When the name Tom Brady comes up, there is one memory I’ll always think of first. It’s not a Super Bowl, Ugg slippers, or a controversy. It’s a random week five game against the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. It’s actually a singular moment that stands out in my mind.
This game was a big deal to me. The chance to beat the Pats and Tom Brady (and my buddy David Schultz) is an opportunity that comes around every four years. It was New England’s turn to play at home. The Cowboys came to compete hard on this Sunday in October.
It was one of those games where Dallas was out playing them, but only maintaining small leads. The Cowboys offense was sinking in the red zone as the Patriots held them to field goals multiple times.
The real action began here. There was five minutes left, and New England had the ball down by three points. Even in 2011, my fear of Brady was intense. You know this is where he sticks it to you. I was shocked and elated when the Cowboys held them to a three and out. They have picked off Tom twice today, sacked him three times, and now this? Wow! They have to take advantage.
Dallas has the ball with 3:36 to go. A couple first downs and this baby is in the refrigerator. First down. DeMarco Murray gets tackled in the backfield for minus two. Second down and twelve. Minimum Dallas needs to throw a screen pass here. Instead, Murray on the ground for minus one. Tony Romo melted down the week before vs Detroit, and the coaching staff got gun-shy. Sitting on a lead in the NFL is telling the football Gods you would like to lose. Playing that way against Bill Belichick, you are begging to lose.
This was the moment. I KNEW the game was over. It was now third and 13. Dallas still had the ball and the lead. Time was running out. I just KNEW the game was over. The Cowboys were not going to throw for sure now. Even with all that still had to take place……I just KNEW it was over. Brady is not going to let them off the hook again. Zero chance.
Third down. False start Dallas. Run for a few yards. Punt. Brady now has the ball on his team’s own 20 yard line. There is 2:31 left to play. This defense that had played rugged all day, was about to be burnt toast. There was no deep mystery here.
Then it happened. It was like an episode of Batman from the 1960’s. Pow! Sock! Wham! Tom was 8-9 passing on the drive for 79 yards. It’s like he was taking a walk in the park. Finally, the dagger came in the form of an eight yard touchdown pass with a measly 27 seconds on the clock.
Cowboys fans had their hearts broken on that play. I started dealing with it twenty minutes earlier. Tom Brady is so great, you can assume he will do difficult things easily.
Tony Romo was not drafted. He was an elite talent who carved out a fine career. He will fall short of the Hall of Fame, but deserves an important label. Romo’s overrated teams, helped him become the most underrated player of his generation. He wasn’t just bashed for coming up short. He was not recognized for carrying many of his ball clubs. Tony was a high risk, high reward player. He was more clutch than you realize. When he melted down? He could come apart with the best of them. Over his first seven seasons, Romo struggled to be consistent.
No window of play explains this quarterback like the opening month of the 2011 season. This four game stretch defines Tony Romo.
WEEK #1 (9/12/11) COWBOYS AT JETS
Opening day. Sunday night football. I waited all year. I waited all day. The Cowboys controlled the first half, while Romo put on a clinic in escaping New York defenders. Fast forward to the early part of the fourth quarter. Dallas is up a touchdown with the ball. Tony hits Jason Witten on a beautiful 64 yard pass and run. Unfortunately (for me), Jason was pushed out at the one yard line. Two snaps later on third and goal…Tony was forced to step up in the pocket and take off to the end zone with his legs. He plowed forward with his head down. The ball was knocked lose and he fumbled. The Jets kept themselves alive. With five minutes left, New York blocked a punt and turned it into a quick six. With the game tied, and 55 seconds remaining…Tony challenged the best corner in the game. Darrelle Revis made him pay for it. He scooped up the easy pick and headed down the sideline. The Jets went on to win 27-24. This was the first impression of the season for the already polarizing Romo. He was destroyed in the media all week-long.
WEEK #2 (9/18/11) COWBOYS AT 49ERS
Dallas hit the road again to face a physical 49ers defense. Early in the second quarter, Romo was blasted from behind by corner Carlos Rogers. Tony was left with fractured ribs and a punctured lung. He finished out the second quarter. After being evaluated at halftime, the Cowboys started the second half with Jon Kitna. After Jon had two picks and Dallas was now down ten, Romo had seen enough. Despite spitting blood, Tony was obsessed with avoiding an 0-2 start to the year. He re entered the contest and dominated in pressure. He led Dallas to a fourth quarter tie. On the first drive of overtime, Romo threw a perfect 77 yard strike to a reality-tv star named Jesse Holley (caught seven passes in his career). He was tackled at the one. Dallas kicked the chip shot field goal and won the game 27-24. In the fourth quarter and the extra session..Tony was 12-15 throwing with 201 yards. A week after being the focus of serious scrutiny, Romo put on a display of what real leadership is.
WEEK #3 (9/26/11) REDSKINS AT COWBOYS
Because of the division opponent, this was the biggest game of the four. Tony was wearing a Kevlar vest. With every throw in warm ups, you could see him wincing through the pain. This was a competitive night as you would expect. These Redskins hit hard and they made sure number nine knew it. The score was Washington 16, Dallas 15 with 2:20 left. The Cowboys had the ball on a dire third down and 21. Tony rolled right, faded deep behind the line of scrimmage, and connected with Dez Bryant for a 30 yard gain. Kicker Dan Bailey put the ball through the goal posts and Dallas won the game 18-16.
WEEK #4 (10/2/11) LIONS AT COWBOYS
Romo came out hotter than McDonald’s coffee. In the early stages of the third quarter, he had his team in a commanding 27-3 lead. Tony got careless. He threw two pick sixes in the third quarter. The Lions were now right in the game. You could feel the Cowboys fans with lumps in their throats. An uneasy feeling was looming over this life-size stadium. Dallas was nursing a three-point lead with just over four minutes on the clock. Romo threw one more unforgivable pick. You can’t give Matt Stafford and Calvin Johnson layups. They made Dallas regret it, and completed a stunning come from behind 34-30 victory. On a day where Tony completed 72 percent of his passes, for 331 yards and three scores, he played one of the worst games of his life. This one hurt.
He made bone headed plays, and was always called out for being a choke artist.
He was often brilliant in the clutch. His lack of team success, left this fact buried in history.
Before he was “fragile” at the end of his career, Romo was an all time tough guy.
Over his first seven seasons, he was like a thrilling roller coaster with good and bad results.
This four game stretch, was a fair look at who Tony Romo was as an NFL QB.
It’s summer, and it’s time to break down NFL schedules for each team once again. I’m amazed how it’s loosely thrown around that some team’s have “brutal schedules” and some have “easy ones.” I remember just over a decade ago hearing ESPN’s John Clayton say, “the most important keys to a season are quarterback play and your teams schedule.” Really? QB play maybe. Your schedule? This isn’t college bro. These are not 200 teams where the levels of play can be so drastically different. These are the 32 best football teams in the world. Everyone is looking for that inch to expose you. Worst to first shocks nobody anymore. Even within a season, franchises can change month to month in how they are performing. I love the guy that is proud his team is number 3 in “the power poll.” That’s a completely meaningless tool. It’s a weak copycat of college polls to generate discussion.
There is always a little variance, and some schedules turn out to be more or less of a climb. Not all challenges in the NFL are equal. They are however painted on the same canvas of difficulty. Maybe your team had to play someone at the time they were their hottest. Maybe they have three road games in winter cities come December. Did they have to play Tom Brady twice? Is there an extra awesome division that year? Did they have to play a group that just got all their injured guys back? Life happens. It’s 2018, and the NFL is the ultimate league of parity. Everyone has a chance. If you are attached to a pro football team…you get it. There are NO WEEKENDS OFF. The Cleveland Browns were 0-16 last year. I thought they played hard. Seriously. They are more of a threat to any NFL squad, than Idaho State is to Michigan.
The difference between a 7-9 team, and a Super Bowl champion might be four players and twenty total plays. It’s hard to win games in the National Football League. As a kid in the mid eighties, it seemed there were more dominant teams. Player movement was less frequent and chemistry had more of a chance to grow. I could look at the 1984 49ers or the 1985 Bears schedules and guess my way through it. You try to figure out the league today? Not happening. Stop saying your NFL team’s schedule is hard. They ARE ALL HARD.
I’ve always thought the best part of football was the love and trust between teammates. Whether it’s kids on the playground of West Kearns Elementary, a high school game, or the AFC Championship ….football’s heart beat is about sacrificing and protecting each other on the way to your teams goals.
In 2005 during his Hall of Fame speech, Steve Young put it like this:
“Football players talk about the comradery with a deep sense of passion and commitment. It is the sport that when one of your guys says, “I got your back” it’s not figurative. You depend on them physically and emotionally.”
“If you are lucky enough to make it a career, you can not play very long without a love of the game. The game demands too much of you physically, emotionally and even spiritually, to stay in it if you don’t love it. I don’t care how much you get paid. You show me a six, eight, ten-year veteran of the NFL and I’ll show you a man who loves the game by definition. Money isn’t the key at the moment of impact. I have seen a lot of guys playing for money in practice and warm ups. I have never seen anyone play for money at the point of contact. You can not buy a football player on game day. He plays for the love of the game, and that is why it’s impossible for money to ruin it.”
He is a bright guy who has said a lot of quality things. Those were my favorite words that I’ve heard from Steve Young.
I’m only rating the quarterbacks that I have seen play near or at their best in my time watching football. These will only be players from the mid 1980’s to 2015. I saw the great Dan Fouts for example (Jim Plunkett, Danny White, Joe Theismann), but will not include him in this ranking. I did not see him enough or at his best. Active players on this list remain in position to climb it. These are the 30 best quarterbacks I’ve watched play in the National Football League as of February 2015.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: (Bernie Kosar, Dave Krieg, Matt Hasselbeck)
#30– RUSSELL WILSON (Active) Three years ago I would not have guessed Wilson would have got my attention this early in his career. He has a knack for making plays at the right time. After throwing an interception to lose the Super Bowl, I would trust his attitude and self security to bounce back more than any player in pro football.
#29– MATTHEW STAFFORD (Active) Stafford has left me with some painful memories burning the Cowboys late in games. He gets rid of the ball at all kinds of odd angles. His banner season to date was 2011 where he passed for 5,038 yards and 41 scores.
#28– MATT RYAN (Active) His first pass a professional was a 62 yard touchdown. Ryan has been a star caliber player since and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. In only seven seasons he has 27 game winning drives.
#27– MARK BRUNELL (1994-2011) Mark was a mobile lefty who was sneaky good. He helped his Jaguars upset the Denver Broncos in the 1996 playoffs and was also part of a team that won a post season contest 62-7. Brunell played in three pro bowls.
#26– MICHAEL VICK (Active) Vick is the most dynamic runner to have ever played QB in the NFL. It seemed like he could run for eight yards on accident. For a short period of time, I thought Michael was one of the 10 best players in the entire league.
#25– ANDREW LUCK (Active) Andrew was a lock for stardom from day one. He’s bright, hungry, and has powerful legs. It is obvious he can make every throw and is a team first guy.
#24– RICH GANNON (1987-2004) Rich was a solid QB before he exploded for 105 touchdown passes over four seasons as an Oakland Raider. He ran the west coast offense beautifully and is the only athlete to ever be the player of the game at the Pro Bowl in back to back seasons.
#23– JOEFLACCO(Active) Flacco is a nice deep ball thrower who has already proven his big game credentials with 10 playoff wins. In his 2012 world title run he tossed 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
#22– PHIL SIMMS (1979-1993) Phil was part role player part star. His 22-25 passing performance in Super Bowl 21 remains the standard for completion percentage. It seems forgotten he was 11-3 as a starter before getting hurt in 1990. He set the table for another New York Giants championship.
#21– BOOMER ESIASON (1984-1997) Boomer was the first guy to use the no huddle offense for consistent stretches. He had a cool play fake where he would crouch low. Esiason helped the 1988 Bengals win the American Football Conference and he was named the NFL Most Valuable Player.
#20– RANDALL CUNNINGHAM (1985-2001) Randall was one of the most exotic talents to step on a field. He was an MVP Caliber player as a dual threat at the end of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Cunningham was at the top of his game as a pass first player a decade later leading the explosive Minnesota Vikings inches from an NFC crown.
#19– TONY ROMO (Active) Romo’s ability to escape defenders and extend plays is all time great. Tony was named “NFL Offensive Player of the Month” for December in 2009 and 2014. Even Romo’s biggest critics praise his toughness.
#18– PHILLIP RIVERS (Active) He annoys you if he’s against you, and you would love him if he was yours. Rivers is full of grit and competitive juice. Over his time in the NFL he has been the best of the second tier QB stars. He has quietly been building a resume that has a chance to become Hall of Fame worthy.
#17– DREW BLEDSOE (1993-2006) The Patriots had made the playoffs six times in 33 years before Bledsoe arrived. In his first five years they made the post season three times including a trip to Super Bowl 31. He stepped in for a hurt Tom Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game to make help ensure his presence was felt in this modern New England dynasty.
#16– STEVE MCNAIR (1995-2007) Steve had a stout presence in the pocket and threw the ball with ease. He worked around lack of practice due to injuries better than anyone.
#15– DONOVAN MCNABB (1999-2011) McNabb rolling to the right on third and seven was a scary sight. He was an intelligent and crafty playmaker. He carried offensive units most of his career.
#14– ELI MANNING (Active) Manning was the most difficult player for me to rank. He is the owner of two of the sharpest post season runs in league history. Beating the 18-0 Patriots was the top upset of any NFL game in my lifetime. Eli is almost more clutch than he is good.
#13– WARREN MOON (1984-2000) Moon was not drafted by an NFL team so he tore up Canada instead. Even after losing years due to discrimination, Warren Moon lit up the National Football League. He was the smooth operator of the Houston Oilers run and shoot offense in the early 1990’s. He had a loud clear cadence and embarrassed those that doubted him by finding a permanent home in Canton Ohio.
#12– JIM KELLY (1986-1996) Jim played in the K-Gun offense in which he called his own plays. He was linebacker tough. Losing in four consecutive Super Bowls is an amazing, under respected achievement by his Buffalo Bills teams.
#11– KURT WARNER (1998-2009) Kurt was 1-2 in Super Bowls but owns the three highest passing yard efforts in the games history. Getting the Arizona Cardinals within a couple of minutes of a world title ensured his prominent place among passers.
#10– BEN ROETHLISBERGER (Active) Fans tend to mention that Ben played poorly in his first Super Bowl victory. They forget that he led the Steelers to three straight playoff road wins. During that stretch he completed 68% of his passes to go with seven touchdowns and one pick. “Big Ben” also made a game saving tackle at Indianapolis in the Divisional round.
#9– TROY AIKMAN (1989-2000) Legendary broadcaster Pat Summerall loved to gush over Aikman’s accuracy. Troy could throw the deep out with his eyes closed. He sacrificed his stats for footballs best running game. It paid off with three rings, a Super Bowl MVP, and a 13-4 record as a playoff starter.
#8– DREW BREES (Active) The Saints were in Dallas Thanksgiving day 2010. The Cowboys were up 27 to 23 with three plus minutes remaining. My stepdaughter texts me, “Cowboys are gonna win.” I wrote back, “Three minutes is a lifetime for Drew Brees.” Drew completed a 55 yard pass, followed by a 12 yard touchdown to win the game 30-27. Some guys are just too good to ever let you get comfortable.
#7– AARON RODGERS (Active) Aaron carries himself with the appropriate arrogance for his job description. He’s agile, with an accurate whip for a right arm. In the 2015 post season he led his team to victory on essentially one leg. As a move to throw talent, Rodgers is the best I’ve ever seen play the position.
#6– BRETT FAVRE (1991-2010) Brett was entertaining television. He had the enthusiasm of a young child and the swagger of Han Solo walking into a bar fight. Favre was a gunslinger to the core and earned the recognition of being an iron man. Counting the playoffs, Brett played in an incredible 321 straight games.
#5– DAN MARINO (1983-1999) Nobody had a cat quick release like Dan. He also manipulated the pocket with the best of them. NFL Films co creator Steve Sabol said, “Watching Marino in the pocket was like watching a great matador. With just a little bend of the waste, a jab step forward, a step back, he could avoid the horns.”
#4– STEVE YOUNG (1985-1999) What Dan Marino was to yardage and touchdown passes, Steve Young was to completion percentage and passer rating. He was a superior athlete who had no peer regarding clean, efficient play. Steve was consumed with the mental test the game of football provided. In the end he received an A plus.
#3– PEYTON MANNING (Active) Manning has made himself the face of preparation and in-game chess play. The five time MVP gets sacked less than any QB who has played. Peyton is smashing the NFL record books. You know you are unbelievable at football when you have 70,000 passing yards, 530 touchdown passes, a world title, and fans say you need to do more.
#2– JOHN ELWAY (1983-1998) Before winning consecutive rings to end his career many people claimed John was a “choker.” What I saw was a guy carry three pretty good Denver teams to Super Bowl losses while being the best clutch player in the AFC. Elway had the strongest arm I’ve seen and could throw the ball 50 yards across his body to the opposite side of the field.
#1– JOE MONTANA (1979-1993)& TOM BRADY (Active) This tie is not a cop-out on my part or an excuse to mention 31 quarterbacks. The selection is perfect for me right now. Montana has always been the clear-cut best QB of my lifetime. The morning of Super Bowl 49, I had Tom Brady a close second. After Tom’s dynamite fourth quarter, and taking home his fourth World Championship, I feel Brady deserves to be categorized as Joe Montana’s equal. Joe moved much better than Tom. Brady has been more durable and prolific. Joe played on slightly better, more dominant teams. Tom won big over a longer window of time with a higher variety of teammates. Joe was cool and Tom was fiery. They were the same guy from the neck up and the two best quarterbacks I’ve ever seen play in the National Football League.
In 2008 Tony Romo was at his “most prolific and probably most athletic.” In 2009 he had his best season in the most “traditional sense”.” The 2013 version of Romo was “the best the player has been so far.” You have to consider the money he had recently been paid, the criticism he got for it, and the new level of responsibility he would take on. In part because of a league high number of injuries to defensive lineman, the 2013 Cowboys were mostly bad on defense. Against the pass, this unit bled yards on a historical level. Tony was great this year! By “great” I mean he beyond did his part for his team, and even without a playoff birth was a top seven or eight NFL quarterback. Romo was way more clutch than not, but the story will come out different. He will once again get the blame because of a few reasons. It’s a quarterbacks league, his past mistakes, and mostly his high-profile team leads to him getting attention but constantly snubbed of credit. He also gave his critics two unforgettable games where his “Romo blunders” cost his football team the game or at least a chance.
Did you see Romo throw two late picks against Green Bay to help the Cowboys finish blowing a 26 to 3 lead this last December? I know you did. All of you couldn’t stop talking about it. It was a big game. It was being shown in a prime spot. Then there was the classic at home against the Denver Broncos. Romo put on a clinic that day. His 506 yards passing and five touchdowns were a product of his all time great pocket awareness, and escapeability. He led the Cowboys to a 48 point tie late in the game. With a chance to win, Tony threw the ball to the Broncos who came out on top 51 to 48. It was a cruel, almost fitting dagger. It pains me to admit that game is probably the best 60 minute nut shell example of how most fans view Tony Romo.
The next morning Michael Smith of ESPN said, “You know we always say the quarterback gets too much credit when he wins and too much blame when he loses? As far as his critics go, Tony Romo is the ONLY quarterback I’ve seen that gets NONE of the credit when Dallas wins, and ALL of the blame when they lose.”
Romo always gets his numbers. This time around brought 3,828 yards passing while completing 64% of his attempts. The 31 touchdowns ranked second in the NFC, and the 10 interceptions were pretty elite for a player known for turnovers. He fumbled a career low four times (one lost). Tony threw away balls at the right time, and took smart sacks. He was 8 and 7 as a starter, but 5 and 0 in the most crucial division games. He now has more yards and completions than any QB in NFL history through their first 100 starts.
Avid Sportsman Tony Abbott is never shy or dishonest about his Romo opinions. On five different occasions this year in the middle of down to the wire Cowboys games, Abbott proclaimed “the SEASON was on #9 right here”. He was not putting just each of these games is on one guy, he was saying the entire temperature and direction of the franchise right now, is on Romo. Lets look at the five contests.
November 3rd VS Minnesota Vikings: The Cowboys were coming off a one point horror show loss at Detroit. They were 4 and 4 and could not afford to lose this ballgame. Dallas was down three points to the Vikings with 2:44 left in regulation. The Cowboys had the ball on their own 10 yard line. Romo and his right arm accounted for all 90 yards that ended with a go ahead touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining. Other than winning, I really enjoyed knowing my South Dakota family members/Vikings fans watched the same thing I did.
November 24th at New York Giants: New York had won four in a row and talked ridiculous trash all week. The temperature was 22 degrees and the wind 27 mph. Dallas let go of a 21 to 6 third quarter lead. They found themselves tied at 21, with the ball on their own 20 yard line, with 4:45 left in the game. In methodical fashion, Tony led the Cowboys on a 16 play drive. He spread the ball around, he needled the Giants to death and made them look worse the bigger the play became. Dan Bailey knocked in a close range field goal to win the game. This kept the Cowboys season alive, and essentially knocked the Giants out.
November 28th VS OAKLAND RAIDERS: This game was an uphill climb from the opening play. The Cowboys first kick return attempt became a fumble and a Raiders score. Oakland led 21 to 7 with under two minutes remaining in the first half. Tony completed five straight passes to set up a short running touchdown. In half number two, Romo completed all 12 of his passes and led the team to a 31 to 24 victory.
December 15th VS Green Bay: I mentioned this game is where the focus will stay. Tony was having a good day helping Dallas build a 23 point half time lead. He also threw a clutch TD to Dez mid way through the fourth quarter as the Packers mounted a furious comeback. The qb then put the cherry on the collapse by throwing two late picks. The first INT was extra bad. The kind of play you want to pretend didn’t happen. The Packers played good, but this was one of the most embarrassing losses in franchise history.
December 22nd at Washington Redskins: As things ended up playing out, the Cowboys had to win this game to keep the season alive and to set up an NFC East title game with the Eagles. Dallas was down nine points at the beginning of the last quarter. Romo hurt his back and was experiencing shocking pains down his legs. He decided to put on another display of bad ass clutch play. The stand out plays were a fourth down and six completed for 20 yards to Cole Beasley, and a scramble then 51 yard hurl to Terrance Williams. The Boys failed to punch in the football on three straight running plays. It was fourth down and the year from the 10 yard line. Tony showed off his footwork and patience as he hit DeMarco Murray for a game winning touchdown pass and the best moment for the Cowboys in 2013.
I have to mention it: October 20th at Philly in a one score game late in the third quarter, after throwing a bad interception..Tony leads a drive where he completes seven out of eight passes for 69 yards. In the process he converts five first downs and a slant pattern for a score to put Dallas up 17 to 3 where the score would stay.
Abbott is a smart guy who does not think that Romo is as good as I do. I had to note, that Romo delivered enormous clutch plays and succeeded in 80% of those challenges put out there.
The night after the Redskins win on “NFL Gameday Final” Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk said, “If you really pay attention to it, the Cowboys constantly are in the position that Tony Romo HAS to make a play. Your team is built to have one guy have to constantly make or break the game. That is why Tony Romo is always in the hot seat.”
Everyone jumped head first in how and why Romo changed a key play late against Green Bay to a pass. Did anyone mention ANY of the plays he changed in ANY of his clutch moments? They did not. After Tony sacrificed his body and sold out in the pressure at Washington to give Dallas a chance did anyone take a breath to celebrate it? They did not. What I heard instead was, “If Kyle Orton plays good next week it will make Romo look so Bad.” I also loved the “Romo would have choked against Philly” card. He could have easily thrown a pass to cost Dallas the East. Without his pressure packed performances, the Cowboys would have never been there.
Romo has a lot to prove to be a truly great NFL player.That doesn’t mean I’m not tired of him playing like the low-level star he is, and getting the respect of an overpaid backup.