Coach Jason Garrett would not rule out Tony Romo, but multiple sources told ESPN that Romo is out for the year, and a source told ESPN Senior NFL Insider Chris Mortensen the quarterback will need surgery.
Without Romo, the Cowboys will turn to Orton, their veteran backup.
Orton is 31 and has a 35-34 career record as a starter for the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, but he has not started a game since the 2011 finale for the Chiefs against the Broncos. The Chiefs won 7-3, and Orton threw for 180 yards on 15-of-29 passing.
The Cowboys gave Orton a $5 million signing bonus as a free agent in 2012 as part of a three-year, $10.5 million contract. The Cowboys were mildly criticized for the deal, but owner and general manager Jerry Jones and Garrett viewed Orton as a critical insurance policy.
Garrett’s affinity for Orton goes back to when he was coaching quarterbacks for the Miami Dolphins and Orton came out of Purdue. Quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson coached Orton with the Bears, who drafted Orton in the fourth round in 2005.
“He played the quarterback position the way it’s supposed to be played,” Garrett said. “He’s very prepared. He’s an experienced guy. He throws the football very well. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s accurate. He understands what you’re trying to do on offense. He understands defenses. He knows where the ball needs to go. He has a poise and a calmness and a composure about him of a veteran player.”
Orton has experience – he has 81 touchdown passes and 57 interceptions in 74 games – but he has thrown only 15 passes in the last two seasons, completing 12 of them for 129 yards and a touchdown. This season, he completed 3 of 5 passes for 40 yards in the Dec. 9 loss to the Bears in mop-up duty.
“Obviously Tony is a big part of everything we try to do as a football team and obviously as an offense,” tight end Jason Witten said. “He’s been pretty resilient and I know he’ll do everything he can to get back. But just like any position, that one is probably a little bit tougher, but Kyle has played at a high level and had a lot of success in the league, so [he is] somebody we respect.”
Orton has taken few snaps with the first-team offense this season. In the preseason he completed 17 of 22 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions.
But Sunday’s game against the Eagles is for the NFC East title and a playoff spot. It’s a far cry from an August preseason game.
“Kyle and Tony play the quarterback position probably fairly similarly,” Garrett said. “They have a little bit of a different style, but they’re NFL quarterbacks who drop back and throw the ball. So regardless of who our quarterback is, Kyle has a real comfort level with what we’re doing. He certainly understands it intellectually. He’s had a lot of experience with the different concepts we use in the passing game. If he plays in this ballgame, he’ll be ready to go and we’ll try to give him some things that he’s comfortable with.”