- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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IRVING, Texas – It’s simply inaccurate to say that Tony Romo always finds a way to crumble during crunch time.
Romo has pulled off 18 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career, a few more than Roger Staubach, aka Captain Comeback. Romo has engineered 19 game-winning drives, including five last season. And Romo has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating (102.0) in NFL history.
However, there is no denying the disturbing trend of terribly timed turnovers by Romo. Of course, there’s a lot of screaming about the subject after Romo’s spectacular performance Sunday ended with his only interception in the last four games, essentially gifting the Denver Broncos the game-winning field goal.
That conjured up some of the Cowboys’ most miserable memories from the last five years, a subject that coach Jason Garrett sees no reason to avoid.
“I think you address it head-on and you evaluate what happened on the play and what his thought process was and what he saw,” Garrett said Monday. “You not only evaluate the player, but you evaluate the situation and that decision that he makes in that situation. You also evaluate the physical part of it. Were his feet right? Was he able to throw the ball where he wanted to throw it, when he wanted to throw it? So I think you evaluate all those things.
“From a mindset standpoint, I think the big thing you want to do in that situation is just recognize what the situation is and you recognize risk and reward, all those kinds of things. I think each of those cases is different. When he has success, they’re different and you want to evaluate those things, and certainly when you have things that don’t work out, you try to evaluate them individually as much as you do this big generalization that people tend to want to make.”
In the most recent instance, Romo’s mistake was trying to squeeze the ball to rookie tight end Gavin Escobar in tight coverage instead of throwing the ball to a wide-open DeMarco Murray across the middle on a checkdown. Left tackle Tyron Smith got pushed into Romo as he threw, but Garrett said Romo should have felt the rush and slid to his right before delivering the ball.
In a December 2008 game against Pittsburgh, with the score tied and less than two minutes to play, Romo made a hurried throw to tight end Jason Witten with pressure coming from his right side. Steelers safety DeShea Townsend picked it off and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown that started the Cowboys’ December downfall.
In the 2011 opener, a prime-time affair with a huge national audience watching a tie game, Romo sprinted to his right on a designed rollout and simply made an awful read. His pass hit Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis in the numbers, setting up the game-winning field goal.
In Week 4 of 2011, with the Cowboys protecting a three-point lead with 4:22 remaining, Romo felt pressure in his face and threw off his back foot, allowing a linebacker to pick off a pass intended for Witten 20 yards downfield. That set up the Lions’ game-winning touchdown, which completed a 24-point comeback also fueled by a pair of pick-sixes.
Romo threw off his back foot again on his final interception of the 2012 regular-season finale. Linebacker Rob Jackson’s pick of an underthrown swing pass to Murray essentially punched the Redskins’ playoff ticket and sealed the Cowboys’ 8-8 fate.
This won’t dull the pain of Romo’s back-breaking picks, but perhaps it’s worth noting that proven clutch quarterbacks occasionally throw interceptions with the game on the line.
In the final three minutes of one-score games, Romo has had seven of 272 attempts intercepted during his career. A sample of Super Bowl winners with much higher pick percentages in such situations since Romo became a starter in 2006: Eli Manning (15 of 220), Drew Brees (13 of 234), Ben Roethlisberger (13 of 249) and Joe Flacco (seven of 136).
Nevertheless, any clutch pick is a problem. These are plays that Garrett and Romo have studied, but there are no simple solutions.
“You come to different conclusions,” Garrett said. “Again, you don’t want to make a huge generalization: ‘Whenever something bad happens, it’s because of this.’ You want to try to make those evaluations, and typically what happens in those situations with Tony and with any quarterback is you might be under duress, you might not see something the way you thought you saw it and there might be a physical error involved as well.
"I don’t think you can put a big blanket over it and say, 'This is the reason.'"