In the NFL, quarterbacks ultimately are judged by their ability to bring home the brass ring.
Signal-callers who nab the ultimate prize reside among the legends of the game, while their unsuccessful counterparts routinely get cast aside among the also-rans.
This "Super Bowl or bust" mentality leaves little margin for error among veteran quarterbacks still aspiring for greatness. For Tony Romo and Philip Rivers, the standard of bringing home a championship has engendered tons of pressure over the last decade. While both players have enjoyed tremendous individual success, their teams routinely have underachieved.
Romo, a three-time Pro Bowler, has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL since taking over as the Cowboys' starter in 2006. He holds a .591 winning percentage in regular-season play and has eclipsed 4,000 yards passing four times. Most importantly, Romo has finished every season with a passer rating over 90.0, showcasing his efficiency and effectiveness as a thrower. However, the Cowboys sport a 1-3 postseason record with Romo as the starter, and the team hasn't even qualified for the playoffs since 2009.
Rivers, a four-time Pro Bowler, has been similarly prolific since taking over as the Chargers' starting quarterback in 2006. He has compiled a .625 regular-season win percentage by completing 63.6 percent of his passes and tallying a 189:93 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Rivers topped the 4,000-yard mark in four straight seasons from 2008 to 2011, including a league-best 4,710 yards in '10. With a career passer rating of 94.5, Rivers unquestionably is one of the most efficient passer in the NFL. Yet, the Chargers sport a 3-4 postseason record under Rivers' direction -- a disappointment, based on team's talent-laden rosters in those seasons.
Given the tremendous statistical success enjoyed by Romo and Rivers without significant playoff achievement, I thought it would be interesting to examine their respective games and determine which player is better suited to lead his team to a championship in the near future.
In today's NFL, quarterbacks must be athletic enough to survive the barrage of ultra-explosive defenders attacking the pocket from all angles. Although an elite quarterback doesn't necessarily need to be a great escape artist to thrive in the NFL, it certainly helps when the franchise guy is able to maneuver inside or outside of the pocket.
Romo is a sneaky athlete with better-than-advertised speed, quickness and elusiveness. He routinely eludes rushers in the pocket with nifty sidesteps while keeping his eyes downfield, scanning for open receivers. When pressed to scramble for yards in critical situations, Romo displays enough burst to move the chains without taking a big hit at the end of the run -- as evidenced in the video above.
Rivers is a marginal athlete with limited mobility within the pocket. He lacks the agility to avoid rushers off the edges, and isn't elusive enough to sidestep free hitters up the middle. As a result, he must play behind a solid offensive line to thrive as a passer, or he is a liability in the pocket as a sitting duck. Last season, Rivers lost an NFL-worst 311 yards on 49 sacks, illustrating his limited athleticism and the Chargers' porous offensive line.
A big arm isn't required to be an effective NFL quarterback, but the great ones typically boast superior arm strength, zip and velocity. Additionally, elite quarterbacks are masterful at changing the pace and tempo of their throws, while displaying superb accuracy and placement from various distances.
Romo entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, but he undoubtedly is a supremely talented passer. Romo's capable of making every throw in the book with velocity and touch. Moreover, he has the ability to squeeze throws into tight windows with excellent ball placement. In the video clip just above, Romo drills a back-shoulder fade to Dwayne Harris at the front pylon. That's the kind of throw a top-tier signal-caller is expected to make without hesitation.
Rivers has an unorthodox throwing motion and an average arm among NFL starters. In fact, his arm strength seemingly has deteriorated over the past couple years. He underthrows receivers on verticals routes, lacking the range to consistently connect on passes beyond 40 yards. Although shoddy footwork and fundamentals have negatively impacted his arm strength, the gradual decline of his range could be attributed to some kind of undisclosed arm injury. Forced to play without his fastball from the pocket, Rivers is no longer the home-run threat who terrorized the NFL with deep balls earlier in his career.
Still, Rivers remains a viable weapon in the pocket due to his superb awareness, anticipation and touch. When given opportunities to throw deep from a clean pocket, he compensates for his marginal arm strength by releasing the ball well before the receiver is open, relying on placement and accuracy to produce big results, like in the video clip to the right.
For all of the attention placed to the physical part of the game, top quarterbacks excel because of superb mental capabilities and intangibles, particularly leadership skills. They inspire confidence among teammates with their ability to consistently put the team in a position to win.
Although Romo's quiet demeanor has led many to question his passion, the fact that he has directed 19 game-winning drives (ninth-most among active quarterbacks) is a testament to his poise under pressure. Of course, Romo's superb track record in the regular season and two division titles won't completely absolve him from late-game blunders in some key moments, including a critical interception against the Washington Redskins in last year's de facto NFC East title game.
Rivers is also a proven winner with a distinguished track record, capturing four division titles during his tenure as San Diego's starter. That's an impressive haul for any quarterback, particularly one who has dealt with great turnover in the offensive lineup. Rivers not only handles a rapidly changing supporting cast with aplomb, but he displays the kind of leadership most expect from a franchise quarterback. Factor in 16 game-winning drives over the course of his career, and it's hard to dispute his success.
One of the most important aspects of playing quarterback is effectively managing the game from the pocket. From getting the offense into the proper play at the line of scrimmage against various defensive fronts and blitzes to taking care of the football in key situations, the quarterback is expected to play "winning football" in the big moments. Romo has been one of the best game managers in pro football since becoming the Cowboys' starting quarterback. He sports a fine touchdown-to-interception ratio (177:91) and traditionally keeps his turnovers at an acceptable rate. However, Romo led the NFL with 19 interceptions in 2012, while making a number of questionable decisions under duress. For instance, the aforementioned interception against the Redskins in the season finale occurred against the same blitz the defense had used against him for most of the game. The lack of awareness in that situation is troubling and unacceptable for a veteran quarterback with his experience.
Rivers had been one of the best caretakers in football prior to the last two seasons, when he struggled with turnovers and negative plays. Since the beginning of 2011, Rivers has committed 47 turnovers and taken 79 sacks. Of course, the Chargers' lackluster offensive line has a lot to do with those woeful numbers, but the veteran quarterback has to do better under duress. From throwing the ball away against heavy pressure to securing the ball tightly against his body when sacked, Rivers must play in a more conservative manner to give his team the best opportunity to win going forward.
It's no secret that NFL coaches, players and scouts view the final weeks of the regular season and playoffs as a truth serum. Many believe legacies are established with key performances in critical situations, particularly with playoff berths on the line. For all of the speculation regarding Romo's inability to get it done in the clutch, the numbers suggest he is a solid performer down the stretch. Over his last 15 games in December/January, Romo has tossed 31 touchdowns to just eight interceptions. Although his three-interception performance against the Redskins will stand out in the minds of his critics, Romo's play in the most critical part of the season has been better than the narrative suggests.
Rivers has been a standout performer in the clutch throughout his career. He has led the Chargers to a 44-14 (.758) regular-season record in the months of November, December and January, including a 29-5 mark in December and January. Most importantly, Rivers has tossed 61 touchdowns against 19 interceptions in December/January regular-season games, indicative of his efficiency and effectiveness as a playmaker down the stretch.
The debate between Rivers and Romo is a compelling one. While too much has been made of their disappointments, it is time for one of these former Pro Bowlers to rekindle talks of greatness with a deep playoff run. Although Romo is more naturally gifted -- and surrounded by a more dynamic supporting cast -- Rivers wins this matchup, based on his outstanding performance in the clutch throughout his career. Turnover woes over the past two seasons certainly have tarnished Rivers' star, but he has been too good for too long to finish as the runner-up in this debate.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.