LANDOVER, Md. -- The problem is, if you want to stay on the Tony Romo bandwagon, defending the Dallas Cowboys' maligned quarterback against the cacophonous critics who assert that they know his future based on his past, Romo won't let you. Yeah, you can lay it all out about how much more efficient and responsible he'd been in the 5-2 stretch that got the Cowboys to the final game of the season with a chance to win the division. You can bring up all of the resiliency and the comebacks and the strides Romo made as a leader this year. You can even blame an injury-ravaged defense that couldn't stop anybody for two months. And all of that stuff may well be legitimate and true.
But none of it changes the fact that Romo showed up here Sunday night in the latest Biggest Game of His Life and threw three interceptions in the loss that ended the Cowboys' season.
"It does not feel good," Romo said. "I feel like I let our team down."
That's because he did. Break down the film and you'll see an offense that couldn't adjust to the Washington Redskins' surprising blitz packages and a defense that couldn't stop the run. But the story of Sunday's game is and always will be that Romo threw two interceptions in the first quarter that robbed the Cowboys of a chance to set the pace and one in the fourth that killed their chance to come back. After throwing 13 interceptions in his first seven games of the year, Romo threw only six in his final nine. But of those six, five game in the two losses to the Redskins, who won the division and sent the Cowboys home at 8-8.
So we are back on the same old storyline with Romo, a quarterback good enough to keep the Cowboys in contention but seemingly incapable of elevating them from good to great in the most important spots. Romo has one year left on his contract and will surely get an extension from a Cowboys team that likes him, believes in his ability and understands that there are no better replacement options available to them. But even the folks running the Cowboys must now admit that the Romo-can't-win-the-big-one crowd has a pretty convincing case.
"Well, he's played really well in a lot of these big games in his career," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "We just haven't gotten it done as a football team. Tony's certainly a part of that, but everybody's a part of that. We just have to try to get better. We have to get ourselves in this kind of position again."
Ultimately, that's all they can do. And Romo's certainly shown the ability to get the Cowboys in position to play in the big game. But when you add this game to last season's Week 17 loss to the Giants and to the playoff game against the Giants in 2008 and the botched-snap game in Seattle and the oft-cited fact that he's got just the one playoff win in his entire career, the guy's record starts to become very hard to defend. We judge quarterbacks on their ability to elevate their teams in big moments, and on the other side of the spectrum we judge them on their propensity for damaging mistakes in big spots. Washington rookie Robert Griffin III, for instance, surely didn't win Sunday's game for the Redskins, but he didn't blow it, either. That says something about the 22-year-old Griffin that cannot be said of the 32-year-old Romo, who knows it well.
"It will take me a while, because I put everything I had into this, and it's a hard thing when it ends like this," Romo said. "It's going to be a rough time for me because I know how much effort and time it took to get into this position. I know how much you have to work for your football team to get into this position."
Cowboys fans hurt today, and for good reason. But you only have to think back a week and a half to a time when you had reason to believe this was an organization moving in the right direction, and it is. The number and significance of their injuries on defense was crippling and inescapable, and it did hurt their chances to capitalize on a year that saw dramatic positive developments in the careers of Romo, Garrett, Dez Bryant and others. The offensive and defensive lines need work, and more depth needs to be added to the roster at key spots. The Cowboys are a work in progress, as we have been saying here all year, and there is plenty that happened in 2012 on which they can continue to build.
But however that building project goes, the Cowboys are liable to find themselves right back in a very similar position sometime in the coming years -- with a huge game against a division opponent that will decide whether the season is a success or a flop. And when that game comes, as a result of what he did Sunday against the Redskins, people will doubt more than ever Romo's ability to come through and win it.
After Sunday night, that's nobody's fault but Romo's.