There is no performance Tony Romo can deliver right now, no pre-February game he can win that will change the way some people think of him.
With Romo there is no middle ground. From one of the extremes there is, and always seemingly will be, a heaping helping of doubt. Part of that is of his own making -- the ill-timed interceptions, the botched field-goal snap, etc. Part of it just comes with being the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback. But the doubt is always there -- always a part of the boldface Romo narrative.
Right now, though, in mid-November of 2011, Romo has a big chance to make some changes to his reputation. The 5-4 Cowboys' upcoming schedule, the recent improvements they've made on offense and his continued maturation as an NFL quarterback all offer Romo the opportunity to take control of his own narrative and erase a lot of that doubt.
"Tony's a great player, and he's played at a very high level for a long time," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said in a phone interview Thursday. "And I think it's kind of unfortunate that he can play as well as he's playing and there are still going to be people who say, 'OK, but just wait. Wait and see what's going to happen.'"
Those voices are singing again as Thanksgiving comes barreling our way. Romo is 17-2 in November games in his career as a starting quarterback, which is an astounding record in a very important month. But that stat plays right into the effect Witten is describing, as everyone who hears it says, "OK, but wait. What's his record in December?"
Romo is 8-10 in regular-season games played after Nov. 30, which is in line with popular perception. But that perception may be outdated. Romo won his final three regular-season games two seasons ago, including a victory in New Orleans against the then-unbeaten Saints and the victory that clinched the division title in the season finale against the Eagles. He even won a playoff game against those same Eagles a week later before bowing out in the second round against the Brett Favre-led Minnesota Vikings. He missed last December with an injury, depriving him of a chance to continue to hack away at that old idea that he can't win in December. But his teammates remember 2009 and have faith.
"I just think he's really come into his own," Witten said. "Physically, he's gifted, of course. But at the same time, he's very thorough in his preparation and making sure he puts our team in a position to win. I don't think people understand that about him -- the work he does on the little things."
They do not. Witten is right. The perception of Romo is that he's a careless gunslinger -- that he plays all-out all the time and too often puts his team in a position to have to overcome a bad mistake, the way he did earlier this year against the Jets and the Lions. Even when he brings the team back in the fourth quarter, as he did in handing the 49ers their only loss of this season, it feeds into the perception. The thing that makes him great, everyone says, is the very thing that makes him reckless. He only knows one way to play, and sometimes it works out and other times it doesn't.
"That's not the guy we know," Witten said. "Tony does a great job of commanding our offense and our tempo and the level of urgency we're supposed to have at any given time. It's not just that he's out there winging it around. There's a lot of time and effort that goes into his game."
The evidence to support Witten has quietly begun to mount. Romo has played two straight games without throwing an interception or taking a sack. It's the first time in his career he's ever done that, and no NFL quarterback has had three such games in a row since 2007. He has weathered a difficult early part of the season, when he was playing with broken ribs and hearing it from all sides after his interceptions cost the team games it should have won. But even those trials may have been part of the improvements we're seeing now. Through all of that, his teammates gained even more respect for Romo than they already had.
"It's easy to lead when things are rolling and everything's going great," Witten said. "It's a lot tougher when adversity's hitting you in the face. But he stood up. He played every game. He led us. And I think we'll be a lot better because of that."
It's all there in front of Romo right now. He's healthy. He's got a reliable running game, a good defense and an offensive line that seems to be getting better by the week. He is 31 years old, which means he's had time to learn from and overcome a younger quarterback's mistakes. But that also means it's time to get to work -- to have the kind of December and January that re-writes the narrative about his career.
"As a quarterback, everybody knows it makes your legacy a lot easier when you've got a Super Bowl championship behind you," Witten said.
That is the Cowboys' goal, of course, and Romo's as well. And if he pulls it off -- this year, next year or ever at all -- Romo will have totally re-written the book of his career. Starting now, he's got a chance to do some heavy editing.