Thursday, December 15, 2011

Week 15 Coin Toss: Franchise Decisons

Miami turned the lights off on the coach
that always wore sunglasses. (AP)
Stally: Two coaches were fired this week.

Miami's Tony Sparano was let go after a 26-10 loss at home to Philadelphia. The Dolphins have won four of their last six, but started the season 0-7. Sparano originally got the job in 2008 and led the Dolphins to the playoffs in his first season, thanks in part to the then-revolutionary Wildcat offense that he often ran with RB Ronnie Brown lined up in the shotgun.

Meanwhile, Todd Haley was canned by Kansas City. He was in his third year and the team has dropped five of its last six after starting 4-3. The Chiefs had plenty of injuries to go around and did make the playoffs last year under Haley, but he was just 19-26 in his Kansas City coaching career.

Breaking them down separately, what do you make of the two firings, Austen? Were they justified and would you have made the same decision as the GMs that fired them?

Austen: Let me start with the Dolphins situation. Tony Sparano should have been fired after last season. I am not saying he deserved to be fired, but the Fins went after Jim Harbaugh, failed, and then told Sparano basically, "I guess you are our best option... for now."

You simply cannot do this to a coach and to a team. This makes the coach act irrationally and make decisions for his team to help them in the short term and most likely hurt them in the long term. Also, his firing was inevitable considering they have already tried to replace him, so why keep him around? This was yet another huge mistake for a franchise that has been horribly run for years, and possibly forever.

This Dolphins team has rallied around Sparano and seem to have fought hard pretty much every week, at least recently, so I am not really sure this firing is "deserved," but it was definitely something that had to happen sooner than later so that the team could move on and rebuild.

Haley's firing was much more unwarranted and unnecessary. He led this extremely untalented Chiefs team to a 10-win season last year, winning the AFC West. Yes, they got crushed in the playoffs, but they had no right being there at all with the lack of playmakers they had.

The Chiefs have been awful this season, but they lost Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry, up-and-coming pass catching tight end Tony Moeaki, and possibly their best player in speedster running back Jamaal Charles all within the first two weeks of the season. That is a lot of talent to replace immediately for a team that already lacks depth and talent at almost every position. Then, they lost Matt Cassel for the season and had no one behind him besides the completely untested Tyler Palko (there is a reason this guy went undrafted after spending his college career throwing the ball to all star Larry Fitzgerald).

This season, to me, is clearly the fault of General Manager Scott Pioli, who is the man who fired Haley. It is his responsibility, not Haley's, to find talent to put on this team. He has failed miserably at doing so and has clearly used Haley as a scapegoat for his own failures as a GM.

Pioli put together one of the worst drafts I have seen in a long time for a team that had so many holes to fill. He started off by over-drafting receiver Jonathan Baldwin from Pitt in the first round. He looked more like a second round pick because of character questions, which were heightened when he began his rookie season with the Chiefs injured, by breaking his hand during a fight with the Chiefs' team captain Thomas Jones. Not a great start and he has done little to prove he is worth such a high selection.

In the second round, the Chiefs again reached for an interior offensive lineman in Rodney Hudson, who has only managed to start one game at center on an offensive line that has been subpar all year. In the third round, Justin Houston, who was once thought of as a possible first-round pick, fell to them. He has been pretty solid this season, starting seven games at outside linebacker and recording four sacks, but I cannot give them credit for drafting a guy that was clearly the most talented player left on the board.

The Chiefs had five more picks in this draft, but none of these draft picks are at all worth talking about. They have done little or nothing to help this team and have accounted for a whopping zero starts. That is atrocious for what was a pretty talented draft class.

Pioli followed up this draft, which everyone who at all pays attention to the draft graded as one of the worst drafts out of all the teams in the NFL, by doing almost nothing to improve this team. He seemed to be ok going in to 2011 with little talent and no depth at any position.

Sorry to go off on such a rant, but Pioli is a guy who has gotten a lot of credit for doing very little. He is yet another guy who has gotten a great reputation for being a part of Bill Belichick's magic up in New England, but clearly cannot survive on his own.

I am not a big fan of Haley, but he did not deserve to get fired, especially at this point in the season, but that is the politics of the NFL.

Stally: I don't think there's a whole lot to expand upon, as I agree with everything you said. Sparano always did seem to have something mysteriously intriguing about him...but maybe it was just the sunglasses. I always felt like he got the most out of a sub par group, but the writing was definitely on the wall. I thought that the Dolphins had played well enough the second half to possibly save his job, but it didn't surprise me to see him gone.

While you weren't a big fan of Haley, I was. It shocked me that after going to the playoffs last year, he could lose his job midseason, due to one of the worst outbreaks of injuries in the NFL. He definitely earned himself insurance through 2012 with the unexpected divisional crown last season. I don't think that there's a coach the Chiefs will bring in that will do better than Haley has done, so it makes little sense to fire him.

Being the QB with the star on his helmet
can drive Tony Romo nuts. (Getty)
Austen: The more I watch Tony Romo, the more I am confused by what he actually has to offer the Cowboys. I have long been a defender of him, despite hating the Cowboys and the entire state of Texas. However, this season is making me reconsider what I think about this guy. I feel like he has lost more games for the Boys this season than he has won.

Is Romo a top 10 quarterback? Does he have what it takes to get this team to a Super Bowl? Is he simply a good quarterback who just falters under pressure? What do you make of Romo?

Romo. Franchise quarterback or franchise disappointer?

Stally: Before we get going with this question, let me introduce Josh Feldman. Josh writes one of the few blogs we follow, No Joshin'. He's a sports broadcaster and a lifelong Cowboys fan, so he should be able to provide some good perspective on what's going on in Dallas. Now, to my answer...

Tony Romo's a franchise quarterback in my mind. I'm glad he's not running my team, but I have Tom Brady. Thank goodness I'm not, but if I were a Jets fan and given the option of Romo or Mark Sanchez, I'd take Romo without putting much thought into it.

Romo's a playmaker that finds a way to distribute the ball to all the different weapons he has. Sure, he's got some solid targets out there in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, but where would guys like Miles Austin and Laurent Robinson be with a league average QB (like Sanchez)? Probably muddling around as slot receivers like Brandon Stokley after he left the Colts (kinda like the Jets' Jeremy Kerley).

The biggest issue is that Romo lacks confidence late in games. This is a mental issue, and something that's capable of being overcome. It's not a question of talent and it's not something that affects his whole game (like being soft, in Blaine Gabbert's case, for instance). He (and the Cowboys) remind me of my pre-2004 Red Sox. They'd always give me hope that they'd win the big games, but, deep down, I always feared they'd lose it and those fears were usually realized in heartbreaking fashion. But, as the Red Sox have proven, that didn't mean they weren't capable of one day figuring it out.

Tony Romo is basically the anti-Tim Tebow. He plays well for 55 minutes and then has some sort of mental block late that usually results in a stupid decision. The difference between the two is that Romo is legitimately a very talented quarterback and he shows plenty of intelligence and poise for much of the game. If Romo overcomes whatever mental issue he has that hinders him late in games, there's no reason why he and the Cowboys can't be one of the best teams in the league and contend for a Super Bowl. Not only this year, but in the next several.

Austen: Ever since I started watching Romo, I have compared him to Brett Favre because of his gunslinger mentality, and I think that still holds true today. He tends to throw balls into tight coverage often and makes throws while he is being hit or falling down, trusting in his athletic ability maybe a little too much. Like Favre, he is desperate to make a play, yet they do this for very different reasons.

Favre always wanted to make a play because he wanted to be a hero. It was his ego that drove him to try to attempt the impossible because the payoff for him was the glory of making a spectacular play. In Romo's case, it seems to be having to do with his own confidence problems, which leads him to try to make a play in order to prove himself to the media and the Cowboys' fans. Romo just needs to settle into his role as a starting quarterback and find some sort of confidence from all the talent he has.

His main issue as a quarterback is his leadership skills. His inferiority complex clearly effects his ability to lead others and that is why the Cowboys as a team seem to always fall short. Obviously a lot of that falls on the quarterback, but this is a team problem and not a Romo problem.

Had Dan Bailey made that field goal against the Giants, which was set up by Romo driving right down the field with 30 seconds left on the clock, Romo would have looked like a hero. Instead, everyone gets to nitpick possibly his only bad pass of the game when he overthrew a wide open Miles Austin on third down. Considering Austin has missed the majority of this season, is still not playing at 100%, and now claims that he lost the ball in the lights causing him to slow down, I'll give Romo a pass for a game in which he threw four touchdowns and had to overcome the loss of his star rookie running back.

The Cowboys defense has been awful this year and has put a ton of pressure on Romo. The Cowboys simply cannot win games when they give up so many big plays on broken coverage, which allowed the Giants to score two touchdowns in about three minutes.

If Romo just finds a way to be confident in his skills and to steps up into a leadership role on this team, the Cowboys could be scary good once they sort out their defensive backfield.

Josh Feldman: Oh my, where to begin...

First, let's start with what I believe is the question at hand -- is Romo a top 10 quarterback/franchise quarterback? -- before refuting and clarifying some of the beliefs, misinformation and fallacies about Tony Romo.

Is Tony Romo a top 10 quarterback? The easiest way to answer this is by simply going through the Cowboys schedule one week at a time and, with each match up, determining which quarterback you'd like on your team. It's an easy proposition for teams with Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees (Super Bowl winning quarterbacks), but harder with a controversial QB like Tony Romo, whose dynamic comebacks and clutch performances are only surpassed by the glorification of his failures.

The quarterbacks on the Cowboys' schedule include Mark Sanchez, Alex Smith, John Beck, Matthew Stafford, Tom Brady, Sam Bradford, Michael Vick, Tavaris Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, John Skelton (Kevin Kolb was injured), Eli Manning, and Josh Freeman. Only Tom Brady and Eli Manning are legitimate quarterbacks to argue having over Romo. In fact, other than teams with the obvious franchise quarterback, someone who already has hardware in the trophy case, tell me another quarterback you'd want instead of Dallas' #9?

Those fringe franchise quarterbacks include Philips Rivers (who appears to be on a mission to get Norv Turner fired based on his play), Jay Cutler (who was nearly run out of Chicago after last year's NFC Championship game), and Michael Vick (who is about as healthy as one of his dogs). Tony Romo has shown more consistency over the last five seasons than all of those quarterbacks. By a long shot.

There are other quarterbacks like Tim Tebow, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, Mark Sanchez... Their teams win, but arguably in spite of their quarterbacks, not because of them.

How importantly is a quarterback? Just ask the winless Colts.

Is Tony Romo a franchise quarterback? Absolutely. If he played for a franchise like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions or Arizona Cardinals -- teams that really haven't had a franchise quarterback in the last 50 years or ever -- Romo would be the greatest QB any of those teams could ever hope for. But Romo is cursed with the same thing Troy Aikman had to deal with: following a legend in Dallas. Never mind that Aikman didn't come to Dallas until '89 and Roger Staubach retired almost a decade earlier. There was a six-year gap between Aikman and Romo too, but in Dallas, it's all about the Super Bowl winning QB, and until you bring home the thing, you'll forever play in the shadows of those who did, fairly or not. That is what Tony Romo is up against.

Is he a franchise quarterback? Yes. Has he lived up to the ridiculously high Dallas Cowboys fans' definition of a franchise quarterback? No, and no one will until the Lombardi Trophy returns to Dallas.

Stally: Ok, so, as a Dallas insider, if you will, you agree that he is worthy of being a franchise quarterback.  But, he still loses a lot of clutch games, so what happens to him late in games?

Josh: If anything, Romo gets better as the game goes on. There have certainly been exceptions this season, but take a look at those "exceptions" more closely, and you'll find that over his career and even in 2011, Romo has been plenty good in the fourth quarter.

If you had to name the top-five fourth quarter quarterbacks in the NFL so far this season, would you put Tony Romo in that group?

If not, you'd be wrong. Tony Romo has posted a 103.9 rating in the fourth quarter this season, and based on the stats compiled by the Washington Post, only trailing Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tim Tebow and the (always throwing because they're behind before he was hurt) Jason Campbell. See for yourself...

Frankly, this notion that Romo has a confidence issue -- a notion that y'all continue to perpetuate without basis -- sounds more like something out of a Cialis commercial than an NFL locker room. Where does this even come from? Austen, you made the point you feel like Romo "has lost more games" than he has won. Stally, you claim Romo is the anti-Tebow, turning back into a pumpkin during the final five minutes of the game. Both assertions need to be addressed.

Romo In The Clutch: This issue has been so overblown, I feel we need to start much farther back than this year. (I promise, we won't go snap by snap, but you almost have to in order to make people see the light on this guy.) Why he's such a lightning rod, I guess that has to do with the star on his helmet and the position he plays, but look at where he came from and what he accomplished.

An undrafted rookie free agent, Romo only made the Cowboys roster in 2004, after starting QB Quincy Carter was released for a positive drug test, severing the franchise's ties with the man who the team invested a second-round draft pick in and who led them to the playoffs the previous year, before losing to eventual NFC-champion Carolina. Romo watched Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe lead the Cowboys pretty much nowhere, before taking the reigns six games into the 2006 season and leading Dallas to a wild card berth. If not for the botched hold by Romo, he would have led the Cowboys in an upset over the defending NFC champions on the road. Keep in mind, the only reason it had been such a chip shot field goal is because Romo had led Dallas down the field to put them in position to win. As I wrote in 2006:

This year, Romo proved that he has what it takes to be the quarterback in Dallas. Without him, the 'Boys may not have even made the playoffs. Making the Pro Bowl was no fluke; the final five games of the season were.

The Bobble will not be as catastrophic as "The Catch," which not only launched a dynasty but crumbled another at once. Instead, it will most likely be looked back at as Romo's humble beginnings after a career of success.
A gaffe like that could have buried the undrafted rookie free agent now at the helm of America's Team. How was he supposed to come back from that? Parcells left following the season, and Romo managed to "pick up the pieces" en route to a 13-3 season in 2007. The record alone is impressive for a season-year starter (technically, his first full season, but really, it was Year #2 for Romo).

The fingerprints for Romo's comeback abilities trace to this season on a Monday night in Buffalo. Dallas trailed the Bills by 24-22 after a failed 2-point conversion with :20 to play in the 4th quarter. Keep in mind, Romo had already led Dallas on what could have been a game-tying drive in the 2-minute drill that would have forced overtime had T.O. not dropped the 2-point try. The Cowboys recovered an onside kick, and Romo completed two quick passes to set up a 53-yard field goal by Nick Folk. In fact, the only loss Dallas suffered that season prior to December came at the hands of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. (By the way, Stally, beating the Giants in the playoffs that year -- and Dallas would fail to do -- was not as easy as it seemed, would you agree?)

Stally: I don't think the Patriots played the Giants in the playoffs last year.  I seem to remember Roger Goodell just calling off the Super Bowl since the Pats were 18-0 and it seemed like a waste of time...but go ahead.

Romo had another great comeback in 2008 in Arizona, only no one remembers the game for anything other than the blocked punt that ended it. The Cowboys trailed the Cardinals by 10 points with two minutes left in the game before Romo led a pair of scoring drives to tie the game and force overtime. On the first play from scrimmage in overtime, Romo was hit awkwardly and broke his finger. Three plays later, the game was over. To any Romo detractors, I ask you this: how did Dallas fair without Romo that season? It wasn't pretty. There was a loss to the St. Louis Rams mixed in there -- and they were worse then than they are now!

There are other examples of Romo's clutch performances leading up to this season (leading a game-winning drive at Washington in 2008, Miles Austin's breakout game at Kansas City in 2009 [someone was throwing the ball], comebacks against Philadelphia and Washington in 2009, plus ruining the Saints perfect season that same year). In an injury-shortened 2010 season, Romo had Dallas on the brink of another comeback win if not for Alex Barron's holding penalty on the final play of the season opener in Washington. Obviously, there are games during the last five years where Romo has faltered, but the point is he does have a healthy pattern of success as well.

Romo This Season: In the season-opening loss to the Jets, Romo did throw a poor interception, but his other 4th quarter turnover -- a fumble while diving for the goal line is exactly the type of play that demonstrates why a Cowboys quarterback is playing against a stacked deck when it comes to the judgment he'll receive. If he'd slid feet first inside the five yard line, everyone would challenge his heart for not pushing toward the end zone. His criticism in this game was results-based. The interception was bad, absolutely, but the fumble would be like criticizing John Elway had he fumbled on his helicopter run during Super Bowl XXXII.

The very next week in San Francisco -- keep in mind this wrapped up a grueling four-week travel schedule that included games in Miami, Minnesota, New York and now San Francisco (in other words, all edges of the country) -- Romo overcame some terrible play-calling (the Miles Austin run) and led the Cowboys on a game-tying drive before connecting with Jesse Holley in overtime for a long pass play to set up the game-winning field goal.

He did throw three second half picks against Detroit. How Bobby Carpenter returned one for a touchdown, it must have been Romo's present to a member of his wedding party. In that game, however, the Cowboys had not yet stumbled upon what they had in DeMarco Murray. It's easy to look back and say "they should have run the ball" but until that point, Murray hadn't had his breakout game against the Rams, and Felix Jones was running timid.

In fact, Romo has led potential game-winning or game-tying drives in each of the Cowboys last four games, seeing his efforts come to fruition against Washington and Miami with successful Dan Bailey field goals and watching the Cowboys crumble after Jason Garrett's timeout against the Giants and Jason Pierre-Paul's block against the Giants. To say he hasn't gotten it done in the fourth quarter is to only look at the final score, not at how the Cowboys arrived there.

His leadership skills aren't a problem. This "confidence" question is unfounded.

Austen, your point about the Cowboys problems being team problems is spot on. Check the defense and special teams in some of the Cowboys losses. Dallas has lost six games, and the first two (New York Jets and Detroit) can be put squarely on Romo's shoulders. However the losses in New England, Arizona and at home to New York could have all resulted in wins with better fourth quarter play from the defense and special teams (the loss to Philadelphia was a blowout, so a lot would have had to work out differently).

Tony Romo offers the Cowboys a chance to win more often than "any given Sunday." Romo is the reason the Cowboys are a favorite most weekends. And unless you have a team with a quarterback who already has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, you don't have a quarterback better than him.

Stally: Wow!  I told Josh we were looking for a few paragraphs, and we got a whole lot more!  Thanks so much for weighing in from Texas (or Southern California, I guess, technically, since you live there), and setting the record straight on what will make Dallas tick.  I think we can all agree on this: Romo's a franchise quarterback and all three of us expect that he should raise a Lombardi Trophy at some point.

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