Tony Romo has drawn a lot of heat over the years, but one thing is true as he wraps up his 12th NFL campaign: He's playing like the MVP of 2014.
It might be hard for some to believe, given the zeal with which people seem to enjoy remembering Romo's past gaffes, but the public cheerleading of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and receiver Dez Bryant is definitely warranted. Romo is a legitimate candidate for the MVP award this year -- and at the moment, he's who I would give it to.
Here are four reasons why:
1) The Cowboys are winning
This was not supposed to be a good season in Dallas. Romo's back, which required surgery last December, was a huge question mark. The defense, which ranked as the league's worst in 2013, was supposed to drag the team down again. And the Cowboys, coming off three straight 8-8 finishes, weren't expected to win more than six games. But instead of slinking into the NFC East cellar, they went on to capture the division and are poised to post their best record in nearly a decade. And it's largely thanks to Romo.
Yes, he's had a good amount of help on offense. No quarterback is an island, after all. Much praise should be directed at Dallas' stellar offensive line. Anchored by standouts like guard Zack Martin (playing as well as any rookie out there), center Travis Frederick (who hails from Sharon, Wisconsin, a small town about 40 miles from Romo's own Burlington) and Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, and under the excellent guidance of Bill Callahan, the unit has made life easier for Romo, typically giving him tons of time to throw. Then there's running back DeMarco Murray, who's having a career year in his own right. He and the line have taken a lot of the offensive burden from Romo. Just consider how his attempts per game have plummeted, from 40.5 in 2012 and 35.7 in 2013 to a tidy 28.6 this year.
But Romo is still the most important player on the field for the Cowboys, who definitely would not be winning like this without him. Think of the way he dug in and directed two consecutive touchdown drives instead of letting Dallas fold after giving up a 21-point lead at Philadelphia in Week 15. The beautiful 25-yard scoring toss to Dez Bryant that capped the second drive -- along with an earlier 26-yard touchdown strike to Bryant -- simply screamed "MVP."
2) He's having a December to remember
Folks say December is when awards like this are won and lost -- and Romo has played like gangbusters in the final month of the regular season. In his last three games, Romo is 3-0 with 688 yards, notching league-best numbers in that span in touchdowns (10, against zero picks), passer rating (143.5) and completion percentage (an absurdly high 79.2), and annihilating his reputation for faltering at the end of the year. In Sunday's win over the Colts, he completed 18 of 20 passes for a 90 percent completion rate -- a franchise record and the best mark league-wide since Week 9 of 2012, when Philip Rivers also hit the 90 percent mark. Romo was simply on fire, at one point completing 16 consecutive passes, which is hard enough to do when you're just playing catch.
Passer rating is an important stat, because it takes into account several aspects of a quarterback's game, and Romo has shined in that area, throughout this season (he leads the league with a mark of 114.4) but especially lately. On Sunday, he recorded the best passer rating of his career (151.7) as a starter -- and he became the only quarterback in NFL history to post a passer rating of 135 or better six different times in one season.
And while Murray has obviously played a huge role in Romo's successful campaign, we have to note that he's been down this month, finishing with a season-low 58 yards on Sunday and averaging just 3.74 yards per carry in December -- more than a yard less than the 4.95-yard figure he accumulated over the first 12 games of the season. Yes, Murray had to work around a surgically repaired hand against the Colts, but the fact that Romo was able to pick up the slack for the running back merely serves to reinforce the quarterback's importance to the team in this crucial phase of the season.
3) He's putting it all together
Romo has always been a highly skilled quarterback, exhibiting exceptional accuracy and ball placement, but he's been plagued by big mistakes over the years. He seemed to think he could beat the machine, so to speak, which led him to try to make impossible throws -- throws that often spelled trouble. He's not doing that this year, though; his level of maturity seems to have caught up to his ability.
He showed this in, of all games, Dallas' Thanksgiving Day loss to the Eagles. While he took four sacks in what was in many ways his worst outing of the year, it's important to note that some of those sacks seemed to be the result of strategic "cut your losses" decisions. The old Romo would have wheeled around, ducking defenders and trying to get off a risky throw. The Romo of today seemed to realize it was better to secure the ball and go down. Even if that was related to his less-than-optimal health at the time, it can still be seen as a sign of growth.
The presence of a legitimate ground game and offensive line have been a boon; not only does Romo not have to win every game by himself, but his exposure to defenses is limited. And there's no question that the coaching by Cowboys play-caller Scott Linehan -- himself a former college quarterback -- has helped a great deal. Romo has improved his understanding of the game and has proved more adept at making adjustments, checking out of bad plays and into good ones.
The bottom line is, while it's fair to criticize Romo for his past follies, he seems to have tightened things up this year -- and this year is what the 2014 MVP award is supposed to be about.
4) He's as tough as ever
Romo's ability to play through pain is unimpeachable, and he's operating with a toughness that is simply unique. Back issues -- as anyone who's ever dealt with them will understand -- can seriously impede one's ability to move around, even for those who aren't trying to play quarterback in the NFL. Skipping practice on Wednesdays has undoubtedly helped Romo. Still, when you consider what he's been able to do while overcoming several serious injuries -- including fractures in his transverse process and a cracked rib -- you simply have to shake your head.
Five Faces of Romo
I know Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and even J.J. Watt are having outstanding seasons on a personal level, doing much to fuel their respective teams' success -- and at the beginning of the month, I ranked some of those players ahead of Romo in the MVP race. But at this point, I'd have to give Romo, who boasts the NFL's best completion percentage (70.3) and yards-per-attempt mark (8.49), the edge. He's undefeated on the road, for crying out loud; when you can do that as a quarterback, you know you're having a special year.
While the Cowboys obviously have a tough path ahead of them in the NFC, they're where they are because of Romo -- and he'll determine where they'll go in the playoffs.