If you think Tony Romo cost Dallas that game yesterday, you’re a fool. That’s a column I’ve written before. Two years ago this week, actually, in a game when Romo got the Cowboys out to a big lead and then had two interceptions returned for touchdowns. (Is it something in the water in Texas?) To be honest, while I’m sure there are people out there who find it endlessly entertaining or meaningful to point out that Romo came up short at the end of a game again, there’s no point in writing that column another time. If you really, genuinely believe that the Cowboys had access to a quarterback who would have put them in a better situation to win that game yesterday or that Dallas didn’t significantly benefit from having Romo in there, you’re overlooking a great game, but I’m never going to convince you otherwise. I can point out that Romo led the league in fourth-quarter comebacks last season and it will be for naught. On one hand, it’s not worth having that discussion again because it’s so obviously stupid.
You know what was funny about that interception, though? The broader reaction. I was expecting a million Romocoaster jokes to flood the Internet and take over the wrap-up shows, but the general reaction seemed to be that people were genuinely sad for Romo. The national audience watching had seen Romo play so brilliantly that it was a kick in the stomach to see him fail at the exact moment when every naysayer expected him to; it was a sea of people sad — not shocked, but disappointed — that Cinderella’s carriage turned back into a pumpkin at midnight, right on cue. If anything, Romo had played so well that it seemed too shortsighted to blame the guy who was responsible for the 48 in a 51-48 scoreline for the loss. In a way, then, this might have been the quintessential, hyperrealistic Tony Romo performance for the ages. If there were a Romo library and it wanted to put a Romo time capsule underground for 100 years and wanted to sneak in a game tape to go along with the bottle of Pepsi Max, the plane ticket to Mexico, and the best possible picture the library could find of Jessica Simpson, this is the game tape you’d put in the time capsule. It’s worth celebrating what Romo did.
Which is to say this: Oh man, was Tony Romo incredible. There was this absurd scramble through the sack attempts of three Broncos players before Romo found Jason Witten for a first down. There were the throws. This deep post to Terrance Williams, right in stride, for an 82-yard touchdown pass. This improvised bomb to his third read, Dez Bryant, for a 79-yard gain. This iso throw to Bryant for a touchdown thrown at the exact depth where only Bryant could make a play on the football. Romo was staggering, going 25-of-36 for 506 freaking yards, with five touchdowns and one pick. Only three quarterbacks since the merger have averaged more yards per pass attempt in a game with 30 attempts or more than Romo’s 14.1 from Sunday. There were 99 instances before Romo of a quarterback who averaged more than 11 yards per attempt in a 30-target game since the merger, and they went a combined 75-23-1 in those games. Dallas wasn’t quite so lucky.
Romo, unfortunately, had to try to match possessions with a quarterback in the middle of one of the greatest offensive stretches in NFL history, and he came close to winning the battle. Peyton Manning was virtually unstoppable for most of the day, but the Cowboys did get a temporary respite when they forced the Broncos into a field goal on one possession and then forced an interception on the subsequent drive. The Cowboys scored touchdowns on either side of that interception to take a three-point lead, and when the Broncos tied it up with another field goal to make it 41-41, Romo produced his 79-yard play to Bryant before throwing a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley on the next snap. And yes, Cole Beasley — this is an offense that was missing Miles Austin. Romo created space for throws to Beasley and Williams before hitting tight windows on passes to Bryant and Witten. I can’t count the number of times I saw Romo hit a receiver in stride or in the perfect location to get extra yardage or ensure a safer catch; his location and timing were close to impeccable.
It’s fair to assign Romo some of the blame for the loss, given that the interception was a throw to a tightly covered receiver on a would-be checkdown, but doesn’t it seem more appropriate to believe that the guys who allowed the Broncos to score 51 points might be slightly more at fault than the one who made the one bad play at the end? DeMarcus Ware had zero sacks and didn’t even knock Manning down once, nor did any of his other teammates; isn’t the cumulative impact of a nonexistent pass rush for four quarters more meaningful than the interception thrown by a guy who went shot for shot with the world’s best quarterback and had a lead in the fourth quarter to show for it? Isn’t it more meaningful that Romo was able to compete with Manning for four quarters than it is to point out that Romo is a choker without any mention of those defensive players? Morris Claiborne had an interception on an underthrown ball for Manning’s first pick of the year, but the Broncos ripped Claiborne apart on throws to Eric Decker throughout the first half for big plays, including Decker’s 57-yard reception and the touchdown pass in the second quarter.
I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Cowboys have any hope to be competing in the fourth quarter of that game without Romo creating plays with his legs and dropping in perfect passes to open receivers. It was almost enough to beat one of the greatest offenses in recent football memory, but Romo’s ill-timed interception prevented them from driving up to try to win the game in regulation. Tony Romo didn’t have a perfect game, but he came close: He had a perfect Tony Romo game.
Should the Cowboys have let the Broncos score after the Romo interception? In a vacuum, you would say yes, but I don’t know if it was quite that simple or if the Broncos ever really had a chance to do so.
Remember that the Broncos took over on Dallas’s 24-yard line with 1:57 left in a tie game. Denver had all three timeouts left and could have manipulated the clock to its heart’s content, since all it needed to do was kick a field goal to win. The Cowboys had all three timeouts, which would have been crucial if they had come up with a stop. By letting them score a touchdown, the Cowboys would get the ball back with as much time as possible to try to score a touchdown themselves to force overtime (or set up a game-winning two-point try, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
To me, the best case for allowing the Broncos to score comes on the opening pass play of the drive: the 13-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. By allowing Thomas to score on the opening play, Dallas would have gotten the ball back with 1:45 or so left and all three timeouts. That’s pretty optimal given the already awful circumstances they found themselves in, but I don’t know if it would have worked. The danger is that teams are, somewhat paradoxically, less likely to actually allow you to let them score in these situations the farther away they are from the end zone. There’s more time to realize that there’s a trap in play and act accordingly. If you try to let Thomas score from that far away, there’s no guarantee Thomas doesn’t figure out what’s going on and just run to the 1-yard line and take a knee. And if he does that, you’ve given up the game without even trying.
The cases are murkier after that. Two plays later, Julius Thomas caught a pass and ran up the sideline for eight yards before being shoved out of bounds; the Cowboys might have let him score in that situation, but they were able to stop the clock by knocking him out of bounds, saving a valuable timeout and setting up a third-and-1 play that would have given them what amounted to a dream situation: A stuff could have forced a Broncos field goal and given Dallas the ball back with 1:35 left, albeit with no timeouts.
It’s impossible not to play defense on the third-and-1 from the 2-yard line for that same reason: The upside (mentioned above) is so high. Then, even if you try to stop Denver and you fail (with the play still ongoing), you would rather Denver score immediately on the play than pick up the first down and run another one. If Knowshon Moreno isn’t stopped in the backfield for a loss, he’s almost always going to score the touchdown as opposed to somehow stopping on the 1-yard line and getting a first down without scoring a touchdown. Without a stop in the backfield, the Broncos touchdown is better than the Broncos first down, because with a Broncos touchdown you at least get the ball back. It’s just close to impossible to tell your team to try to stop them, but then to allow them to score a touchdown if you don’t have them stopped in the backfield. I don’t think you can plan on letting them score there.
Of course, there will be plenty more coaching material in tomorrow’s Thank You for Not Coaching. But there’s this team I was a little down on before the season that I have to talk about …
The Colts are 4-1; if they’re going to go 8-8, as I suggested they would before the season, it’s going to require some freak accident where Jim Irsay trades Andrew Luck to try to get to a million Twitter followers without realizing there are no backsies in the NFL. I suspected that the Colts would start off 2-0 before the 49ers and Seahawks put them in their place, and that was absolutely wrong. After a slow start at home against the Raiders and Dolphins to start the year, Indianapolis has reeled off three dynamite performances in a row to top the AFC South. And its dramatic victory over the previously undefeated Seahawks was a great example of how it does it.
It starts, naturally, with a healthy dollop of Luck, the quarterback. For all the moves the Colts made this offseason to improve their line, the changes in their schemes to create more efficient run blocking under new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, and the move to acquire Trent Richardson for a first-round pick, so much of what makes this Colts offense go is simply Luck making magic happen. The biggest reason why the Colts won this game was because they went 7-for-12 on third down while the Seahawks (themselves equipped with a quarterback who makes plays out of nothing on third down) went 2-for-12. So many of those conversions — just as was the case in the 49ers game and has been the case for the past year and a quarter — were the result of Luck using his preternatural instincts to avoid pressure and step up into the perfect spot within the pocket before improvising and finding an open receiver. Watch Luck’s eyes on those plays and you’ll note he never looks down at the rush, never gets distracted, and never gets concerned about the trash around him. When he chooses to pull the ball down, it’s almost always in situations when he’s right to do so. There are bits and pieces of other quarterback DNA within those moves — Roethlisberger, Elway, and Rodgers come to mind — but there’s no reason to compare him to those other guys. It has already been established that we’re going to be comparing other players to Luck one day, not the other way around.
Independently of how well they played, the Colts did have a number of notable calls go their way in this game. A 28-yard Golden Tate catch was written off by a phantom pass interference call on Tate. A third-and-22 incompletion that would have given the Seahawks excellent field position was whistled for a 39-yard pass interference call on Brandon Browner on a pass that wasn’t remotely catchable.1 Another third-and-10 on what ended up being the game-winning drive was converted on a very questionable Richard Sherman pass interference call, while Darius Butler broke up a pass on Seattle’s desperate final drive by reaching around Sidney Rice and launching off his hip to break up a pass. (The Colts did have a bad call go against them when Chris Clemons strip-sacked Luck on a play when Luck was hit in the helmet and should have been granted a roughing the passer call.) The Colts weren’t lucky to win, by any means — both teams played well, and somebody had to get these calls one way or another — but it was a truly dismal officiating effort.
On defense, the Colts also got a significant contribution from a player who made his name a year ago. Jerrell Freeman doesn’t have Luck’s pedigree, obviously, but the 27-year-old CFL refugee has proven to be general manager Ryan Grigson’s best move outside of the Luck pick. For the second time in three weeks against an NFC West team, Freeman came up with a big play to stop a quarterback from picking up the first down on a read-option run. Both times, Freeman was the linebacker in the scrape exchange, when the defensive end crashes down to try to stop the running back, while the linebacker arcs around the edge to try to nab the quarterback if he sees the end crashing down and keeps the ball. Russell Wilson did just that on a third-and-2, and Freeman stopped him for no gain to end a key Seahawks drive and deliver the ball to Indianapolis for the near-five-minute drive that put them up six. The run defense is still the biggest weakness of this Colts team — they allowed Seattle to run for 218 yards on 34 carries, with both Wilson and Marshawn Lynch topping 100 yards — but they’ve come up with stops when they needed to against the 49ers and the Seahawks.
It would be nice to see the Colts get their running game going, if only to keep some of the pressure off Luck. Richardson had six carries for a total of two yards in the first half, and while the Colts had some success in the hurry-up and got a 16-yard run from Richardson in the second half, he finished with just 56 yards on 18 carries. Luck was only hit five times, which was a relatively quiet day, but a successful running game will only create more space for Luck to operate in.
So, let’s get to the bigger-picture stuff. Are the Colts resisting regression? It certainly seems like it so far. They’re 2-1 in one-touchdown games this year, but they’ve blown out the Jaguars (to whom they actually lost in Week 3 a year ago) and had a comfortable victory over the 49ers, so their point differential is very sound; there’s nothing unlucky about their record so far. Their turnover differential has improved from being 26th a year ago to fourth this year, at plus-six; that was likely to get better but not necessarily be this good. Their schedule has been tougher, but the Colts have just played a lot better to account for it. Through five games, the Colts aren’t a good-and-lucky team the way they were a year ago. They’re simply a really good team.
Now, before you start firing the pitchforks into Grantland HQ, two thoughts. If anyone should know that five games isn’t enough to know everything about a season, it should be Colts fans; after all, this time last year, the Colts were 2-3 and had just been blown out, 35-9, by the Jets. Nobody in their right mind would have predicted that the Colts would go 9-2 the rest of the way to make the playoffs, but that’s exactly what happened. I don’t think there’s necessarily any reason to believe that the Colts are about to collapse or anything, but they still have a pretty tough schedule going forward, with games against the Broncos and Texans among their next three. The schedule gets easier after that before a three-game stretch late in the year sees the Colts travel to Cincinnati, host Houston, and travel to Kansas City in three consecutive weeks. We know the Colts can win those games, but that doesn’t mean winning is a foregone conclusion, either.
So, speaking of wrong, last week I got into a whole spiel about Matt Schaub and how pick-sixes are just about random and how other quarterbacks have had three-pick-six stretches and been just fine. Schaub, of course, throws a pick-six on his first series of the game. Hmmm. He proceeds to have a relatively dismal game, throwing three interceptions before being removed for T.J. Yates at the end of a blowout loss to the 49ers.2 So let’s try this again. I think there are three questions here that are all related but better answered as separate entities.
1. Why is Schaub suddenly so prone to pick-sixes?
Ask Texans fans this question and you’ll get a bunch of answers. His arm strength is down. He’s pressing. He’s nervous. He can’t handle the pressure when the running game isn’t going well. He’s washed up. He’s always been prone to pick-sixes.
Some of these aren’t true, others are possible, and still others are subject to bad uses of statistics: That he’s thrown five pick-sixes in his last seven games including last season is an incredibly arbitrary use of selective endpoints; before this ugly stretch, Schaub hadn’t thrown a pick-six in his 29 previous games, so why would you suddenly extrapolate that he was about to go on an unprecedented rampage of pick-sixes? If you take the long view, Schaub’s pick-six rate remains relatively consistent with many other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks of this era like Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees.
So if it’s not a long-term problem for Schaub, then there’s gotta be something wrong with him right now that’s causing these picks. I’m very skeptical, if only because a lot of random things can happen in any four-game stretch. This four-in-four run is still, as much as Texans fans aren’t going to like hearing it, due to a good amount of randomness. Schaub’s throwing a lot of interceptions — eight over those last four games — and that makes quarterbacks inherently more likely to throw pick-sixes, because you can’t throw a pick-six without throwing an interception first. That these interceptions would turn into pick-sixes, though … that’s still basically bad luck. There’s a reason it hasn’t happened before in league history.3
The pick-sixes have come on a variety of throws. The third and fourth were the most similar ones, short throws to the flat when Schaub didn’t see a lurking defender waiting to undercut the pass and return it. Those are how most pick-sixes happen, since there’s not enough time for the offense to realize what’s gone wrong and form a reasonable attempt to tackle the interceptor. In both cases, the throws were awful, but the line between pick and pick-six is impossibly thin — Andre Johnson could have contested either of these passes and grabbed the defender for a likely tackle if he was a quarter-second quicker, or at the very least, gotten his feet entangled for a sloppy takedown. How often do we see that happen with interceptions?
The first two were different. Watch them and you’ll see why. The first pick-six was bad communication, not a bad throw. It’s to the sideline, but it’s a deeper throw, and it’s one when Schaub is very clearly expecting rookie DeAndre Hopkins to break off his route. Throwing isn’t a poor decision for Schaub, who has to throw the ball before Hopkins makes his break. It’s a case of miscommunication, one that Schaub and coach Gary Kubiak took the blame for afterward. And the second was on a pass over the middle that Daryl Smith is able to jump and grab for a touchdown on a route where there happened to be nobody but offensive linemen and a tight end (Owen Daniels, who stopped running after the interception for a key second or two) on that side of the field. Two of these passes look alike, and they’re the most recent two. The difference between three of these plays being mere interceptions and the more dreadful pick-sixes are pretty slim.
With that being said, if Schaub is so prone to pick-sixes, why has nobody else in the history of football ever been this prone to them over the same sort of time frame? Schaub is playing terribly, but he’s better than Derek Anderson or JaMarcus Russell or Craig Krenzel or hundreds of other dismal quarterbacks who never had any hope of playing well for an extended stretch of time at the pro level. Even when they threw interceptions as frequently as Schaub has, why didn’t they throw pick-sixes as frequently over any given four-game stretch in their careers? If it’s his arm strength, why didn’t Chad Pennington or any of the other quarterbacks with weak arms post crazy pick-six rates? Schaub’s at fault for throwing so many interceptions, but that four of them would be returned for touchdowns … there’s a good amount of randomness built into that figure.
2. So, then, why is Schaub playing so poorly?
It’s hard to say, but it hasn’t been pretty. During the four-game stretch that’s been pockmarked by pick-sixes, Schaub has gone 101-for-167 (a relatively respectable 60.5 percent), but he’s only averaged 6.1 yards per attempt while throwing five touchdowns against eight picks.4 That’s not good enough.
The Texans haven’t been great around Schaub. There have been injuries: Duane Brown, Houston’s star left tackle, only returned to the lineup last night after missing two weeks with a toe injury. Johnson, Schaub’s best receiver by a significant margin, has been hobbled with a number of injuries, missing the second half of the Ravens game in Week 3 with a shin injury and not looking great since. The right side of the offensive line remains a problem, with Derek Newton a notable weakness at right tackle. The running game hasn’t been as effective as it was last year, let alone the year before, and that has limited Schaub’s effectiveness as a play-action passer, always his greatest strength. Kubiak’s play design and overall scheme has been vanilla and familiar, as Doug Farrar noted before this week’s games. Some of the problems here aren’t Schaub’s fault.
It would also be naive to suggest that Schaub had nothing to do with things. Defenders are undercutting Schaub’s routes, but it’s not always leading to interceptions — there were a couple of plays last night, one notably from Eric Reid, when a pass could have been intercepted but was instead knocked away. These aren’t throws that are mistakes due to Schaub’s arm strength, because it doesn’t look like he’s trying to fit the ball into a tight window. It instead looks like he’s just not properly accounting for the defenders on the field and is making sloppy, shortsighted throws. That should be correctable, as it seems like a problem that would have reared its head as a long-term issue before now.
It’s also difficult to imagine that the pick-sixes aren’t sapping Schaub’s confidence; even if they are somewhat random, Schaub has to realize that the way he’s played has hurt his team over the past month. You wouldn’t blame him for pressing or, alternatively, for being afraid to try to put a throw into a window that he might have last year, even if that’s a throw he might have been right to make.
That leads to a third question …
3. Should the Texans be aggressive about exploring their options beyond Schaub?
I don’t want to use the b-word, but the Texans did take Schaub out in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s blowout to get Yates some action.5 I can’t blame Kubiak for making that move, if only because the game was out of hand and it makes sense to try to get your embattled quarterback off the field before he adds injury to insult. In the long term, though, there’s another question.
Certainly, the leash is shorter on Schaub than it has been at any other point during his run in Houston, a stretch that’s basically seen him as the unrivaled, unquestioned starting quarterback for six-plus seasons. It would be a surprise for Kubiak to make a move to Yates or Case Keenum right now, but it also feels like it wouldn’t take a ton more before the calls for change got too loud to ignore.
If you’re Kubiak, you have to ask yourself whether you think there’s something permanently wrong with Schaub that isn’t going to get better, that he’s slipped so dramatically athletically or become such a liability with his decision-making that he’ll never be the player he was even a year ago. Is that patently obvious? Because if it’s not, and you’re dumping your quarterback based upon four bad games, it’s pretty flimsy. Remember how good Joe Flacco looked for four games in the playoffs last year, and how bad he’s looked this season? How bad Eli Manning looked for six weeks in 2007 and how well he played during their Super Bowl run? Schaub’s older than those guys, but it’s not like old quarterbacks can’t go through rough patches.
Yates was better than expected during his stretch as the starter after Schaub got hurt in 2011, but that was with a much better running game than the one he would inherit today. He also threw six interceptions in seven starts; better than Schaub’s recent work, but a sign of how he might not be much more than greener-looking grass. And be honest: How much of the move to bench Schaub has to do with the fact that these picks resulted in pick-sixes as opposed to mere interceptions? Would there be 10 percent of the furor around Schaub if the only pick-six he had thrown was the Sherman pick?
I think Schaub deserves at least three more starts before there should be any serious move to bench him. The Texans host the Rams next week before traveling to Kansas City for a matchup against the serious Chiefs defense. (More on them in a second.) Houston is then on its bye before a possible season-deciding game against the Colts at home, one that could have dramatic ramifications on the AFC South race. If the Texans turn to Yates or Keenum, they’re not serious about competing in the division this year and are only evaluating those guys as a future option, so there’s nothing to lose by giving Schaub until the Colts game to prove his worth. In all likelihood, the best idea will be to give Schaub until the end of the season before re-evaluating things during the offseason. I think Schaub will play better going forward, but I also thought the odds were extremely unlikely that he would throw a fourth pick-six in four weeks. It certainly feels like randomness and a huge variance swing for me, but that’s not an easy thing to deal with as a fan. It’s even harder to deal with as a coach.
After the season, things change. The Texans can try to find something in the free-agent market, via trade, or in the draft to replace Schaub, but will they really have a lot of money to work with? Houston would endure a $10.5 million dead money hit on its cap next year by cutting Schaub after the season, which would only save the team about $4 million in 2014. That would greatly limit its ability to spend big money on a franchise quarterback, even if there were one to hire. That would be the best time to move on from Schaub, but it’s also unlikely to produce a significant upgrade.
Last Friday, I wrote about the Saints and how their oft-dominant offense has been cobbled together from unlikely sources and undervalued players. I didn’t mention the defense in that piece, but after a dismal 2012, the Saints are back in a serious way. After allowing 28.4 points per game last year, the 5-0 Saints are allowing a mere 14.6 points per game, 51.4 percent of their previous rate. And that’s after losing three would-be starters to season-ending injuries before the season even began. Rob Ryan should be proud.
Even more impressive are the folks in Kansas City. The Chiefs were dismal on defense last year, allowing offenses to score basically at will; their 26.6 points allowed per game was eighth-worst in football. After holding the Titans to two touchdowns in their 26-17 win on Sunday, the 5-0 Chiefs have let opposing teams score just 58 points, an average of 11.6 points per game and 43.6 percent of their previous rate.
Teams cutting their points allowed rate in a new season by just about half is pretty exciting stuff. Obviously, as you can see with the records from the Chiefs and Saints, it’s usually a pretty strong indicator that they’re going to win a whole bunch more games. These two teams were a combined 2-8 through five weeks a year ago, and one of those wins was the Chiefs beating the Saints. It’s also exciting because it doesn’t happen very frequently.
Since 1990, just 18 teams have gone through their first five games allowing points at a rate of 52 percent their previous season’s average, two of which are this year’s Chiefs and Saints. That’s about one per year, but the last time it happened was with the 2009 Broncos. If I expand the group out a little bit to teams at 60 percent of their previous rate, it’s 36 teams, 34 of which did it before this season.
Those 34 teams represent a group the Chiefs and Saints will happily join. They won an average of more than 10 games during those seasons with the stifling starts, a figure that should be enough to get both the Chiefs and Saints into this year’s playoffs. Very few of them held on to all of their defensive gains from the first five contests, as those teams allowed an average of 89 percent of their previous season’s performance per game over the remainder of the season, but that was still good enough to represent a very solid improvement.
For the Saints, much of their performance has come from replacing subpar players with competent ones. They’ve swapped out Roman Harper, a sieve as an every-down safety, for talented rookie Kenny Vaccaro. Longtime bust Sedrick Ellis is gone, and struggling first-round pick Patrick Robinson was moved into a reserve role before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Despite losing both starting outside linebackers to season-ending injuries, replacements Junior Galette and Parys Haralson have delivered very competent play on the outside. They might not always be this good — you have to figure the lack of depth caused by all those injuries will affect them as the season goes along — but it’s been great work by Ryan and that staff to put together a coherent, effective scheme that has flummoxed the opposition.
The Chiefs have also managed to swap out replacement-level talent for competency, but their run has been more about getting superstar performance from some of the players on their roster. I’ve already spoken about them a bunch this year, but it’s hard to really say too much about how fantastic nose tackle Dontari Poe and outside linebacker Justin Houston have been for the Chiefs. It’s not a function of an easy schedule for the Chiefs, either: They held the Cowboys and Eagles to 16 points each, and those teams have averaged 31.9 points per game outside of their contests against Kansas City.
For all the numbers in the world, what’s happened here is very simple: The Chiefs and Saints have gone from being two of the very worst defenses in the league to being two of the four best in football (by points per game) virtually overnight. As much as we talk about how the changes at head coach and at quarterback (for the Chiefs) have helped these teams, their defensive improvement is likely the biggest reason why these sub-.500 teams from a year ago have each started 5-0.