The writing is on the wall. Tony Romo’s time as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys has come to an abrupt and unequivocal end. He admitted as much in his classy speech two days after the Cowboys’ victory over Pittsburgh. With the torch now passed to two impressive rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot, it’s time to look at Romo’s time in Dallas.
For better or worse, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Signal callers receive credit and praise when things go well. The blame finds them just as easily when a team suffers. Due to his position at the head of “America’s Team” and a few memorable gaffes, Tony Romo has received the most hate of any quarterback in recent football history. In this writer’s opinion, it’s completely unwarranted.
His inability to stay healthy has certainly ruined seasons and stretches in the past, but fans are wrongly determined to call Tony Romo a choke artist. Between 2006 and 2015, Tony’s first year as a starter to the last time he played a regular season game, who has led the most 4th quarter comebacks? Tony Romo (25). Before the 2016 season started, who held the league’s highest passer rating in both the fourth quarter (102.9) and the final two minutes (93.1)? Tony Romo.
Now that that’s sorted out, let’s evaluate the receivers Romo has worked with over the years. It wouldn’t be wrong to say he’s done more with less. Aside from a few stars, most Dallas pass catchers in the last decade have floundered on the field. Without further ado, here are the 8 Best and 7 Worst WRs Tony Romo Has Ever Had (year denotes time on Cowboys):
15 BEST: Martellus Bennett (2008-2011)
Martellus Bennett appears on the “Best” list as an anomaly. While the other talented receivers connected with Tony Romo, Bennett never found his footing in the Cowboys’ system. Drafted in the second round out of Texas A&M, the tight end languished on the depth chart behind Jason Witten. In fact, Bennett admitted he hated Witten during an interview at the beginning of the 2016 season. His difficulty surpassing the future Hall of Famer resulted in 85 catches, 846 yards and four touchdowns over four seasons. The four scores came in his rookie year, which means Bennett endured a three year touchdown drought. Why is he on the “best” list? For one, there’s not a lot to pick from. Secondly, no Dallas tight end has been able to emerge from Witten’s shadow since he entered the league. Other players such as James Hanna, John Phillips and Gavin Escobar also became forgotten men in the offense. Martellus Bennett left Dallas and cemented himself as one of the more dangerous tight end targets of the last five years. He currently serves as a one-two punch with Rob Gronkowski in New England. Just because he didn’t do it with Tony doesn’t mean he’s not one of the best.
14 WORST: Patrick Crayton (2004-2009)
Patrick Crayton made occasional contributions in Dallas. He amassed 697 yards and seven touchdowns on 50 receptions in 2007 (all career highs). With that said, only picking practice squad players wouldn’t be any fun. Crayton’s emergence as a reliable option was directly connected to Romo’s rise and his stats reflect that. Patrick Crayton only became the team’s number two receiver due to injuries and coaches did not hesitate to move him down the depth chart. He lost his job to Roy Williams in 2008 and Miles Austin the following year. He also requested a release after the Cowboys drafted Dez Bryant. Instead, the team traded him to San Diego, where he had 51 catches, 762 yards and two touchdowns in two seasons. Crayton’s most memorable time in a Dallas uniform came in the 2007 Playoffs. After talking trash all week, Crayton dropped a critical third down pass and muffed a punt in a 21-17 loss to the New York Giants.
13 BEST: Laurent Robinson (2011)
Laurent Robinson’s spot on this list occurs inversely to Martellus Bennett’s. In six NFL seasons, Robinson saw sustained success in only one. His 2011 receiving total, 858 yards, was still more than the combined total of his second and third best years. Of his 15 career touchdowns, 11 came with the Cowboys. That’s 73% of his career total. Robinson tallied 12 plays of 20+ yards in 2011. He managed 13 during his other five years of NFL experience. After his breakout year in Dallas, Robinson signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars released him one year later due to poor performance and concussion concerns. He never played in the NFL again. Sure, this evidence suggests Laurent Robinson wasn’t a great receiver, but the powerful Romo-Robinson connection was money in the bank in 2011.
12 WORST: John Phillips (2009-2012)
John Phillips, another tight end cursed with backing up Jason Witten, hasn’t put up remarkable numbers after leaving Dallas. A 6th round product out of Virginia, Phillips made the team and actually pushed Bennett for the number two tight end slot. He took over the role completely after Bennett’s departure, serving mostly as a blocker. In three years with Romo at the helm, Phillips hauled in 30 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns. He also served as a tight end for three years in San Diego. Phillips then joined the Denver Broncos before the 2016 season, but only appeared in eight games before being waived and claimed by the Saints, where he's played one game. He’s never caught more than one touchdown in a season and he’s only gone over 100 yards in a season once – by one yard.
11 BEST: Terrance Williams (2013-Present)
Terrance Williams being the sixth best receiver Tony Romo has ever thrown to is all you need to know about the slim pickings available. Williams, a third round pick in the 2013 Draft, was developing a good rapport with Tony Romo in his first two years before the quarterback's injury effectively wiped out the 2015 season for him. He showed up in big moments while compiling 13 touchdowns and 1,357 yards between 2013 and 2014. He tallied career highs in both receptions and yards without Romo in 2015, but fans expected more due to the extended absence of Dez Bryant. Still, no one played well for Dallas that year, so Williams cannot take the brunt of the blame. While there could be an argument for Cole Beasley, his heightened level of play is a recent development. Williams was the more valuable asset when both were catching passes from Romo as opposed to Prescott.
10 WORST: Dwayne Harris (2011-2014)
In the first preseason game of 2011, Dwayne Harris sparked excitement in Dallas. He caught five passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Sadly, he never lived up to that hype. Dwayne Harris is a returner and unlike some others who are skilled at the art of punt and kick returning, he is no receiver. Harris scored one punt return touchdown in both 2012 and 2013 for the Cowboys. When he took the field as a receiving option, however, his efficiency took a dip, as his route running left much to be desired. Harris managed only 33 receptions over the course of four years, but he did add three receiving touchdowns. To make matters worse, he stung his former team after joining the rival New York Giants. Harris returned a game-winning 100-yard kick return against Dallas in 2015. The Giants tried Harris out at wide receiver during the 2015 season before relegating him back to special team duties. He hasn’t caught a ball so far this season.
9 BEST: Terry Glenn (2003-2007)
Terry Glenn is one of five players to achieve a 1,000-yard receiving season with Tony Romo. After going over 1,000 yards with Drew Bledsoe in 2005, Glenn managed the milestone again when Romo took over. Due to injuries in 2007, which limited Glenn to only one game, the 2006 season was effectively his last one in the NFL. It would have been interesting to see Glenn’s production if he had been in his prime, coupled with Terrell Owens for a few more years when Tony Romo ascended to the top of the Cowboys’ depth chart. Ironically, Glenn’s final year with his first team, the New England Patriots, saw Bledsoe handing the reigns over to Tom Brady. Glenn’s final year with his final team saw Bledsoe doing the same to Romo.
8 WORST: Kevin Ogletree (2009-2012)
The Dallas Cowboys signed Kevin Ogletree as an undrafted free agent. He flashed his skills in training camp and earned a spot on the 53-man roster. The organization’s belief in Ogletree contributed to the decision to save money when Laurent Robinson cashed in on free agency. Unfortunately, Ogletree’s desired trajectory never came to fruition. He rarely played unless filling in for an injury. After finally reaching the number three spot on the depth chart in 2012, Ogletree tallied four touchdowns but slipped behind Dwayne Harris on the depth chart. Seeing that Harris is also on the list as a “worst” candidate, that’s not a good sign. After stints with the Buccaneers and Lions, Ogletree became the third underperforming receiver on the list to join the New York Giants. He finished with five receptions and 50 yards in his final NFL season.
7 BEST: Miles Austin (2006-2013)
Kevin Ogletree proves teams cannot survive on undrafted free agents alone, but good scouting and a little luck provided Dallas with one of its most powerful QB-WR connections in recent memory. Tony Romo, an undrafted free agent in 2003, and Miles Austin, undrafted in 2006, put up impressive numbers together. Austin exploded in 2009 for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. He repeated the 1,000+ yard performance in 2010, but soon struggled to stay on the field due to hamstring issues. The Cowboys released their former standout wide receiver after another injury-plagued 2013 season. Austin played one season in Cleveland and another in Philadelphia without making much of an impact. Terry Glenn has better career numbers and longevity in his favor, but Miles Austin deserves a higher ranking due to his chemistry with Romo and more impressive contributions to the franchise. Although less explosive than both, Austin served as the bridge between Owens and Bryant.
6 WORST: Devin Street (2014-2015)
The Cowboys’ attempt to fill the Miles Austin void involved trading up for Devin Street in the 2014 draft. They still only used a 5th round pick (while trading a 7th as well), but the move gave them nothing in return. Devin Street set a school record 202 receptions at Pittsburgh. In his third year – already with a different team – Street has finally reached double digits in career receptions. Devin Street appeared in all 16 games his rookie season but served as the fifth receiver and rarely saw action. He finished with two receptions for 18 yards. The next season, Street started two games and increased his catch total to seven. He also scored his lone career touchdown on a pass from Matt Cassel. The Cowboys released him following the 2016 preseason. He joined the Colts and has not made a contribution besides his one catch.
5 BEST: Jason Witten (2003-Present)
Choosing an order for Tony Romo’s top three receivers becomes difficult. Personality, potential and career stage comes into play. It’s all easily disputable, but let’s put it this way: While Jason Witten isn’t Tony Romo’s best receiver ever, he’s easily his most valuable. Witten is a football player through and through. Whether he’s running a route, blocking on a play or sprinting down the field like a maniac without a helmet, Jason Witten gives 110%. Always. Witten is one of four tight ends with over 10,000 receiving yards and he currently sits second all-time (11,834) in receiving yards. He’s also fifth in career receiving touchdowns as a tight end (62). The receiver position, as it often is, has been a revolving door during Tony Romo’s tenure. Jason Witten has always been there. He hasn’t missed a full game since 2003.
4 WORST: Sam Hurd (2006-2010)
Yet another undrafted free agent, Sam Hurd joined the Dallas Cowboys in 2006. Hurd impressed in camp and made the team. He often shined during the preseason, but fell short of expectations under the bright lights – at least as a wide receiver. An injury caused him to miss most of the 2008 season. In his other four with Dallas, Hurd only had 45 catches for 630 yards and two touchdowns. Hurd exceeded as a special teamer, however, making 60 combined tackles during his Dallas career. He spent his final year in the league with Chicago, posting an 8-109-0 stat line. His stats could technically elevate him above Street, Ogletree and Harris, but none of them are currently in jail for a drug-distribution scheme. Hurd was arrested in December 2011 and the Bears quickly released him. In 2013, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
3 BEST: Terrell Owens (2006-2008)
Terrell Owens always belonged in Dallas. It makes sense that Owens told fans to get their popcorn ready, because few receivers have put on more of a show. Jerry Jones obviously ate it up when he signed the problematic wide receiver in hopes of upping success and ticket sales. To his credit, Owens matched his off-field antics with on-field heroics. He surpassed 1,000 yards in all three seasons with Dallas and never finished below a double-digit touchdown mark. He also brought the drama. In 2006, T.O. had to deny reports of an attempted suicide after he overdosed on prescription painkillers for a finger injury. If he started his Cowboys career with a bang, he went out with a literal whimper. Owens gave his famous, tearful “That’s my quarterback” speech after a 2008 playoff loss to the New York Giants. The Cowboys released him following the season. He spent a year in Buffalo and another in Cincinnati before calling it quits on what should be a Hall of Fame career.
2 WORST: Roy Williams (2008-2010)
Roy Williams statistically surpasses all of the other “worsts” in this ranking, but he falls woefully short based on expectations. The first and third round picks it took to acquire Williams at the 2008 trade deadline still haunt the franchise and the Williams trade is likely the worst in team history. Meant to create an unstoppable tandem at wide receiver with Terrell Owens during his first half season, Williams instead caught 19 passes for 198 yards and one touchdown in ten games. He had caught two less passes, acquired more yards and scored one touchdown in his first five games with Detroit. Williams lasted only two more years with the team. He finished his time in Dallas with 94 receptions, 1,324 yards and 13 touchdowns in total. Williams retired after one more insignificant year in Chicago.
1 BEST: Dez Bryant (2010-Present)
Call it recency bias or ignorance of past greats, but Dez Bryant deserves the number one spot as Tony Romo’s best receiver. Here’s a comparison of Owens and Bryant’s best three years (using averages of receptions, yards and touchdowns):
Terrell Owens – 78.3 receptions, 1,195.67 yards, 12.67 touchdowns
Dez Bryant – 91 receptions, 1,311.67 yards, 13.67 touchdowns
These numbers came in three straight years, 2006-2008 and 2012-2014 respectively. Bryant averaged 10 more receptions, over 100 more receiving yards and an extra touchdown. Both come with unwanted distractions. Dez’s character issues and distractions often make headlines, such as when he had to refute reports of missing up to 40 meetings during his Dallas career this October. It can also be argued that Bryant’s numbers are inflated by playing with Romo in his prime rather than in his first three years as a starter. Still, speaking strictly in terms of the best wide receiver to pair with Romo, you have to take a 26-year-old Dez Bryant (2014) over a 35-year-old Terrell Owens (2008) everyday of the week. Even if T.O. has the better career once the dust settles, the NFL is a young man’s league. Just look at what happened to Romo this season.