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Running the Numbers: Romo Isn’t Throwing Enough Interceptions

Posted Sep 30, 2013


Tony Romo isn’t throwing enough interceptions. Could that seemingly absurd statement actually have some merit?

Through four games, Romo has compiled a 105.0 passer rating and 72.4 percent completion rate, both the highest marks in his entire career. There’s also this:

With just one pick through the first quarter of the season, Romo’s interception rate (0.7 percent) is at an all-time low. Moreover, that lone Week 1 pick was really the result of a blown route by Terrance Williams.

Romo’s low interception total is good in and of itself, obviously, since interceptions are strongly correlated with losing. But we can’t examine Romo’s interception rate in isolation.

The truth is that, while interceptions aren’t beneficial, the style of play that leads to interceptions can be advantageous. Let me repeat that: The style of play that leads to interceptions can be advantageous. When Romo takes more chances, the Cowboys have the potential to be a more efficient offense. Take a look at his career yards per attempt (YPA).

Resembles the interception graph, huh? As Romo’s interception rate has increased, so has his YPA. The more chances he takes, the greater the probability of 1) enhancing offensive efficiency, and 2) throwing interceptions. One is good and one is bad. So what’s a quarterback to do?

There needs to be some sort of balance, through which Romo (and the offensive play-calling) remains aggressive without unnecessarily increasing risk. The Cowboys need to take their shots downfield while still maintaining a certain level of safety.

It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. We don’t have to see either “Romo the Gunslinger” or “Romo the Checkdown Monster.” How about a little bit of both?

Balancing Interceptions and YPA

Ideally, you’d like to see efficient passing without turnovers, but it’s a given that with more aggressiveness comes more risk. And the graphs above show that the relationship between Romo’s efficiency and his interceptions is fairly predictable.

So if we know the sort of efficiency levels we can expect out of Romo at specific interception rates, we can effectively determine when he’s been most efficient in the past and how aggressive he should be moving forward.

Using a simple formula, I charted Romo’s YPA and interception rate as a function of his past numbers (with his career-bests equal to a value of 100 and his career-worsts equal to 0). You can see Romo’s best season in terms of YPA (2006) was his worst in regards to interceptions. Similarly, this season is his worst in terms of efficiency, but his best when it comes to interceptions.

Again, the relationship here is pretty shocking. The years when the interception rate was higher than Romo’s YPA (2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012) can be considered his worst seasons. Those when the YPA was higher (2009 and 2011) were his best seasons.

In 2009, Romo managed to post outstanding efficiency at 8.2 YPA while throwing only nine picks on 550 attempts (1.6 percent). It wasn’t his best season in terms of passer rating, but that was really Romo’s peak year. In 2011, we saw similar numbers from Romo – 8.0 YPA and a 1.9 percent interception rate. That’s the sort of balance between aggressiveness and safety that the quarterback should be seeking.

When Romo started his NFL career, he was historically efficient, yet we all knew he threw too many picks to observe sustainable team success. He corrected that in the middle of his career, trading in a bit of efficiency for safer play, but it’s gone too far. We’re now seeing the other extreme, and it’s just as ugly as the interceptions.

A lot is made of the team’s run/pass ratio, but I’d argue that when you consider the nature of the Cowboys’ passing game right now, the offense has actually been far too conservative in their play-calling. With only nine pass attempts over 20 yards through four games, the Cowboys are on pace to be one of the most conservative passing offenses of all-time.

To answer the initial question I posed to start this article, yes, Romo should be throwing more interceptions. That’s not what you’d want in an ideal scenario, of course, but practically speaking, you just need to be willing to accept more turnovers once the offense ramps up their level of aggressiveness.

Everyone in Big D seems to want balance. Balance is the name of the game. I’ve long disputed the worth of the traditional notion of run/pass balance, but the ’Boys do indeed need to become a more balanced passing offense, attacking defenses all over the field, particularly deep. Not until that happens – not until the Cowboys implement a high-variance offensive attack that exchanges a few interceptions for greatly enhanced efficiency – will the offense capitalize on their potential.

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