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The Gut Check No.268 - Insanity Series: QB Tony Romo

Regardless of the outcome, these players are in fantasy ADP situations too crazy to take lightly. 

I kicked off the Insanity Series last week with a reference to the film Shutter Island.  However, the forefather of this Martin Scorcese film is the 1968 Ingmar Bergman film The Hour of The Wolf. Starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, The Hour of The Wolf is about a couple that lives on an island with inhabitants who, according to the cinema blog Southern Vision, "draw in von Sydow, humiliate him, trick him, and convince him he is losing his sanity."

I haven't seen the movie (but after seeing the trailer on YouTube, I will), but it's clear to me that Colin Kaepernick is to Shutter Island as Tony Romo is to The Hour of The Wolf - down to the cast of characters on the football island of Dallas who may not mean to, but have a history of drawing in talented players, humiliating them, tricking them, and convincing them that they are losing their sanity.

Watch the tormented faces in the dining room scene of this movie and I immediately see Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan, Miles Austin, and Demarco Murray looking and laughing at Romo. Think I'm going overboard? Substitute the media and fans for his surrounding dysfunction and Romo gets it from all sides. 

It's enough to drive a sane fantasy owner to an insane view of the Cowboys' quarterback.

This is especially when you get smart writers like Danny Tuccitto who stated in his 2012 Football Outsiders piece Kubiak vs. ADP: The Overrated : "Ranked seventh according to ADP, is [Romo] really that much better than guys being taken after him like Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matt Schaub?"

I have a definitive answer of "yes" at the end of this piece (thanks to Scott Kacsmar) if you're seeking pure football answer, but you're here to learn about the fantasy angle. 

Last year, Romo was QB7 with 348.9 points. Manning? QB14 with 289.4 points. Rivers? QB20 with 273.4 points. Roethlisberger? QB21 with 263.8 points. And Schaub? QB18 with 274.9 points.

Hindsight may be a harsh mistress, but she is a valuable teacher. I don't blame Tuccitto for having this take last year; I would have had similar thoughts.

But last year revealed some compelling qualitative factors when comparing Romo to the likes of Rivers, Manning, and Roethlisberger:

  • All four dealt with vulnerabilities along the offensive line.
  • All four dealt with injuries to starting wide receivers.
  • Three of the four lost a productive offensive weapon to free agency without a quality replacement.  

These weaknesses led to depressed production from all but Romo. Regardless of the offensive line woes, injured running backs, Miles Austin's legs, and Dez Bryant's conditioning and legal woes, the Cowboys' passer has been a top-10 fantasy quarterback five of the past six seasons. His consistency with decision-making at important points of individual games might be maddening, but he rarely hurts fantasy owners who are able to build strong teams around him.

Last year was more of the same for Romo: poor offensive line, Murray on the shelf after 10 games, Witten dealing with an early-year spleen injury, and Austin blowing another tire, but he still posted career highs in completions, attempts, and yardage. In fact, his 4903 yards was his best effort by nearly 500 yards.

It helps that the light finally turned on for Bryant, but even the most sanely skeptical person has to presume that at least two of Bryant, Murray, Witten, and Austin will stay healthy all year and three of them will play at least 10 games. If that happens, how can you not like Romo to exceed 4400 yards and 25 touchdowns?

These are crucial statistical checkpoints. Get in the range of 4500 total yards and 25 total touchdowns and it's a consistent fantasy line of demarcation between quality QB1 and borderline QB2 production. Here are recent point differentials.

  • 2012 - 12.7 points between QB7 and QB10 and 25.4 points between QB10 and QB 11.
  • 2011 - 27.8 points between QB7 and QB10 and  18.1 points between QB10 and QB 11.
  • 2010 - 5 points between QB7 and QB10, and 12.9 points between QB10 and QB 11.

To give you a better idea where Romo fits within the QB1-QB cliffs of the past three years, the Cowboys quarterback was 12 points from QB7 in 2012 (and virtually tied with QB's 8-10); he was QB7 in 2011; and he was injured in 2010. I'll argue that Romo would have made that point differential in 2010 greater if he was healthy and playing as he has every other year since 2007.

While the point differential between QB7 and QB10 is often a lot smaller than QB1 and QB5 (over 50 points two of the past three years), this is an area where I think the stats can fool fantasy owners. A careful balance of data, player, and team situation can yield profitable decisions if you wait to pick a QB after the top seven are off the board. David Dodds' Perfect Drafts are good examples where QB by committee can work. 

But with this approach you either have to count on making strong decisions with your quarterbacks each week or have one vastly outperform expectations so you can set him and forget him. If you want to play it safe and pay a little more for a set-it-and-forget-it starter at the position, then perhaps it's time to look beyond the data.

As mentioned earlier, Romo has been inside the top 10 for 5 of the past 6 seasons. These are the other quarterbacks who can rival Romo's season-to-season fantasy consistency since 2007 who have at least three years of starter experience:

  • Drew Brees - no worse than top 6.
  • Tom Brady - no worse than top 8 in 5 of last 6 seasons.
  • Aaron Rodgers - no worse than top 2 in his 5 seasons as a starter.
  • Peyton Manning - no worse than top 6 in 5 of last 6 seasons.
  • Matt Ryan - three consecutive top 10 seasons after first two years in league.
  • Philip Rivers - four consecutive top 10 seasons between 2008 and 2011.

I'd add Cam Newton to the group because his first two seasons are on par with the first three on this list and he's done it without a full complement of superstars like Ryan, Brady, or Rodgers. Matt Stafford also earns consideration with two seasons inside and top-10.

I'll even think it's reasonable to give Eli Manning some benefit of the doubt because of the injury woes of last year that derailed a shot at a fourth consecutive year inside the top 10. But Manning also played well below expectation in enough games that I don't feel as safe with him. In fact, if you remove Calvin Johnson from Detroit, Stafford - as much as I like his talent - we would likely see the Lions quarterback's fantasy totals sink before the team learns to swim without Johnson.

Then there's Rivers, whose production went off a cliff last year. He presents higher risk at this point and moves into tier of higher-risk players like Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer. Grabbing one from the group of Robert Griffin, Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, first is advisable.

As a risk-oriented fantasy owner I'm fine rolling with two of Cutler, Rivers, and Palmer, but you have to know what will stretch you past the point of sanity. If you're seeking a safe, proven, and productive fantasy quarterback who has delivered at least solid, QB1 stats through rain, sleet, snow, or dark of night at a level of reliability approaching the Brees-Brady-Manning-Rodgers foursome, then Romo stands alone among those back-end QB1s that go off the board between rounds 5-10.

At this point, Romo has an ADP of QB12. From a risk management perspective, it's a bargain. After Matt Ryan (QB6), none of the passers from Colin Kaepernick (QB7) to Andrew Luck (QB11) have a proven, elite receiver and elite tight end. Four of them are second-year starters.

Even as a QB6 or QB7, Romo has upside as good or better than Kaepernick, Robert Griffin, or Russell Wilson if the names Bryant, Austin, Witten, and Murray earn the word "healthy" throughout the season. Keep in mind that this QB12 ADP is deceptive, because the value of these six quarterbacks is tight enough among drafting tendencies that Romo is capable of leaving the board before all of them. The Expert column on the ADP reports is a good indication that there's a strong chance for this to happen as we enter the preseason and a larger percentage of owners begin studying rankings and opt for the safe bet that Romo offers.

The more I look at Romo's history, situation, and support despite appearances of dysfunctional management and unreliable talent, the more I realize that Romo has been a rock for fantasy owners. It's a bit insane to me that he's dropping to QB12 when things are finally coming together.

Think Romo might be a decent fantasy quarterback, but a choke artist in real life? You need more intensive therapy. I encourage you to read Scott Kacsmar's great article NFL Myth-busting: Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys Are America's Choker's that came out as I was proofing this piece. That data shows this is folk tale more than fact. 


More from Matt Waldman:

The Gut Check No.329: 2015 Free Agent 50 - December 16
Gut Check No.328: Anatomies and Autopsies, Part II - December 9
Gut Check No.327: Anatomies and Autopsies - Part I - December 2
Gut Check No.326: Stretch Run Sandmen - November 25
Gut Check No.325: Swinging the Mallett - November 18
Gut Check No.324: What to Expect From Josh Gordon - November 11
Gut Check No.323: QBs/TEs Moving the Needle - November 4
Gut Check No.322: RBs/WRs Moving the Needle - October 28
Gut Check No.321: Boobie and Bryce - October 21
Gut Check No.320: Fantasy Mid-Season Review - October 14