Tony Romo, both most overrated and underrated QB? The debate says more about us, really

You’re either Team Romo — an unapologetic Romo apologist — or a card-carrying member of the “Romo Sucks” fan club. There’s almost zero middle ground with perhaps the most polarizing player the NFL has seen over the past decade, and perhaps ever.

Romo walking away from his playing days only has sparked the debate more about how good or bad he truly was.

It’s one or the other, didn’t you know?

Has there been a more “memed” NFL player not named Brady in the past decade? (troll.me)
Has there been a more “memed” NFL player not named Brady in the past decade? (troll.me)

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How is it that a player can be so widely touted as both the most overrated player and, simultaneously, the most underrated player in the same debate? Romo was that guy. There might never be another player like him. Romo is both the the Erich von Stroheim — “The Man You Love To Hate” — and Tom Hanks, whom hatred for is punishable by death, all at once.

Romo was just good enough — and bad enough when it counted most — to fire up both ends of the sphere. (via Pinterest)
Romo was just good enough — and bad enough when it counted most — to fire up both ends of the sphere. (via Pinterest)

Certainly, polarizing player debates are nothing new in sports — just ask LeBron James. He was roundly despised for “The Decision,” and that stigma was his crown of thorns for years. It took James going back to Cleveland (after winning two rings, mind you) and winning a championship there in which he carried his hometown team on his overworked back to get people to generally chill on that odd hatred. Even the iciest of hearts backed down a good bit after that.

Were they calling LeBron overrated? Not as much as they were saying he was “not Michael Jordan,” which is about the silliest shade anyone might ever throw — and a compliment to pretty much any human that ever walked the earth.

Yes, of course there’s a Romo-LeBron meme. (onsizzle.com)
Yes, of course there’s a Romo-LeBron meme. (onsizzle.com)

Tom Brady is hated by opponents for, well, being good, handsome, married to a 6-foot model, well-spoken and the winningest QB ever. That’s sort of understandable — especially when you throw in his CHEATING SCANDALS, which really aren’t cheating or scandals, but well, it’s also understandable that a lot of people might not have a great sense of nuance when it comes to #stickingtosports and all that. Maybe stick to something else?

Still — Brady being called overrated is usually dismissed with a chortle, with little more effort required. It’s an anti-trope best reserved for angry young men and talk shows desperate for ratings.

There are still staunch defenders of Tony Romo, and they’re not a silent majority. (onsizzle.com)
There are still staunch defenders of Tony Romo, and they’re not a silent majority. (onsizzle.com)

And yet you can’t reflect on Romo’s polarizing career without looking at the other side of the coin. If you polled 1,000 people who called themselves diehard NFL fans, I don’t know if you’d get 500 to call Romo “underrated.” But you might have 300 of them who fiercely defend the guy. They’ll come armed, often as a defense mechanism, with some fairly salient points too. Like:

  • Most fourth-quarter comebacks from 2006 to 2015

  • Fourth-quarter passer rating of 102.7 (Peyton Manning in his career: 90.5. Brady: 94.3.)

  • Playoff TD-INT ratio of 8-2

  • Unfair blame for dropped extra point — a job he seldom did previously — in playoff loss at Seattle

  • Defensive meltdowns in big games that he received more of the blame for

Even Romo could laugh at the perception of the Cowboys. (Dallascowboys.com, via champsnation.com)
Even Romo could laugh at the perception of the Cowboys. (Dallascowboys.com, via champsnation.com)

There’s merit for all of those. And yet you also can’t ignore Romo’s Week 17 and playoff struggles — there are more untimely turnovers than others, it turns out. This is all part and parcel of Romo’s truly unique football c.v.

But this debate is about more than stats and wins. It’s about perception. It’s about Romo’s Brady-esque good looks and sudden rise. Romo might not have been cloaked in controversy the way Brady has been, but Romo’s Mexico vacation — with Jessica Simpson, which made it only worse — was his version of “The Decision” and is still held against him in some circles.

Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson were connected for a long time, a connective symbol of failure. (AP)
Tony Romo and Jessica Simpson were connected for a long time, a connective symbol of failure. (AP)

It’s also about the Dallas Cowboys, of course, both the most beloved and well-known team (American’s Team!) worldwide and also perhaps the most loathed — by Eagles fans, Giants fans, Redskins fans and also fans of hating things that a lot of people love. It comes with the territory. Romo playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Maybe we’d be able to see his career more for what it actually was.

With Tuesday’s retirement, the Cowboys were the only team — save for a few Eastern Illinois fans lucky enough to see him play in college — Romo was known for and played with. And when he played, it was often on prime time because the Cowboys are always on in prime time. Every interception in crunch time felt like five in our brains.

The injury jokes were common ones. (@theleadsports)
The injury jokes were common ones. (@theleadsports)

Critics say Romo was always hurt. Apologists say Romo was always playing hurt — look how well he played most of the time! — and there’s a difference.

It’s that Romo was a nice guy. Friendly to the media. Good with kids. Disarmingly funny at times. Grew up in small-town America. The jock we wish we were, good at almost every sport he tried. He did charity work. He took bullets for others’ mistakes. Romo read one of the most passionate and heartfelt statements last season amid the whole Dak Prescott awkwardness and put the team first. It was the non-statistical evidence the “underrated” camp needed.

But naturally, there’s this: Romo’s career playoff record was 2-4. It’s a big one for the “overrated” crowd.

For now, anyway. (Pinterest)
For now, anyway. (Pinterest)

Quarterbacks with a better postseason win percentage: Rex Grossman, Michael Vick, Jim Everett, Wade Wilson (Romo’s QB coach for a while), Daunte Culpepper, Kordell Stewart, Drew Bledsoe (the man Romo beat out), Tony Eason, Donovan McNabb, Neil O’Donnell and — most damning — five other Cowboys QBs (Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Craig Morton, Danny White and Steve Beuerlein).

Quarterbacks with equal or worse postseason win percentage: Steve DeBerg, Carson Palmer, Billy Kilmer, Randall Cunningham, Ken Anderson (a man many believe belongs in the Hall of Fame) and actual Hall of Famer Warren Moon. Until January, Romo had a better playoff mark than Matt Ryan, this year’s MVP and a man who knows a thing or two about narratives.

Note the spelling of “atctually.” (memegen.com)
Note the spelling of “atctually.” (memegen.com)

The Romo debate is the Donald Trump debate: No one is backing down. There’s no fine lines, no softening or altering of beliefs. We believe what we want to believe about Romo and his career because it’s easy to pick a story and stick to it. There’s enough evidence on each side of the ledger to spark a debate and never veer from it. You know how no one wanted to talk politics at Thanksgiving last year? There was a Romo-Dak debate somewhere hidden behind the mashed potatoes that easily could have taken its place.

Quarterback legacies are tricky. Most reasonable-minded folk can tell you that Moon (3-7 in the postseason) or Dan Marino (8-10 postseason, one Super Bowl loss) were better quarterbacks than either Trent Dilfer (5-1, Super Bowl win) or Jeff Hostetler (4-1, Super Bowl wins), but postseason victories count and inordinate amount.

Who has had the better career, Tony Romo or Eli Manning? (gamedayr.com)
Who has had the better career, Tony Romo or Eli Manning? (gamedayr.com)

But regular-season statistics cannot be the only barometer either. Is Romo better than, say, Mark Brunell … Roger Staubach … Joe Namath? Eli Manning … Vick … Steve McNair? Palmer … Joe Theismann … Trent Green? What about Jim Kelly, Mr. Four-Time Super Bowl Runner-Up? Those are the 10 names most closely compared to Romo statistically, according to Pro Football Reference.

Yes, this was made … (Pinterest)
Yes, this was made … (Pinterest)

This is what makes Romo a fascinating study. But let’s clear this up: He’s not terrible and he was never the best quarterback in the game either. He was always closer to the top most of the time but — in a few, well-remembered moments — shockingly near the bottom. A few plays don’t define his career. A poor playoff record doesn’t either. But for all the terrific stuff he did from September to December, there’s also a clear void.

Romo should be one of the great QB debates of our time. But instead, his career has become a symbol of our meme-happy, Twitter-basted selves: unwilling to listen to the point the other person is making. Hot takes these days trump the measured approach.

So this is what we get instead.

We are all Crying Romo on this day. (Reddit)
We are all Crying Romo on this day. (Reddit)

More from Shutdown Corner on Tony Romo’s retirement
Tony Romo cut by Cowboys, retires to join broadcast booth
CBS wins bidding war for Romo, makes him analyst on its No. 1 broadcast team
Texans are the main domino to fall in Tony Romo fallout, but there are others
Bonnie Bernstein: ‘Total crap’ that Romo gets No. 1 CBS job with no experience
Is Tony Romo the most overrated and underrated quarterback the NFL has seen?
Jerry Jones, Dak Prescott among those to heap praise on Tony Romo upon his retirement

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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