Regression to the Mean: Why Tony Romo’s 2014 was a Fluke
June 17, 2015 | Chet
This time last year, fantasy football writers were expecting big things from Tony Romo. The arrival of Scott Linehan in Dallas, combined with what was expected to be one of, if not the worst defenses in the NFL, surely meant that Tony Romo was going to shatter all of his career passing marks en route to his best fantasy season to date.
Romo had one of the best seasons of his career, but unfortunately, it didn’t lead to the finish fantasy football players were hoping for. Scott Linehan uncharacteristically game planned around his poor defense by controlling the clock and running the ball down opponents throats’ simply because he could, and it worked. The Cowboys were 2nd in time of possession per offensive drive in the NFL in 2014, missing out on 1st place by a mere one second. Romo and the Cowboys offense were so efficient that Romo was able to hit career marks in several categories, except in yardage and touchdowns (the two that matter most for fantasy). He had the best QBR in 2014, and set career bests in TD%, completion %, Y/A, and had his lowest interception total in a season where he started at least 13 games.
When you look at the Cowboys offense as a whole in 2014, it was simply lightning in a bottle for nearly all parties involved. Romo was able to be successful while throwing for the fewest attempts in his career in a season where he started at least 13 games. The defense was able to overachieve in part because they were barely on the field. In fact, the Cowboys offense had the fewest attempted passes in a Scott Linehan led unit since 2006. They were 31st in pass attempts in the entire league in 2014, marking the first time a Linehan offense finished lower than 15th in pass attempts ever.
Even in a year where Romo led the Cowboys offense like a well oiled machine and was barely throwing the ball, he finished as QB11 in standard leagues. So what does that mean? Well, let’s take a look back at his last four finishes (courtesy of FFToday):
Whether Tony Romo is throwing the ball a ton, without much efficiency (as in 2012), barely throwing the ball, but with uber efficiency (as in 2014), or somewhere in the middle (2011 & 2013), he’s a steady Top 12 quarterback. What does this mean for 2015? Beyond the fact that his floor is fairly high for a QB many consider to be a nightmare to own, there is actually room for improvement.
DeMarco Murray’s loss cannot be stressed enough for a multitude of reasons. He was very much so the identity of the Cowboys offense in 2014, having had a historic season. Murray’s 392 attempts were the most by a single back in the NFL last season, and the 3rd most in the NFL since 2000. The Cowboys as a whole were 3rd in the league in rushing attempts in 2014. The chart below from SI.com also shows how, with Murray’s departure, the Cowboys lost the most rushing production in the league.
Unless you’re a big believer in Darren McFadden or Joseph Randle, it doesn’t look like the Cowboys are going to sniff that type of rushing volume and production, which bodes well for Tony Romo’s fantasy chances in 2015.
If you believe that the 2014 season was an aberration for nearly the entire Dallas Cowboys offense, then you should expect the entire offense to regress in terms of efficiency. How will Scott Linehan overcome the loss of DeMarco Murray? There’s a good chance he’ll revert back to the offensive philosophy he has utilized for the majority of his play calling career. Pat Thorman laid it all out here, and many of the reasons owners were optimistic about Romo in 2014 remain. In fact, maybe there should be a bit more optimism.
First, let’s discuss the obvious. Given the hodgepodge of running backs the Cowboys currently have, it’s clear the passing volume will go up. Scott Linehan will probably try and keep some elements of the ball control philosophy from last season given its success, but even with the Cowboy’s amazingly built offensive line, last year’s production is simply unsustainable. We’ve seen the crazy volume Matt Stafford and the Detroit Lions offense have had in the Linehan era. The current Cowboys team and Lions of that era were pretty similarly built, with the exception that Dallas has a much better offensive line. In Stafford’s three full seasons in Linehan’s offense, he finished as QB5, QB11, and QB7.
The Cowboys defense also will have little bearing on Romo’s fantasy value. If the defense takes a step forward, better game flow will allow Romo to be efficient. If the defense takes a step back, the Cowboys no longer have a running game to hide it as well. To compensate, expect them to throw it a ton if that’s the only way they can move the ball or are playing behind often. Romo can put up points regardless of whether the defense is forcing him to air it out or allows him to relax on offense.
Another aid for Romo to improve on his numbers is the emergence of Cole Beasley. Starting Week 13 through the playoffs, Beasley was looking at 3 more targets per game. If they Cowboys can’t run the ball as effectively as last season, there’s reason to believe Beasley will get plenty of action underneath with short passes while Dez Bryant draws coverage and Terrence Williams and Jason Witten stretch the field.
Lastly, Tony Romo has a pretty friendly schedule this season according to Pat Thorman’s preliminary strength of schedule grid. Take this with a grain of salt, as year over year defensive ranks clearly change, but you can tell for the most part which matchups will more likely than not be difficult. By Pat’s count, Romo faces eight appealing/neutral matchups, while only having three matchups that seem to be very difficult. There’s not too much reason to worry about those though, as Romo has proven to be an effective (although less efficient) quarterback who sees an uptick in volume against Top 16 passing defenses over his career, as evidenced below.
So what does this all mean for Tony Romo? 2014 was an outlier year for Romo, but that doesn’t mean he can’t have an elite season once again. This Cowboys team looks a bit like the 2011 Lions. That season, Matt Stafford attempted 663 passes (just over 200 more than Romo’s number in 2014, although Romo missed a game) for 5,000 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. That type of production is not out of Tony Romo’s reach. Most will probably have him ranked in that second or third tier of quarterbacks, just below some elite QBs that have production related concerns of their own (Manning and the cliff, Brees and the offensive shift, Russell Wilson and the potential loss of efficiency). While his ceiling will probably be baked into his ADP, one can argue his floor is as well. Romo isn’t a bad pick at the end of round one/beginning of round two for those who like to go QB early in 2QB leagues. At this point, we pretty much know who he is barring injury, but, just like 2014, he has a chance to catch more lightning in a bottle, only this time, it might be with an overwhelming amount of volume, not efficiency. Either way, Romo might be one of the safest quarterbacks to select come draft day.