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Where Does Tony Romo Rank Among All-Time Dallas Cowboys Quarterbacks?

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 12, 2014

We often debate Tony Romo's place among the current NFL quarterback batch, and it's always a hot discussion.

That's because Romo's numbers are superb, but he has been known to make big errors in big moments, inflating the perception that he isn't whatever the hell "elite" is. Plus, while the Cowboys have been competitive year in and year out with Romo under center, the fact remains they've won just a single playoff game during the Romo era. 

That doesn't bode too well for Romo in this comparison because we're going to mix things up in true July fashion by finding Romo's place among the best quarterbacks who have ever suited up for the Dallas Cowboys

Considering that Dallas has won 33 playoff games and been to eight Super Bowls (both tied for the most ever) and that two of the team's former quarterbacks have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it won't be easy for Romo to win this one. However, he might fare a lot better than many of you would expect. 

The game has undergone enormous changes from era to era, especially when it comes to passing, so it's silly to compare stats at face value from one time to another. And so when we examine Romo's legacy in comparison to past greats, we'll stick to where each ranked among his peers in key categories.

Unfortunately, we don't have advanced stats at our fingertips for players from the past, so we'll stick to the familiar numbers. And we'll ignore borderline-useless metrics such as completion percentage and passing yards.

For an explanation as to why we're, instead, going to focus on touchdowns, interceptions, yards per attempt, passer rating and adjusted YPA, see this in-depth breakdown on the hierarchy of quarterback stats.

The way we see it, there are five obvious quarterbacks whom we can compare Romo to: Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, three-time Pro Bowler Don Meredith, Pro Bowler Danny White and Craig Morton, who won a lot and actually has the highest YPA among all-time Cowboys signal-callers. 

Rather amazingly, no other quarterback in Cowboys history has started more than 31 games (Quincy Carter) or thrown more than 45 touchdown passes (Eddie LeBaron). Aside from Romo and the five names above, this team has literally zero quarterbacks of note in its history. 

Let's break it down case by case, starting from the presumptive bottom:


Tony Romo vs. Craig Morton

When we compare these quarterbacks, we'll be looking at where each ranked among qualifying peers during the time between his first year as a regular starter and his last year in that role, using only key rate-based stats. 

In this case, we're looking at Morton between 1969 and 1972. The window for him was small, as he was promoted upon Meredith's sudden retirement and was eventually beat out by Staubach, who was the clear starter by 1973.

For Romo, we'll always be looking at 2006 through 2013.

Romo vs. Morton: Key stats (rankings)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

As you can see, they were both clearly top-10 quarterbacks, but the difference was the sample size. Romo has sustained his numbers for eight years and has in fact improved. Morton threw more picks than touchdowns before losing his starting job early in 1971. He only got it back in ‘72 because Staubach was hurt. And beyond that, he was done.

When he was at his best in 1969 and 1970, he was right there with Romo. But he flamed out after that. He also had some good moments in later in Denver, posting top-five passer ratings in 1977 and 1981, but there’s little doubt that Romo has made a much more significant impact on the Cowboys.

Romo vs. Morton: The other stuff
Win %Playoff winsSuper BowlsPro BowlsMVP
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

This is tremendously misleading. The Cowboys were simply better then. During that four-year stretch, between ‘69 and ‘72, the defense gave up fewer points than all but four other teams, and it ran for more yards than everybody except the Miami.

Plus, look at what Morton did in his three playoff “wins"...

Craig Morton's playoff wins
3 wins31.12-33.934.5
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

That's unbelievable. Romo has a sizeable edge in almost every way.  


Tony Romo vs. Danny White

White took over for the retired Staubach in 1980 and was the regular starter before being replaced by Steve Pelluer in 1988. That makes this a nice even comparison of two eight-year stretches. 

Romo vs. White: Key stats (rankings)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Romo blows him out of the water. White made the Pro Bowl with a 91.1 rating in 1982 but was never able to get back to that point. 

Romo vs. White: The other stuff
Win %Playoff winsSuper BowlsPro BowlsMVP
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

White did have a knack for winning games, especially in the playoffs. All five of those playoff wins came between 1980 and 1983, a stretch during which he also posted a 41-15 regular-season record. Of course, having Tony Dorsett and Randy White didn't hurt.

During that stretch, the Dallas defense gave up fewer points than all but six other teams, and the Cowboys had the second-most productive running game in football. 

For the sake of comparison, during the Romo era, the Cowboys rank 19th defensively and 23rd in terms of rushing yards. 

If White led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory, this would be up for debate. But since that didn't happen, Romo takes the victory.  


Tony Romo vs. Don Meredith

Meredith took over for LeBaron in 1962 and was the regular starter before retiring after the 1968 season. 

Romo vs. Meredith: Key stats (rankings)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Romo holds up a little better. And sure, Meredith was contending with guys such as Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Y.A. Tittle, Len Dawson, Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen, but it's not as though Romo has had it easy with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers. Both played in golden ages for quarterbacks. 

Romo vs. Meredith: The other stuff
Win %Playoff winsSuper BowlsPro BowlsMVP
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Playoff wins were much harder to come by in the days before wild-card and divisional-playoff games, but Meredith never really stood out aside from that one victory over the Cleveland Browns in the 1967 playoffs. He was 11 of 13 for 212 yards and two touchdowns, posting a perfect passer rating as Dallas won 52-14.

That performance got Dallas to the famous “Ice Bowl,” which it lost to the Green Bay Packers. But the fact that Meredith was lights-out between 1966 and 1968 and the fact that the Cowboys came close to the Super Bowl in all three of those seasons (making it in ‘67) has me thinking Meredith might actually hold an edge over Romo.

Of course, it’s a team game. Romo might have a Hall of Famer or two surrounding him right now, but Meredith had Bob Hayes, Mel Renfro, Bob Lilly and Rayfield Wright. During that three-year stretch in which Meredith made his legacy, the Cowboys gave up fewer points than all but four other teams and rushed for more yards than all but three.

It's an extremely close call. The power of nostalgia might help "Dandy Don's" cause because he was adored by Cowboys fans, but I think he has a very small edge right now regardless. He walked away in his prime at 30, though, and Romo still has a chance to win some big games in an attempt to leapfrog the franchise's first star quarterback. 


Tony Romo vs. Roger Staubach

Staubach took over for Morton in 1971 and served until retiring after the 1979 season. 

Romo vs. Staubach: Key stats (rankings)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

This era wasn't as strong for quarterbacks, but Staubach still crushed guys such as Tarkenton, Dawson and Ken Stabler. He stood out in a big way. 

Romo vs. Staubach: The other stuff
Win %Playoff winsSuper BowlsPro BowlsMVP
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Staubach was also a Bert Bell MVP award winner, a Super Bowl MVP and is now in the Hall of Fame. At the age of 34, Romo would need a miracle to get within Staubach's range. 


Tony Romo vs. Troy Aikman

Aikman started from his rookie season in 1989 until his retirement in 2000. 

Romo vs. Aikman: Key stats (rankings)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

This gets a little complicated here. Aikman’s raw rate-based numbers were never phenomenal. But he started as a rookie on a bad team during a significantly different era than the one he finished in. As a result, lesser players from the sample range who started their careers later have misleadingly better numbers. Mark Brunell, Brad Johnson and Elvis Grbac are three such examples.

His interception rate of 3.0 was still only 0.3 points higher than Romo’s, and his completion percentage of 61.5 was lower than only Steve Young, Joe Montana and Johnson.

Ultimately, these numbers are skewed by how long Aikman lasted as well as how many problems he and the Cowboys had early on.

For a more fair comparison to Romo, let’s remove his first two and last two seasons. That would place him exactly where Romo is right now, career-wise.

Romo (2006-2013) vs. Aikman (1991-1998)
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

That's a little more reasonable. 

Romo vs. Aikman: The other stuff
Win %Playoff winsSuper BowlsPro BowlsMVP
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Aikman was 0-11 as a rookie. If we again remove those outside years, his winning percentage was .667. He's also in the Hall of Fame and has a Super Bowl MVP. And if there was any doubt, he had Romo easily, here are his combined numbers from the 1992 and 1993 playoffs:

Troy Aikman: 1992 and 1993 playoff stats
6 games6-071.413-38.7115.7
Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Aikman wins, hands down. 


So, Tony Romo is the fourth-greatest quarterback in Cowboys history

But a good playoff run or two could change that. The same holds true for a single Super Bowl berth, an MVP-caliber season or a few Pro Bowl-type campaigns. The point is that it’s already debatable whether Meredith was better, and Romo has time to change that—for better or for worse.

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