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Monday, November 11, 2013
Updated: November 15, 2:42 PM ET
The power of negative thinking

By Robert Sanchez
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 25 QB Issue. Subscribe today!

TONY ROMO HEARS you. He knows you think he's a stat-packing fraud. He knows you call him the ultimate small-game quarterback, the last guy who should have the ball with a minute on the clock and the game on the line. He knows you think he's a choker, a loser -- that you say championships trump statistics, that you want rings over passer ratings. He's heard it from the reporters and the talking heads in the locker room after practices, from fans at games. He knows what comes up when you search his name on Twitter. And here's the thing: Tony Romo agrees with you.

"It's absolutely fair," the 33-year-old says of the criticism that's followed him almost daily since he became the Cowboys' starter in 2006. "The game's about winning. When you're done playing, they're going to ask one question: How many championships did he win?"

In Romo's world, dealing with the doubters, the haters, the complainers, is the price he has to pay if he wants to be the face of one of sports' most iconic franchises, if he wants a shot at that ring Dallas fans see as their birthright. In fact, Tony Romo's biggest sin may not be the player he is but the one he isn't. "People see the guy and think to themselves: Hey, he's the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He should be Troy Aikman. He should be Roger Staubach," says Cowboys guard Brian Waters, a two-time All-Pro who's in his first year in Dallas. "I think that's a shame because people are going to look up one day and he isn't going to be there. And then they're going to find out how great of a football player he really was."

By statistical measures, Romo is great. No passer has ever thrown for more yards in his first 100 games. He has the best fourth-quarter passer rating in NFL history. His 96.0 career rating trails only Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young and Peyton Manning on the all-time list.

By another measure -- he's 1-3 in playoff appearances -- Tony Romo is a choker. It's a narrative that began early, during his first postseason game in Seattle in January 2007. Down 21-20 with 1:19 left in a first-round matchup against the Seahawks, the Cowboys lined up for a 19-yard chip-shot field goal. The ball was snapped to Romo, who momentarily lost his grip as he prepared to set it down for kicker Martin Gramatica. He scooped it off the turf and made a mad scramble to his left. As he ran for his life toward the end zone, Romo was tackled from behind, two yards short of the goal line. Season over.

It didn't matter that Romo had single-handedly saved the Cowboys' season that year after replacing Drew Bledsoe as the team's starter midseason -- that he wasn't even supposed to be the team's holder on field goal attempts since switching roles. The damage was done. Since then, it hasn't mattered that Romo has thrown for more than 28,000 yards in his career, passed for 200 touchdowns or led an anemic Dallas team to an 8-8 season last year. Beginning with that Seattle game nearly seven years ago, Romo has been blamed for everything from a 21-17 divisional playoff loss to the Giants the next season (two sacks in his final three drives and a last-minute interception in the end zone), to the Cowboys' late-season swoon in 2008 (a pick six against Pittsburgh in the final two minutes), to the 34-3 debacle against Minnesota in the 2009 playoffs (two fumbles and an INT), to the Week 17 loss to the Redskins last year that eliminated Dallas from playoff contention (three picks).

Tony Romo
No one can take his team from defeated to dominant quite like Romo.

The most recent Romo moment happened on Oct. 6, at home against Peyton Manning and the then-undefeated Broncos. After the Cowboys fell behind 35-20 midway through the third quarter, Romo went on the most impressive tear of the NFL season, obliterating Denver's secondary en route to four passing touchdowns in 15 minutes. But with the game tied at 48 with two minutes left in the fourth quarter and Dallas on the precipice of destroying Denver's hopes for an undefeated season, Romo tried to squeeze a ball to tight end Gavin Escobar and was picked off at the Cowboys' 24-yard line. Two Denver first downs later, Matt Prater booted a 28-yard field goal as time expired to clinch the Broncos' 51-48 win.

Afterward, what would have been a story of Romo's five touchdowns and his team-record 506 passing yards (12th most in NFL history) devolved into a constant rehashing of the pick. One mistake at the worst moment. The narrative lives on. "I have to figure how to be better the next time I get into that situation," Romo says now, wholly accepting the blame. "My dad taught me at an early age that you've always got to look at yourself. If it's not happening, it's on you to change it."

He doesn't talk about those changes he makes -- "Competitively, you'd like to keep that stuff to yourself" -- but his teammates and coaches know he's in a video room or on the practice field somewhere trying to right a wrong. In the days after the Denver game, he watched film of everything leading to the interception. Then he studied that one throw, took it apart, digested every intricacy of that singular breakdown. He looked at his footwork, his read, where his eyes were looking. A month later, all the studying paid off. After yet another pick in another close game, this time against the Vikings, salvation came: a 90-yard drive and game-winning touchdown on the next possession that moved the Cowboys to 5-4.

That's the kind of resolve that got Romo to the NFL in the first place. In a decade and a half, he's evolved from an overlooked Wisconsin high school player to a Division I-AA quarterback to an undrafted free agent to a third-stringer on the Cowboys' depth chart to one of the game's most prolific passers. It's a trajectory that calls to mind Kurt Warner, the undrafted small-college star who was forced to prove his worth in the Arena Football League and overseas before eventually getting a shot as an NFL starter in 
St. Louis in 1999. Twelve seasons, three Super Bowls, one ring and two MVP awards later, Warner -- and, to a lesser extent, Tom Brady -- has rewritten the rules for how we evaluate off-the-radar talent and what we expect from those players when we see flickers of early success. "It's a blessing and a curse," says Warner, now an analyst with NFL Network, of the pressure Romo faces. "Like, 'You've played so well, now play better.'"

Romo understood early on that he needed to work harder than everyone else if he wanted to make it in the NFL. At Eastern Illinois University, Romo prided himself on his work ethic. He'd played only three seasons of football as a kid in Wisconsin and was hardly a polished passer. Other college quarterbacks had better footwork off the snap, could make better touch passes into the corner of the end zone, could put balls between defenders more effectively. "A lot of other people had been playing at a young age, and they'd been throwing," he says. "I just wasn't fundamentally sound." So he worked nonstop. He got to practice early and stayed late. On the way home from road games, he'd hop off the team bus during pit stops to throw; he went home to Wisconsin during winter break and threw in zero-degree weather. "I'd throw 360 days a year," he says. "I'm not exaggerating."

Tony Romo
No matter how many outsiders doubt Romo, his teammates rally around him.

The result: In his senior year, Romo passed for 3,165 yards and 34 touchdowns in 12 games and won the Walter Payton Award, given to Division I-AA's best player.

But the 2003 NFL combine was far different from picking apart I-AA defenses. Playing in front of scouts, he couldn't hit his targets, couldn't make the same passes he'd completed just months earlier. No matter how harshly anyone judged him, Romo was probably tougher on himself: "I was terrible," he says. He returned home humbled. He threw even more. "I felt like it was a great lesson for me," he says.

Despite his showing at the combine, he'd done enough during his college career to attract Dallas' attention. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones saw a studious player with a live arm and considered Romo in as high as the fifth round. When the draft ended and Romo hadn't been selected, then-Cowboys assistant coach Sean Payton -- a former Eastern Illinois quarterback himself -- placed a call to the disappointed 23-year-old. Later, Jones and then-head coach Bill Parcells persuaded Romo to come to Dallas. "I think the free agent deal was a positive incentive," Jones says now. "He had the opportunity to show what he could do."

The first training camp was tough. "It could have been easy to cut me at different times," Romo says, but he hung on as the third-stringer behind Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson. Romo made the team again in 2004 as a backup to Vinny Testaverde, then in 2005 behind Bledsoe. But he didn't see game action as anything other than a holder until 2006, when Parcells -- in an act of midseason desperation -- benched Bledsoe at halftime during a game against the Giants. On his first meaningful NFL snap, Romo threw an interception. He threw two more that half, and the Cowboys lost 36-22. Still, he tossed two touchdown passes, showed he could scramble, threw some pretty balls. He started the team's next game, then the next and the next, throwing 16 touchdowns in 10 games. The fumble in Seattle came just as he started to look like an unqualified success.

Add in key turnovers in other consequential games and, rightly or wrongly, Romo has been branded the antithesis of the big-game quarterback. "There are a lot of good quarterbacks now who can make passes, who are going to have the statistics and numbers and records we've never seen before," Warner says. "What separates numbers from greatness is playoff success." If anything, Romo's stellar regular-season stats contribute to the disrespect. "He's a borderline great quarterback in the regular season, but he's not the same guy in critical moments," Warner adds. "It's an issue. As good as Tony Romo is, why do these things happen?"

While Romo may be dwelling on the same question, his teammates aren't. They see him as their veteran leader, not as a choker. He's the undrafted quarterback turned Pro Bowler. For them, it's not the harsh judgment that matters; it's the QB's relentless "work harder" response to it that they respect. "Within our locker room, we don't look at it that way," tight end Jason Witten says of Romo's reputation. "He's won a lot of games for us single-handedly with the way he plays." To Witten, the fact that Romo is his own toughest critic is bound to lead him to greater heights. "Even now, Tony is constantly critiquing himself," 
says Witten, who's played with Romo since their rookie season. "A throwing motion, an angle, the way the ball's coming out. It's pretty awesome to see."

The Cowboys' front office seems to see the same thing. Jones rewarded his quarterback with a six-year, $108 million contract extension in March and has repeatedly supported Romo after difficult losses. "Had we known Tony Romo would be Tony Romo, we'd have taken him in the first round," Jones says now.

For his part, Romo can still envision himself hoisting the Lombardi Trophy and putting the doubts to rest once and for all. He can tune out the negativity. But if he doesn't get a ring, he knows he won't be able to define his legacy for himself. "I think my story will be written about whether I competed at a very high level," Romo says. "You're in, you're out and you helped your team win a championship. That's what the story is going to be about -- or that I didn't do that. That's what it's going to come down to."

So you can bring on the talk and you can keep making noise, but Tony Romo knows this is still his story to write.

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