The inevitable happened yesterday as the Dallas Cowboys finally announced they will release Tony Romo. So begins the most noteworthy free agent quarterback sweepstakes since 2012, when another aging star coming off a season-ending injury was free to sign with any franchise he pleased for the twilight years of his career. You should know who I’m referring to, because many people are saying that Romo should make the exact same decision Peyton Manning made five years ago and sign with the Denver Broncos.
The parallels between both Manning and Romo’s scenarios are numerous. Despite their relatively advanced ages–Manning was 36 entering the 2012 season while Romo is now on the verge of turning 37–both were productive when last seen healthy. Manning had thrown 33 touchdown passes during the 2010 season, a year before his neck injury. He was also only two years removed from leading the Colts to a 14-2 record and an AFC title.
Romo, meanwhile, was playing at an even higher level than Manning before each suffered devastating injuries and were subsequently cut by their beloved franchises. Let’s not that forget that in 2014 Romo led all quarterbacks in arguably the five most important passing categories: Total QBR (81.5), yards per attempt (8.5), touchdown percentage (7.8%), completion percentage (69.9%), and game-winning drives (5). And in contrast to some of Romo’s better statistical seasons, the Cowboys were very successful. In fifteen starts, Romo was 12-3, and he even came through and won a playoff game (it could’ve been two if not for the Dez Bryant ruling at Lambeau).
Moreover, as Colin Cowherd pointed out on Monday, Romo has played at an elite level when healthy over an even larger sample size. His record as a starter (21-9) in his last 30 starts is superior to both Aaron Rodgers (18-12) and Matt Ryan (17-13), two quarterbacks commonly believed to be better than him. He also has a higher quarterback rating than both Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger over that same timeframe.
Another parallel between the two, of course, was that they were replaced by young hot-shots–Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott–who were too valuable to the long-term future of their respective franchises to marginalize in favor of aging, yet still productive veterans. So it’s not like either the Colts or Cowboys wanted to part ways with their successful quarterbacks: They really didn’t have much of a choice.
In addition, Manning had an urgency to sign with a contender upon entering the free agent market. Sure, everyone wants to play for a team vying for a Super Bowl. But Manning essentially had to. We were still having Brady/Manning debates back then, remember? Don’t think that Manning wasn’t smart enough to realize he had little time left to enhance his already great legacy. Romo, in contrast, has not accomplished nearly as much as Manning; yet he actually is in a more desperate position because he is still looking for his first Super Bowl title. Given how often Romo’s body has failed him in recent seasons, he may only have a short amount of time to achieve this goal, too.
Is Denver the best landing spot for Romo?
We know what Manning did when faced with these circumstances. He signed with a team that a) needed an upgrade at quarterback, b) had a competent and trustworthy front office, c) had a successful offensive infrastructure already in place, and d) had an emerging defense capable of making life easier for said offense. Little has changed since then, as Denver is still as ideal of a destination for Romo as it was for Manning back in 2012.
For starters, general manager John Elway is even more reputable now after Denver’s Super Bowl victory two years ago than he was when he was recruiting Manning. Since taking over football operations in 2011 after five consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, the Broncos have subsequently made the postseason in five of the last six years (with 2016 being the only exception) and have captured two AFC championships.
It’s unequivocal that Elway has assembled one of the deepest, most talented rosters in the NFL over the past few years. The good news for Romo is that many of the pieces from their title-winning team in 2015 are still in place. On offense, he would have Demaryious Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, among others, to throw to. Better yet, Romo has never played for a team with a defense as good as Denver’s. The Broncos may have missed the playoffs last year, but don’t blame Von Miller and company. They once again allowed a league-low in opponent yards per play and finished first in defensive DVOA.
However, Romo’s potential situation in Denver isn’t as rosy as it appears. Aside from some good targets to throw to, Romo doesn’t project to have much help from the Broncos’ running backs nor their offensive line. Denver finished just 28th in yards per rushing attempt last season, there lowest ranking since Elway took over. More disconcerting, though, was that they couldn’t pass-block. Denver allowed the sixth highest adjusted sack rate in 2016. Translation: Romo’s back better be in good shape because he’s not going to have Tyron Smith and Zack Martin blocking for him. Taken together, these two factors aren’t conducive to success for an aging quarterback.
Another consideration for Romo has to be the strength of the AFC West. Denver may have a terrific general manager and an elite defense, but it’s going to be a battle for them just to get out of their own division. Both Kansas City, who has made two consecutive divisional round appearances, and Oakland, who was on track to win the AFC West last year before Derek Carr got hurt, are legitimate contenders in the AFC. Plus, say Romo leads the Broncos to a division title, he’ll likely have to play in cold-weather elements in the altitude. Not an easy thing to do, particularly for an aging, injury-prone quarterback on a team lacking both a stable rushing attack and quality offensive line.
Nonetheless, signing with Denver would still be a smart decision by Romo. Their defense is phenomenal, Thomas and Sanders are legitimate weapons on offense, and Elway can be trusted to improve their roster. Plus, the Broncos are obviously a better bet to go to the Super Bowl than nearly all of the other teams that could use a good quarterback, such as the Bears and Browns.
However, there is one team that is actually an even better fit for Romo than the Broncos: Houston.
OK, hear me out. The Texans may not have a general manager as competent as Elway, but at least their coaching staff is not in flux. Remember: Gary Kubiak retired, and he’s now been replaced by Vance Joseph, former defensive coordinator for the Dolphins. Houston’s coaching situation, on the other hand, is more stable and is headed by Bill O’Brien, a relatively successful offensive-minded coach.
But that’s a rather minor reason why Houston is the most attractive landing spot for Romo: The main reason is that the Texans have an even more-equipped roster than Denver’s. What’s the one thing that held Houston back last year? Brock Osweiler, duh! It wasn’t DeAndre Hopkins’s fault that he had a subpar year because he’s one of the ten most talented receivers in football. Plus, while every team was daring the Texans to throw, running back Lamar Miller still cranked out an 1,000+ yard season. But even better news for the soon-to-be thirty-seven-year-old Romo is that Houston’s offensive line is much better than Denver’s. While the Broncos ranked in the bottom six in pass protection last season, the Texans ranked a respectable 12th in adjusted sack rate.
The Broncos’ defense isn’t that much better than Houston’s, either. Sure, I’d rather have the likes of Von Miller, Aqib Talib, and Chris Harris. But if my roster included Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and what I assume will be a healthy J.J. Watt in 2017, I’d still love my chances. After all, the Texans finished 7th in defensive DVOA–and 5th against the pass–despite playing the league’s sixth toughest slate of offenses last season. And, of course, this all came without J.J. Watt, undoubtedly the most dominant defensive player in the league over the past five years.
I also mentioned earlier that, even with Romo, the Broncos will still have a tough time winning the AFC West. In this case, the opposite is true. Although I’ll admit that the Titans are on the rise and that the Colts always have a chance with Luck, the AFC South is still the easiest division in football. Put Romo onto the division’s most talented roster and the Texans are a great bet to have at least one home playoff game. Not only that, but it’s likely that Romo would avoid playing multiple games in harsh elements. Instead, he’d play in a dome environment similar to the one he’s succeeded in before in Dallas. These factors make it more likely that a Romo-led Houston squad can go on a deeper run in the AFC playoffs.
Who needs Romo more: Denver or Houston?
One final point. In terms of where Romo ultimately ends up, it makes more sense for Houston to go after him more aggressively than Denver. The Broncos could certainly use someone as good as Romo considering that they finished a mere 28th in offensive DVOA last season en route to missing the playoffs. But even though their offensive woes, particularly late in the season, cost them a postseason birth, I wouldn’t blame that all on Trevor Siemian. He was pretty effective, especially when considering that the first-year signal caller dealt with various injuries throughout the second half of the year. Additionally, Denver, as mentioned, has numerous other weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. Simply put, they doesn’t necessarily need Romo since they have Siemian and 2015 first-rounder Paxton Lynch as well as some other areas to address on offense. Signing him could also be interpreted as a sign that Elway doesn’t believe in either of the two quarterbacks he currently has on the roster. A gamble like that may pay off in the short-term, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a great long-term decision.
Houston, however, certainly doesn’t want to go into 2017 with either Brock Osweiler or, to a lesser extent, Tom Savage as their starting quarterback. The team has too much potential as constituted to have another season end in a disappointing playoff loss due to horrible quarterback play. For that reason, expect the Texans brass to be as assertive in courting Romo as any other team in the market.
Nonetheless, it’s tough to project where Romo will sign. The latest reports indicate, however, that it’s going to come down to Denver and Houston. If Romo is really smart, he’ll ignore the people saying to follow in Manning’s footsteps and sign instead with the Texans, a team that has a more conducive offensive supporting cast for an aging quarterback to succeed, an elite defense that may be even better next year thanks to the return of their best player, a far easier division, and a more-manageable home environment come the postseason.
All this speculation could be meaningless, however, if the star-crossed former Cowboy can’t stay on the field.