- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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This was the easy part. The obvious part. Given the way he has played for them and the lack of equivalent or superior available options, Tony Romo's new six-year, $108 million contract with the Dallas Cowboys was inevitable. Some will wail and gnash their teeth at the numbers, which include $55 million in guarantees, and shout things like, "But he's only won one playoff game!" But all the hateful anti-Romo bias aside, this is what top quarterbacks cost, and Romo's numbers say he is one. The Cowboys love him and want to keep him for the rest of his career, and so they will. Good for them and absolutely great for Romo and all future generations of the Romo family.
Now, though, the responsibility swings hard to the player. It's on Romo to make this deal look good. And as he well knows, that means more than just 4,000-yard seasons and long touchdown passes to Dez Bryant. It means more than a string of second-half comebacks in regular-season games. It means solving his own biggest problem -- his failure to deliver in the biggest spots in the biggest games. It's on Romo to fix that part of his résumé. And if he doesn't do it, his penalty will be to go down in history as the biggest Cowboys bust of all time.
Yeah, you can argue that Romo's already a great underdog story -- an undrafted player out of Eastern Illinois who will, when all is said and done, have been the Cowboys' starting quarterback for more than a decade. In many ways, he's playing with house money. He never has to win another game again, and by most reasonable measures his career will have been a wildly surprising success.
But we're not starting from 2003 anymore with Romo. That part's taken care of. We know what he is -- a supremely talented player capable of doing amazing things on the football field. We're done grading him on a curve, too. We know that his success has come without the benefit of a strong offensive line, a supportive run game or a dominant defense. We know how much fun it is to watch him, when the play breaks down, still be able to get away from the rush and make a downfield throw most other guys can't make. It is for all of this that he is being paid this exorbitant sum of money, and based on the market for NFL quarterbacks, he has earned it.
From this point on, though, all of that is in the past. What Romo is now is a quarterback who's being paid as one of the league's elites. And the league's elites don't just throw for 4,000 yards and get their team to the final game of the regular season with a chance to get to the playoffs every year. The elites win that last game, and they find a way to win playoff games, and at some point they win the Super Bowl. And along the way, they darn sure don't throw three interceptions against the Redskins on the last day of the season after throwing a total of only three in the eight games prior.
I'm not one of those people who thinks postseason success and championships are all that define a player or a coach. There's too much else that goes into those things to hang them all on one person. Joe Flacco isn't a better quarterback than Romo because his team is good enough to get to the playoffs every year -- and the Ravens happened to win the whole thing this season. He's a guy who made good on his opportunity. When comparing Romo and Flacco, it's important to remember how much more opportunity for playoff success the latter has had.
But you can't ignore the three picks against the Redskins in January. And you can't ignore the way he played in the playoff loss to the Giants five years ago. And while it hasn't always been his fault, the 1-6 record in elimination games sticks to Romo and always will until he fixes it. This is his mission, and there is little doubt he knows it. By playing the kind of game he had in Week 17 this past season, he's just giving his critics more ammunition -- more proof that they're right to say ridiculous things like, "The Cowboys will never win a Super Bowl as long as Romo is the quarterback."
He obviously will need help to prove such a statement wrong, but he's going to have to help himself, too. There will be more playoff games, and maybe more winner-take-all regular-season finales, in the coming six years. And when they happen, Romo is going to have to be great enough to lift the team onto his back and take the Cowboys that one crucial step forward. And then he may have to do it the next week, too.
This is Romo's assignment now, with $55 million in his pocket for what he's done (and in spite of what he's failed to do) in his first seven years as the Cowboys' starting quarterback. This is the Cowboys saying, "OK, Tony. You're our guy. Go prove that we were right to believe in you." Romo's response must be (a) to continue the level of performance to which we've become accustomed from September through December, and (b) extend it into January for a change.
If he doesn't, no one's going to remember that he was an undrafted guy who became one of the best in the league. All anyone's going to remember is that he was the guy who couldn't get it done in the big spot -- and thanks to this new contract, as the biggest bust in Cowboys history.