With two weeks remaining in the regular season, there are two remaining teams vying for the automatic playoff berth rewarded to the winner of the NFC East. At 7-7, the Dallas Cowboys are once again trying to avoid collapsing under the weight of heavy expectations. The consistent mediocrity that has highlighted the better part of the 21st century for ‘America’s Team’ has put the memories of some of the dominant Super Bowl winning teams of the 90s far in the rear-view mirror. As arguably the most high-profile franchise in sports, the ups and downs of every Cowboys season is as heavily covered as any trend in the NFL. Between heavy exposure on primetime stages, the prominent role played by eccentric owner Jerry Jones in the operations of the franchise, and the colorful, albeit talented personalities that make up their rosters, the Cowboys seem to be the team that the most people follow and talk about.
When they say that a team’s quarterback should personify the personality of the team, it is usual spoken in a positive light. While it is not 100% negative, perhaps there is no other case of this that is less desirable than the link between Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. The undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois has gone from feel-good story, to franchise golden boy, to jilted veteran apparently crumbling under the years of underachievement. Romo has turned himself into one of the most proficient passers in the game from a statistical standpoint. In 2013, his 29 touchdown passes are good for third in the league and has a respectable nine interceptions on 508 attempts. He is on pace for his 3rd straight 4,000 yard season and will likely be voted to another Pro Bowl. With the career resume he has, Romo should have his name mentioned among the top quarterbacks in the league and people should be debating his status for Hall of Fame consideration.
Instead, Romo’s failures have seemingly haunted his career over the last few seasons as they become more glaring and devastating to his team. Even after some of his finest passing performances, something about the most important moments of the most important games constantly get the best of Romo. No more so than in his most recent start, a one-point Cowboys loss to the Packers, a solid Romo start was immediately forgotten when two 4th quarter interceptions essentially handed the game away. Even on a team with a historically bad defense, the six-year/$108 million man in Big D is often pegged with the responsibility of every Cowboys meltdown. For the Cowboys to be 7-7 at this point in the season seems to almost be a result of science, as no team can fluctuate too far in one direction with the inconsistency demonstrated by their most important player.
A game better than the Cowboys in the division sit the surprising 8-6 Eagles. Under the lead of first-year head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles have shaken off a up-and-down to start and won six of their last seven to emerge as one of the pleasant surprises in the NFL this season. While Billy Davis’ defense, until last Sunday, performed admirably to consistently give the Eagles a chance to win games, it is their explosive offense that has garnered the headlines for the most part. Sitting behind only the Denver Broncos, the Eagles 414 yards per game over Kelly’s first 14 as a head coach seem to justify his reputation as an advanced mind in terms of offensive football on any level. With a heavy emphasis on the running game, the Eagles 152.9 yards/game on the ground are nearly a dozen yards clear of second place, and that is without an apparently essential element to Kelly’s offensive schemes.
Many figured that Kelly would need the services of an athletic, fleet-footed quarterback in order to run a read-option heavy, high tempo offense. Michael Vick’s start in week 1 only seemed to justify this notion, and when he was injured in the team’s week 5 win over the Giants, many figured the potent offense would be hamstrung without Vick’s running ability.
Since that injury, all current starter Nick Foles has done is lead the team to a 6-3 mark and a prime opportunity to win the NFC East for the first time since 2010. Foles’ staggering 19 touchdowns without an interception start to his 2013 season made all the headlines, but it was the second-year pro’s apparent mastery of Chip Kelly’s offense that has impressed critics up to the highest level.
Foles has put to rest, for now, the assumption that a quarterback with premiere running ability is required to execute Kelly’s offense in an effective manner. Foles has displayed ‘functional mobility’ in enough instances to keep defenses honest in terms of accounting him as a runner, and shown a veteran-level aptitude for decision-making, rarely missing the open receiver in Kelly’s option-heavy offense. For at least the time being, the general assumption is that Foles has done enough to solidify his role as the team’s starter for the 2014 season with every chance to strengthen his grasp on being the team’s primary option at quarterback.
For how impressive the former 3rd round pick has been for the Eagles to this point, there are still detractors who question his long-term staying power and ability to lead a team on a playoff run. With obviously no opportunity prior to this season, Foles has had very little time without a heavy spotlight on his performances. Under the lead of a high-profile first year coach, Foles had no choice but deal with the pressure of being the team’s starting quarterback. After falling one touchdown short of Peyton Manning’s record for touchdowns without an interception to start a season (in his second NFL season), Foles had put the gaze of the rest of the football world squarely on his shoulders as he tries to lead the Eagles back to the playoffs. Foles has come off as the sort of calm, confident presence one would want in their quarterback down the stretch, but there is no way to tell how the young signal-caller will deal with the intense scrutiny of the final two games of the regular season.
With two weeks remaining in the season, pending the week 16 results, the two teams and their quarterbacks have their fates tied to each other. Can Romo put his team’s recent slide behind him and lead them to two division wins to seal a NFC East title? Or will Foles continue to play as Chip Kelly’s on-field medium as the Eagles offense rolls into the playoffs? It is tough to say which player it would be easier to have more faith in.
On one hand, while his late-game struggles are highlighted, Romo still has 19 4th quarter comebacks and 22 game-winning drives in his career. He has led the Cowboys to the playoffs on three separate occasions, and has a playoff win. Romo has proven he can make every throw and has the escapability to extend plays in scramble situations. From a physical standpoint, arguably even more so than Foles, Romo has every attribute one could ask for in a franchise quarterback. With his extensive talent, confidence to make the big throw, and a constant crop of talented skill players around him, it would come as no surprise to no one if Romo was one of the best clutch performers in the game.
And yet, there is something about watching Tony Romo in late-game situations in the latter parts of the season that is simply cringe-worthy. The pending disaster of that is now associated with Romo’s play is like watching someone who has their credit card rejected after a $300 grocery store order. The squirming and ultimate defeat displayed by the Cowboys quarterback is both saddening, as a football fan who appreciates the competitor that Romo is, as well as delightful, as an Eagles fan who relishes every loss of a division opponent. With the Cowboys being arguably the most high-profile franchise in sports, it’s almost poetic that their quarterback experience the sort of highs and lows that Tony Romo does on a yearly basis.
In terms of Foles, the main criticism at this point is lack of exposure and experience. Foles still only has 14 career starts, and just two game-winning drives (one in a meaningless game in 2012 against Tampa Bay). While he does not exhibit the sort of consistency with the quality of his passes, Foles has had a successful large enough sample size to show that he can make every throw on the field. His 61.4% completion percentage, 29 touchdowns to just seven interceptions and 4,097 yards in 18 games of action is as good a start as one could ask for from any young quarterback, whether he was drafted in the third round or the first round. Foles run in 2013 has been nothing short of special and has people in the Philadelphia area dreaming much bigger than many expected for this season.
Still, and it could be the jaded Eagles fan saying this, but the fear of the unknown and underexposed is no more apparent than it is with people on Nick Foles. Every mistake is magnified to the point of disaster and his exploits are often credited to the openings that Kelly’s offense provides for any passer. Foles’ passes do not shoot out of his hand like a Matthew Stafford or a Michael Vick, he does not make the sort of pin-point miracle throws that Aaron Rodgers makes, and he has not had the opportunity to lead a Tom Brady-esque 4th quarter comeback with the highest stakes on the line. Even with his staggering statistics and winning record, people seem to focus so much on the negatives of Foles without acknowledging his accomplishments. There are still those that feel that Kelly will ultimately succumb to his own desires and bring in a quarterback with more running ability to tap the full potential of his playbook. Foles is dealing with the consequences of being a young, unproven quarterback in a playoff race. Add in the fact that he is a third round pick that the franchise is not financially forced to make Foles the long-term franchise option at any point soon, the 24-year old is judged differently after every game.
So the argument is far from black and white when it comes to who one would want leading their team on a high-pressure playoff run. It is not as if either has been supremely successful or unsuccessful, rather one has been moderately successful but seems to have hit a plateau while the other has not had the chance to achieve anything, and basing a decision on a franchise’s postseason aspirations is a lot to consider.
Ultimately, what it comes down to for me is the only thing that should matter in the NFL: the potential for championships. The more you watch Tony Romo play, the more you can’t fathom him ever lifting the Lombardi trophy as a Super Bowl Champion. Romo has been on teams with good offenses, bad offenses, good defenses, and bad defenses. Yet no matter what the team around him is, the same issues plague the now 33-year old Dallas quarterback. At 13-19 in December, all Romo has shown is that when the stakes are the highest, in terms of the regular season, his play tails off. One can make the argument that he cannot help it if the defense around him gives up too many points to compensate for. Still, one never hears about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees failing to clinch playoff berths because their defense could not hold up their end of the bargain. At the end of the day, the quarterbacks who have what it takes to win championships and embrace the highest pressure situations always seem to find a way to win. At this point in his career, more people talk about the excuses as to why Tony Romo wins rather than the overwhelming odds he had to overcome to somehow lead his team to a win, a narrative we often hear with the previously mentioned trio of quarterbacks.
Because he has already exceeded every expectation for his career to this point, I am giving the benefit of the doubt to the unknown factor for Foles. He has the sort of make up of a quarterback that approaches the game the right way to win late in the season. He can make all of the throws and is not afraid to stretch the defense with challenging routes. Yet, his decision-making and knowledge of the offense have minimized his turnovers. It is becoming more and more noticeable that even when Foles misses, he misses in a place that causes the least potential damage to his team. Chip Kelly preached protecting the ball and decision-making more than anything when it came to the selection process of his first quarterback. With only three turnovers on the season (two interceptions and one fumble), Foles is no fluke when it comes to not shooting himself in the foot.
Another factor, that used to be a detriment when it came to quarterbacks, was the youthfulness and borderline naivety displayed by the second-year Foles. Much like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Colin Kaepernick in 2012, Foles does not have years of pressure and prior stumbles weighing on him the way Romo does. He is playing not necessarily with abandonment, but with little fear of making mistakes because of the trust he has in his head coach. Think of what Tony Romo has had to deal with to this point in his career. Between coaching changes, volatile teammates, and the most high-profile owner in sports, Romo has had so much noise to deal with that must have muddled his confidence to this point. Foles was drafted by Andy Reid, but did not have enough time with his playbook to fall victim to stubbornness to one system. In college, Foles started his career at Michigan State, transferred to Arizona, and dealt with a coaching change his senior year. At 24, Foles has had to deal with much more variability in his career than a lot of players have to deal with well into their professional careers. While all of his statistics and highlight reel plays have been entertaining for certain, there is perhaps nothing as impressive about Foles than his even-keeled professional approach to playing the quarterback position.
For a great deal of his career, I have actually supported Tony Romo as having an argument for being a top quarterback in the league. So many teams in this league would kill to have run into the luck that the Cowboys did when they were able to bring Romo through the ranks and have him step in as a prolific passer from the jump. He will go down as one of the most proficient players in Cowboys history from a statistical standpoint and has been the only long-term quarterback for the franchise with any sort of success since Troy Aikman. However, one can only look past the individual highlights so much without blowing them up to represent a bigger part of his career. The great quarterbacks who carry their teams to the playoffs and into championships have their careers defined by the individual moments that others fell short in. In his short career, Nick Foles has had some high-profile moments and still does not have the sort of meltdown that has become the norm in Tony Romo’s career. He has done enough to convince me that there is no glaring deficiency that can keep him from being an NFL quarterback, and continues to convince me more and more that he could possibly be a special player.
Some say to take the safe bet when it comes to deciding between an unknown and a proven commodity. If Tony Romo was added to most teams, he could probably add a win or two to their expected total. Yet I cannot say with confidence that if you put the best possible roster around Tony Romo that he would be able to lead them to a Super Bowl. It is true that the same goes for Foles, but that is a result of limited gameplay and not tangible results. In this instance, I would rather have a quarterback like Foles who is embracing the chance to lead a team into a high pressure situation than a player like Romo, who has had half-a-decade of failures piling on his shoulders as he tries to avoid his latest meltdown.