Romo sacked twice as often late in year
IRVING, Texas -- New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has admitted that he defaced JerryWorld by signing his name with the winning score in the visitors locker room following the first game at the new stadium. Now the time has come for Tony Romo to produce a few signature victories of his own, the kind that might enable him to rewrite his personal history.
Triumphs that would counter the perceptions of him as a quarterback incapable of winning important games against the best teams, of failing on the big stage in the main room, of choking at the most inopportune time and pretending later that it didn't matter in the least.
To that end, it seems there might be an explanation for one of the most mind-boggling mysteries in Dallas Cowboys history, which is this: How does Romo perform like Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman for three months every season and then fail miserably during the time when the greatest quarterbacks in Dallas history won their championships and made their Hall of Fame reputations?
It appears that the most significant factor in Romo's annual December downfall -- he has a 5-8 record during the month -- is the inability of the Cowboys to protect their quarterback.
In three-plus seasons as the Cowboys' starter, Romo has been sacked an average of once per 28 pass attempts in games before December. But in December games, Romo has been sacked an average of once per 13.5 pass attempts, which means he's sacked twice as often late in the season.
"That's not good,'' said offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who might use those statistics to inspire his group at Giants Stadium.
So while the Cowboys are hoping Romo's problems with December football are behind him, they know they actually might be directly in front of him. From left to right, at the moment, that's Flozell Adams, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Doug Free.
December hasn't been Tony Romo's month to keep the ball out of opponents' hands. Most turnovers by a quarterback in December regular-season games since 2006 (note: no regular-season games in January the last three seasons):
Perhaps the pressure that ruined Romo is not so much inside his helmet as it is all those defensive players in the other colored jerseys giving chase. As he sat in front of his Valley Ranch dressing cubicle, Romo talked about the consequences of playing a big game as a quarterback under duress.
"If you get a lot of time in the pocket, you're going to perform consistently at a higher level; I think that's obvious,'' Romo said. "Some games, the decision has got to be made faster than others. ... Separation from receivers, more accurate with the football -- all those things come into play when you have to play against a better defense.''
In the past, Romo has contributed to his own problems at times -- such as throwing interceptions on the first possession against both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers last season, forcing the Cowboys to play from behind almost immediately.
As Houck noted to his offensive linemen in meetings this week, the sack is not the worst thing that happens when the quarterback is not protected. The turnover is a more dreaded outcome.
Romo's statistics make the point. In 26 career non-December games, Romo has 31 turnovers and has thrown an interception on 2.9 percent of his passes or 0.9 interceptions per game. In 13 career December games, Romo has committed 25 turnovers, an interception percentage of 4.3 and an average of 1.5 interceptions per game.
Just as he's sacked twice as often in December, he also has turned the ball over almost twice as much.
The upcoming opponents could not be more daunting for Romo and the Cowboys' offensive line. The Giants are the only remaining opponent that does not rank among the NFL's top 10 in sacks. With five games remaining in the regular season, Romo has already been sacked a career-high 25 times. That's once more than he went down during his record-setting 2007 season, and that came on 161 more passing attempts.
Romo has shown a willingness to take more sacks as part of his effort to reduce turnovers, many of which he discovered were the result of previous attempts to throw just before taking a hit. So he's more conscious of protecting the football, which is reflected in his low interception total and is a move in the right direction.
My theory about the Cowboys being less proficient in terms of protecting Romo late in the season is that Dallas' offensive line consists of oversized, veteran players who become fatigued at approximately this time of year. Adams is 34 and the others at least 30, with the exception of Free.
But Houck disagrees, and he's right to cite other factors, including perhaps the most important -- the receiver who is the first read in Romo's progression creating separation so that the quarterback can get the ball out quickly, thereby eliminating pressure.
"We are always pushing to improve," Houck said. "I think we've played at a high level. But if we are playing like we are now at the end of the season, then I will be disappointed. We have to improve from here on out."
Houck is establishing a high standard, perhaps one that is unattainable. Adams, the Cowboys' oldest and most vulnerable offensive line starter, has always had difficulty playing on the road because of a hearing deficit that increases the difficulty of getting off the ball and staying in front of what typically are the opponents' best pass-rushers. Free has played well since replacing injured Marc Colombo, but Sunday will mark his first NFL start on the road.
The desperate Giants have already defeated the Cowboys at home while intercepting Romo a season-high three times. The New Orleans Saints lead the NFL with 32 takeaways, and they've scored seven defensive touchdowns. The Washington Redskins rank first in the NFL in pass defense and shut the Cowboys out for 57 minutes before falling at JerryWorld because Jim Zorn mismanaged the final seconds before halftime.
More than any other Cowboys player, the pressure of December falls on Romo. He's gone so far to counter the perception that he's tense in big games that he played cornerback during pregame warm-ups in Philadelphia last year. That effort was lost, along with everything else, when the Cowboys suffered their historic 44-6 defeat.
With the exception of Bradie James, the Cowboys have done everything to avoid discussing previous late-season collapses. So perhaps it was understandable that Romo appeared somewhat irritated when asked Thursday about his reputation for December futility, a question he seemed to embrace with the same enthusiasm as those regarding his Las Vegas trip last weekend and the marital woes of Tiger Woods.
"I don't know that's a perception," Romo said. "Maybe for you it is. I'm OK. We've played plenty of big games and won plenty of them."
Romo has won some big games and -- with more protection and better decision-making in the next few weeks -- he might win a few more of them. But his Cowboys have not won plenty, and he should know by now that there can never be enough.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.