would scream. I suppose as a fan of the Washington Redskins, I still will. But as an observer of the NFL, I can’t deny that he’s got a legitimate case and would be as fair a choice as any.
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