Cowboys won't have Tony Romo forever

MOBILE, Ala. -- After watching several days of practices at the Senior Bowl, I'd say Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has nothing to worry about in the immediate future.

Romo has two years left on his contract and turns 32 in April.

The window on Romo is not closing, according to owner and general manager Jerry Jones. Romo's contract might be extended if he has a successful 2012 season.

Jones said there isn't a hurry to draft a quarterback this year unless something falls into place for the Cowboys.

"We've got a lot of work to do with our personnel," Jones said. "The good news is that we're not starting out at quarterback. We've got a competitor there and we've got a lot of good skill people around him."

The Cowboys don't want to be stuck with a quarterback who has just one playoff win since 2006 and is entering the last year of his contract with no viable backup available.

Jones has searched for a replacement for Troy Aikman since he retired. He's drafted just three quarterbacks since 2000, and one of them the Cowboys converted to wide receiver. Of course, the Cowboys signed numerous players, including Drew Bledsoe, Chad Hutchinson and Vinny Testaverde. But since Aikman retired after the 2000 season, the Cowboys have used 15 different quarterbacks.

To put that in prospective, the Green Bay Packers have used just five quarterbacks.
The Washington Redskins, a team with its own quarterback troubles, have needed 14 different quarterbacks to throw passes since 2000.

If the Cowboys believe in Romo, that's fine. But if he can't deliver what's needed, leading a team on a deep playoff run, it's time to move on.

The Cowboys need to draft a quarterback, not so much in the first round, but somewhere. Romo compiled a career-high 102.5 quarterback rating in 2011. He seemed to have solved his gunslinger mentality and is one of the best in the game at making things happen with his legs in the pocket.

But Romo can't play forever, and as the Chicago Bears found out, when the No. 1 quarterback goes down, things go badly.

Jones countered by saying that the Houston Texans were down to their third-string quarterback and won a playoff game.

This is not to say Romo is bad. He's an elite quarterback whom fans criticized more than necessary. He did cost the Cowboys two games, against the New York Jets and Detroit Lions, in 2011. But he led the Cowboys to game-winning and game-tying drives in others. If not for the blocked field goal against the New York Giants and the missed field goal at Arizona, Romo might be considered a hero because he led the team into field goal range.

Romo's health has become a factor the past couple of years, due to the pounding he takes in the pocket. He's missed a total of 13 games the past five years. Eli Manning, who Jones said was the difference between the Cowboys' and Giants' fortunes down the stretch, hasn't missed any games.

Romo played through a fractured rib and bruised hand this season. He's a tough guy; nobody should question that.

It's just time to find another quarterback.

Romo's health has prompted the Cowboys to upgrade the talent along the offensive line by giving left tackle Doug Free a contract extension and spending a first-round pick on Tyron Smith. Jones also said it's time to re-evaluate how the organization grades the interior of the offensive line.

Romo needs help around him, and he has that in tight end Jason Witten, wide receivers Dez Bryant and Miles Austin and now in running back DeMarco Murray.

"We've got a competitor there," Jones said. "We like a lot of the skill people we have around him."

Romo won't be mistaken for Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, Tom Brady or even Manning. Romo is a good quarterback, and coach Jason Garrett, who backed up Aikman for numerous years, knows good quarterback play when he sees it.

It was still surprising this week to listen to the man who runs the team from the front office and the man who runs the team from the sideline almost dismiss drafting a quarterback as an option.

Jones did say finding a veteran quarterback who can be inserted quickly to make an impact is a desire of his. Stephen McGee, the current backup, hasn't done enough to give the franchise comfort he can take over long term for Romo.

"Tony is one of the real established quarterbacks in the league and among the best players at his position," Garrett said. "He had another outstanding year this year. Stephen McGee, when he's had opportunities the last couple of years, he's done a good job with that. But throughout our football team, you want to create competition. We feel like that's good for each individual player and our football team."

If competition is what you want and need, drafting a quarterback in 2012 should be mandatory, not optional.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.