Public perception says that Manning is the better quarterback, based
largely exclusively on his post-season success and reputation as a clutch quarterback. And there’s a good reason he has such a reputation: Manning has won 8 of his last 9 playoff games and tied NFL single-season records with seven 4th-quarter comebacks and eight game-winning drives in 2011. Romo has a reputation as the chokiest of chokers, is 1-3 in playoff games, and has been less stellar than Manning late in games. While Manning has 21 career 4th quarter comebacks and is 21-22 in games where he had an opportunity for a 4th quarter comeback, Romo is just 13-20 in 4th quarter comeback opportunities. But let’s leave that to the side for now.
Because based on their regular season statistics, Romo absolutely crushes Manning, at least statistically. The gap shrunk significantly in 2011, but Romo’s track record of production and efficiently is considerably more impressive. Manning entered the league in 2004 but struggled his first three years; Romo first started in 2006 and was above average immediately. But let’s just focus on the past five seasons. The table below displays the statistics each quarterback produced from 2007 to 2011. Note that since Romo has missed time due to injury, I have added a third row, which pro-rates Romo’s numbers to 80 starts:
Romo leads in completion percentage, passing yards per game, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns per game, interceptions per game, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted net yards per attempt, rushing, fumbles and converted yards per play. And most of those categories aren’t even that close. The last one, converted yards per play, is probably the most important here, as it takes into account all of the other statistics. (I explained the metric in part 1 of my Greatest Quarterback of All-Time series.) Now turnovers are more random than most think, and from a predictive standpoint, they don’t necessarily tell us a lot about a quarterback’s future performance.1 But over the last five years Manning has been a turnover machine, with 111 turnovers over his 80 regular season starts;2 even looking at pro-rated numbers, Romo only has3 89 turnovers. That’s not an insignificant difference; add in the fact that Romo has a half-yard edge in NY/A and 26 more pro-rated touchdowns (and the same number of actual touchdowns), and Romo’s statistics have been significantly more impressive. Roughly to the tune of over a converted yard per play over the last five years.
That differential is larger than you probably think. The table below lists the top 25 quarterbacks in converted yards since 2007, and sorts them by converted yards per play (essentially ANY/A with a bonus for rushing touchdowns and a penalty for fumbles; other rushing data is ignored). Jets fans, look away. Trust me.
Romo is far behind Brady and Rodgers, but he’s essentially tied with Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning (the group is separated by four-hundredths of a yard per play). The younger Manning ranks a respectable 12th, but his production is closer to QB23 than QB3. If not for the “choker” and “clutch” labels they both possess, Romo would be viewed as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks while Manning would be an above-average starter.
To be fair to Manning, he’s improving. His CY/P has jumped from 4.4 to 5.7 to 6.2 to 5.8 to 7.2 over the last five years; Manning was a legitimately elite quarterback in the regular season last year, although 2011 is the first season for which that statement would be true. Romo has seen some variation, but has always outpaced Manning: he was at 6.9 in ’07, 6.2 in ’08, 7.4 in ’09, 6.7 in 2010, and 7.4 last year.Ah, but the reputations. Manning’s reputation is built on the back of the 2007 and 2011 postseasons, when he performed very well. But that only makes him a modern day Jim Plunkett, not Joe Montana. And while Manning was elite in 2011, he was a below-average quarterback in 2007. Manning led the Giants on three game-winning drives that postseason, an impressive accomplishment and added credence to the philosophy that he comes through in the clutch. But that’s just one side of the coin: in New York’s two Super Bowl postseasons, the Giants played five extremely close games and won them all. Some view that as a sign of good luck; others view it as an indication that Manning is able to elevate his game in the clutch. Historically speaking, those who believe the former have made lots of money off of those who believe the latter.
As for Romo, it all started with the botched hold against the Seahawks. Then Manning outplayed him in their playoff matchup a year later, as Romo’s Cowboys could not reach the end zone on their final drive.4 Romo did manage a playoff victory, a blowout against the Eagles, but the Cowboys were outclassed by the Vikings a week later. Even worse, Dallas has been kept out of the playoffs since then, earning Romo more criticism.
If you haven’t played around with Pro-Football-Reference’s Game Play Finder, you’re missing out. It’s one of the coolest tools on the internet. We can use it to look at how Manning and Romo have fared in clutch situations. I’m defining a clutch situation as a play in the 4th quarter or overtime of any regular season or playoff game since 2007, when the game was tied or the quarterback’s team was trailing by no more than 8 points.
And in these situations, Manning has been arguably the best quarterback in the league. Check out the numbers5:
Of course, you probably noticed that Romo isn’t too far behind. And if we want to be consistent and give Manning credit for his improvement played in 2011, we should probably do the same for Romo. Here is how quarterbacks performed in clutch situations last season:
That’s right: Romo posted arguably the best numbers in the NFL last season in clutch situations. But since that doesn’t match the narrative, don’t expect to see the media mentioning that tonight.
In any event, I don’t believe we can judge much from a small sample, which is why who the “clutch” quarterback of the day changes with the wind. The consistent takeaway is that Tony Romo has been an elite quarterback over the last five years, while Eli Manning has been an elite quarterback for one season. Yes, Manning has been great in the clutch — while Romo hasn’t played nearly as poorly as is portrayed — but that’s over a much smaller sample size. Manning does have the great 4th quarter comeback record, while Romo’s is less than stellar. But Romo’s 4th quarter comeback mark is much better than Aaron Rodgers’, who would be considered a choker if the media wanted to be consistent. The one positive for Romo is that if he does manage to win a Super Bowl, his legacy will change significantly, and he will then become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate if he can sustain his past level of play for a few more seasons. John Elway, Len Dawson, Steve Young, Drew Brees and Peyton Manning were considered stats guys for much of their careers. Manning, Young and Elway were considered elite quarterbacks who just couldn’t win the big one, while many questioned whether Brees or Dawson were truly elite because of their lack of ultimate success. But all five quarterbacks eventually won Super Bowls in their 30s, and all are current or future Hall of Famers. At 32-years-old, the book is far from closed on Romo’s legacy.
- Manning himself is a good example of this. In ’07, he led the league in interceptions in the regular season but won the Super Bowl. In 2010, he again threw the most interceptions in the league; the next year, he again won the Super Bowl. [↩]
- While I use the net fumbles fudge historically, NFL.com shows that Manning has 26 lost fumbles since ’07, giving him 111 turnovers. [↩]
- Romo has 16 fumbles lost in 67 games since ’07, or 19 pro-rated fumbles. [↩]
- Note that the Cowboys had a final drive to win the game only after the Giants went three-and-out on their previous possession, which ended on a Manning sack on a third-and-four. [↩]
- Note: PFR’s Game Play Finder lists almost everything; one thing it doesn’t list is sack yards lost. I have the raw data but not the energy to get the actual sack yardage lost on sacks, so instead I’m giving each quarterback -7 yards for each sack when calculating their ANY/A. I know, I’m lazy. [↩]