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Mike Davis | Archive | Email |
Staff Writer

The Romo Effect

In the opinion of most people who play fantasy football, Tony Romo is a rock solid quarterback whose passer rating stays consistently in the 90s or higher. FFers know there's a lot of turnover in the top ten players at any one NFL position from one season to the next, but Romo is routinely a top 10 QB in terms of statistical productivity. Better yet, since he doesn't get the kind of widespread adulation that fans heap on Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Aaron Rodgers, he can often be picked up more cheaply in fantasy drafts than the more celebrated QBs who perform at (or perhaps only slightly above) his level.

Tony Romo

Did fantasy football make Romo's wallet fat?

In the opinion of most Cowboy fans, Romo is a bum with absolutely no competitive drive, no heart, no sense of leadership, and no capacity for igniting the emotional fire his teammates might need to burn their way through adversity. He is a soulless, flat, empty, money-grubbing fraud whose eyes go distant and cold whenever an offensive drive hits a snag. Cowboy fans know that Romo is capable of playing well enough to take Dallas to the playoffs, but they don't believe he can win in the postseason, and in his seven years as a starter, he has proven them wrong a grand total of once.

Earlier this year, Romo signed a six-year contract extension for over $100M with the Cowboys. Most NFL contracts include so many contingency clauses that the numbers released to the press are essentially meaningless, but Romo's extension includes $55M in guaranteed money. In the history of the NFL, only one player (Brady, who signed a contract for $57M in guaranteed money from the Patriots) has made a sweeter deal with his team.

No one doubts that Brady is worth whatever the Patriots want to pay him. He's a proven winner. Even if he doesn't win every Super Bowl he plays in, he takes his team to the big game routinely. Romo has never even participated in an NFC Championship--much less a Super Bowl. One of the best known facts in the NFL right now is that Romo has won only one out of the four playoff games in which he appeared. Cowboy fans, however, are quick to add a lesser known fact to bolster the case against their starting QB: On the three occasions when the Cowboys needed a regular season win just to stay in the playoff hunt, Romo choked every time.

When I talk about Romo with people who don't play fantasy football, I generally encounter a sense of outrage concerning his new contract. Most of the Cowboy fans I know think he is being ridiculously overcompensated. Travis Johnson (a former defensive lineman for the Houston Texans) has publicly labeled Romo a "thief" who "has not earned a dollar he has been given in this league."

FFers, on the other hand, don't seem to find the $55M in guaranteed money all that outrageous. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the playoffs in most fantasy football leagues occur during the regular season, so the FF community was essentially unaffected by Romo's meltdown against the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round of the playoffs after the 2009 season, when he took six sacks, fumbled three times, threw an interception, and looked on with an air of icy detachment as his Cowboys were trounced 34-3.

So here's the question that keeps raising itself in my mind: In the absence of fantasy football, would Tony Romo's new contract extension have been possible?

I know that must sound like a ridiculous question. Many owners, coaches, and players in the NFL are famously contemptuous of fantasy football. Surely a businessman as accomplished as Jerry Jones is incapable of being influenced by such a frivolous fad when it comes to negotiating a contract with his star quarterback.

But hear me out. Contract negotiations are more likely to be about "perceived value" than "absolute value," and even though Romo has some very vocal critics, I think it's fair to say that in the absence of fantasy football, the perception of him as one of the most consistently productive quarterbacks in the NFL would not be nearly as widespread among casual NFL fans as is currently the case. Twenty years ago, fantasy football wasn't very popular. Twenty years ago, the stat that most NFL fans cared about was wins vs. losses, especially playoff wins vs. playoff losses. Twenty years ago, I don't think a quarterback with just one playoff win after seven seasons as a starter could reasonably have expected to become the second-highest paid player in the league. Perhaps I'm mistaken, but I can't help suspecting that Romo's perceived value to the Cowboys has somehow been enhanced by the fact that there are currently hundreds of thousands of football fans around the world who are far more interested in whether their quarterbacks throw for 300+ yards in a particular game than in whether those quarterbacks emerge victorious.

Even if you think I'm wrong about Romo, please give some thought to what I mean by "the Romo effect," which is the idea that fantasy football has become sufficiently widespread and sufficiently integrated into mainstream sports culture to have a serious impact on the expectations of owners and the contract negotiations of real NFL players. If you think I'm completely off base, please tell me why. If you think there may be something to the general idea, but can point to better examples than Romo for us to study, please tell me which players you have in mind. If you think I'm right, but that my case about Romo could be made stronger with additional evidence, I'll be grateful for any thoughts you're willing to send my way.

In the meantime, my wife (a lifelong Cowboys fan) will continue to shout, "Dump the chump!" every time she sees a picture of Romo. And I'll keep telling her, "If you played fantasy football, you would realize how talented he really is." Am I being ironic when I suggest that the clearest view of reality can be obtained through the lens of fantasy? I'm not entirely sure.

* * * * *

Before I get into the responses I received to my columns in June and July, I want to thank the readers who took the time to write in, especially those who did so in June and had to wait patiently for me to engage their comments after I went off on a semi-tangent in July.

At last, it's my pleasure to share the three most thoughtful answers that I received to my question concerning the kinds of strategies that FFers use to filter through all the predictions that we encounter during the offseason. Let's start with a reader named Max, who treated me to this rollicking critique of the "Player X will run out of gas in the season to come" tag that most of us have encountered both online and in print:

I'm not talking about analysis where player X's productivity tailed off last year, a new young stud has been drafted, and the writing's on the wall. It's the "we've got a formula about how many carries and injuries over how many years played" that leads to poor predictions. A basic assumption in this type of analysis is that all players have the same amount of gas in the tank. My observation is that how long a player can produce at a high level has a very large variation and a player's gas gauge is beyond the event horizon, so predicting that player X who is playing at a high level now will go into a tailspin has been more likely to miss than hit the mark. What you can say is that on average players lose productivity after years of being ridden hard, so these players carry a risk that this might be their year to break down. To be fair, more thoughtful writers often say just that. However, what happens is that the hype turns into "Don't draft player X because he's going to break down this year," and many [such players] end up as great values on draft day.

Anyone with a soft spot for Isaac Asimov's treatment of psychohistory (a key feature of his Foundation Trilogy) will probably like Joel's mathematical/philosophical response to the question:

I generally hold that I can predict things that have reasonably large past sample sizes. For example, I feel fairly confident that the Lions will throw the ball in the area of 650 times this season. I have years of observing the number of plays the Lions run in a season under Jim Schwartz/Scott Linehan and their run/pass ratio and there are no significant changes to their roster to indicate that it would change. Also, I have a good bit of data on Matt Stafford and his yds/attempt, td%, and int%, so I have a fair amount of confidence of where his numbers will be this season. Sure, he may improve or decline, but I know I'm at least in the right neighborhood. Where I have a good dose of humility is predicting things that are rare occurrences. Things that happen on just a handful of plays or only a few times during a year - things like injuries, fumbles lost, benchings, and potential triple-homicidal New Englanders. Those things fall into the category of "stuff happens," and if you try and predict it, you'll likely end up looking stupid. The guy you knocked down your draft board because you thought he would be injured (since he always has been in the past) will stay healthy; and the guy who you considered the gold-standard of health will blow out his knee. Fred Taylor was "Fragile Freddy" for four years until he ripped off 6 mostly healthy seasons. Stafford was "Stafford, if he stays healthy..." for his first two years. Now, two healthy seasons later, no one is knocking him down draft boards because of potential health issues.

I tend to make a lot of hay taking players everyone else considers "health risks" (I owned a lot of Adrian Peterson last year) because, if we're really honest, everyone in the NFL is a health risk, and which ones will fall victim to the injury bug is beyond our event horizon. But our own inability to predict such things is completely destroyed the first time we're bitten by drafting a guy who was perennially injured...who gets injured. Then we foolishly swear such players off because we have "learned our lesson." I chuckle every time I see a projection that has a RB playing 12.5 games because he's expected to miss about 3.5 games [due to injury]. Total silliness--as if that could be predicted. The wrong lesson has been learned. The wrong lesson is "don't draft guys who have been hurt in the past." The right lesson to learn is "lots of guys get hurt in the NFL, including some guys [in consecutive seasons], and that's where you can find a heck of a lot of value over your competitors."

Michael wrote in with so many good points that I ended up focusing on just one (his concluding salvo against handcuffs) in my July column. However, I also wanted to include his thoughts about "change-of-pace" running backs.

One category I always shy away from is the dreaded “change-of-pace back," [which is just] another way of [talking about RBs who are] too small to take an every down pounding, and will come on the field for third downs and/or limited touches. You can have these guys; they won’t be on my team. Examples: Jacquizz Rodgers, Joique Bell, perhaps Giovani Bernard, Ronnie Hillman, Daryl Richardson, maybe Roy Helu. The two guys that fit this bill but break the mold are Reggie Bush (although his Saint time was brutal) and Sproles (now with the Saints). Javid Best fit this as well. Sproles and Bush will be good, but I can’t pull the lever on these guys even if they slide to bargains vs. their ADP.

My thanks go out to everyone from the FFToday community who got in touch with me over the summer. I don't have enough space to include quotations from every person who writes in, but I make an effort to represent every point of view. My next column will appear just as we are all gearing up for the games of Week 1, and I'm delighted to report that it will feature the always awesome and entertaining Survivor Pool picks of Matthew Schiff. Until then, good luck with your drafts everybody!

Mike Davis has been writing about fantasy football since 1999. As a landlocked Oklahoman who longs for the sound of ocean waves, he also writes about ocean colonization under the pen name Studio Dongo. The latest installment in his science fiction series can be found here.