The real Tony Romo
By the time I finish this column, I will decide once and for all, forever and ever, whether I believe Tony Romo is capable of winning a Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys.
Never have I wrestled with my better judgment over a player in any sport the way I've gone back and forth, forth and back, about Antonio Ramiro Romo. My heart says: He beat the champion Giants with an MVP-caliber performance on opening night! My head counters: The Cowboys are 2-3, and Romo is 11-16 since the start of the 2010 season.
Heart: Romo was Staubachian late in Sunday's game at Baltimore, converting a third-and-6 and two fourth-and-10s, whipping a touchdown pass and hitting Dez Bryant with a perfect tying 2-point pass!
Head: Dez dropped it, Romo's Cowboys turned the end of the game into more laughable chaos than the final fight scene in "Blazing Saddles," a 51-yard field goal missed left and once again Tony Romo DID EVERYTHING BUT WIN.
Heart: Romo had the NFL's fourth-best QBR last season behind Rodgers, Brees and Brady -- 31 touchdown passes to only 10 interceptions!
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Heart: Staubach and Aikman have raved about Romo's escapability and playmaking flair! Head: They both live in Dallas and like the guy personally. What do you expect them to say?
Head: WOULD YOU PLEASE WAKE UP AND SMELL THE SPILLED COFFEE! TONY ROMO WAS AN UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT, AND THAT'S WHAT HE ALWAYS TURNS BACK INTO WHEN YOU NEED HIM MOST -- TONY OH-NO. HALLOWEEN ALWAYS COMES EARLY WITH THIS GUY. HIS SPECTACULAR BAD WILL ALWAYS CANCEL HIS SPECTACULAR GOOD. HE'S THE BIGGEST TEASE IN SPORTS, AND YOU KEEP FALLING BACK INTO HIS "GREAT STATS" TRAP. FACE IT: THE QUARTERBACK WITH THE STAR ON HIS HELMET ALWAYS HAS BEEN AND WILL BE STAR-CROSSED. IT WILL JUST NEVER QUITE WORK OUT FOR HIM.
As I type this sentence, I'm nearly ready to concede there's just something missing in Tony Romo.
I should have listened to my better judgment from the start. In his first three seasons as starter, I always argued against Romo in our "First Take" debates. As a longtime columnist in Dallas, I got to know and study the irrationally competitive Staubach (who won two Super Bowls) and the combustibly driven Aikman (who won three), and here came an undrafted kid from Eastern Illinois treating this hallowed position with no respect. Little sidearming No. 9 was always cutting up in the huddle, chuckling after completions, wearing his cap backward on the sideline and spending way too much time in the offseasons pursuing his real dream -- qualifying for the U.S. Open golf tournament. His childhood hero in small-town Wisconsin was Brett Favre, yet it appeared Romo began to gunsling like Favre more because those no-conscience throws amused him than because he wanted to defy the Super Bowl odds.
Coaches who knew Romo's coach at the time, Bill Parcells, told me Parcells loved the kid's potential and believed Romo was coachable enough to be "reined in." But I was even less convinced the night of Jan. 6, 2007 -- a night that will live in Cowboys playoff infamy. In Seattle, all they needed was a 19-yard field goal -- a virtual extra point -- to take a 23-21 lead with just more than a minute left. And Romo butterfingered the snap! But wait, he scooped it up, took off for the flank all he needed was 1 yard for a first down, 2 for a touchdown and it was as if he was running in slow motion. Romo got tackled from behind for no gain!
Tony Romo had played well enough to win. And Tony Romo had lost the game.
Maybe an early epitaph had been written for his career.
Next, Romo further threatened that career by falling for Jessica Simpson, whose singing career was in free fall. It certainly appeared she needed the Dallas Cowboys quarterback more than vice versa, and you wondered how the paparazzi kept getting tipped off about their every public appearance. Little Tony Romeo, I began calling him. He was photographed with Jessica in L.A. on Tuesday off days during the season. And he all but begged the media to condemn him by taking Jessica, along with his good buddy Jason Witten and his wife, to Cabo San Lucas in the off week before the Cowboys' playoff game after the 2007 season. Only thing worse would've been taking them to Seattle.
Hey, Tony, this is the PLAYOFFS.
Meanwhile back at Valley Ranch, the Cowboys' headquarters, Romo was juggling the nitro ego of Terrell Owens -- "Team Obliterator," I called him. T.O. by day, Jessica by night -- look out below. Romo did play pretty well in a home playoff game against the eventual champ Giants. Down four, he did drive the Cowboys to the Giants' 23. But on fourth-and-11, with a chance to go Staubach on their division rival -- go down in Cowboys history with a Hail Tony -- Romo was intercepted in the end zone.
Mama, don't let your baby grow up to be Romo.
Yet soon came a pleasantly shocking change. Romo seemed to wake up and grow up. He dumped Jessica. Jerry Jones finally dumped T.O. And I finally gave up in 2009 and picked the Cowboys to win the division and at least one playoff game. Which was exactly what Romo did as he made his third Pro Bowl -- even though the division clincher and the playoff win came in back-to-back home games against a declining Donovan McNabb in his final two Eagles starts.
That season, I did more than my share of gloating on TV. I had fallen head-over-heart into the Romo trap. Last season, I rode the Romo-coaster.
Opening Sunday night in 2011 at the Jets, against one of the NFL's most QB-unfriendly defenses, Romo threw for 342 yards. Spectacular. But leading by a point with 59 seconds left, first-and-10 at his 41, Romo inexplicably rolled right and conspired with his new partner in dead-headed crime, Dez Bryant. I had applauded Jerry Jones for trading up to take Dez at the bottom of the first round. But the book on him at Oklahoma State was that God gave him just about everything you could want in a receiver except football brains. He notoriously zigs when he's supposed to zag. So why in the name of Tom Landry would Romo trust him with a season-launching game on the line?
It basically looked as though Tony Oh-No threw the ball right to the best cornerback in football, Darrelle Revis. Ballgame.
But, the next Sunday in San Francisco, playing with cracked ribs against what was becoming one of the NFL's fiercest defenses, Romo hit the 77-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal in overtime.
Heart: See, told you.
Head: Yeah, then what happened?
Detroit happened. Romo threw three touchdown passes and Dallas led 27-3 in the third quarter at home. And Romo threw three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and Dallas lost 34-30. Impossibly great/awful.
Heart: But then Romo outplayed Brady at New England.
Head: And Romo lost.
Heart: But he was so late-game clutch in two wins over the rival Redskins and on Thanksgiving against the Dolphins.
Head: Then what happened?
Another home collapse, this one at the hands of the Giants. Romo went bombs away to Dez for the 50-yard TD that gave Dallas a virtually insurmountable 34-22 lead with 5:52 left. But Eli Manning did what he so often does, and it was quickly 34-29. Which led to Cowboys, third-and-5 at their 25. And the Giants blew the coverage! Miles Austin ran free for what surely would be the game-clinching, season-turning TD pass! The Giants' season was about to be wrecked!
And either Romo overthrew him or Austin, still nursing an iffy hamstring, was afraid to try high gear. Austin tried to convince the media that he lost it in the lights. Who knows? With Romo, it's never quite right.
That disconnection sent the Cowboys south toward 8-8 and the Giants north toward another Super Bowl championship. But did I learn my lesson? Nope. When this season began with Romo wreaking revenge on the Giants at their stadium on national TV, I naturally began the Romo-for-MVP campaign.
Heart: He's a husband and a new father! He's ready to join Staubach and Aikman in the Cowboy pantheon.
Head: And what happened against the Bears at JerryWorld on Monday night?
Romo threw five interceptions, and Dallas lost 34-18. The worst came with only a 3-0 deficit. Here came an obvious blitz and Romo trusted Dez -- single-covered by infamous ball hawk Charles Tillman -- to pick up his route-changing signal. No, Tony! Not Dez!
Dez missed the signal. It looked as if Romo's primary receiver was Tillman, who gladly jogged it in for a 10-0 lead.
The "MVP"? His team fell to 2-3. Holy Cowboy.
As ESPN's Steve Young said on Wednesday night's "SportsCenter": "Tony does all the things that are most difficult at quarterback very well. He [just] makes some dumb throws."
Bingo. But why? Because he tries to do too much? Because he has never been surrounded by the Hall of Fame talent that buttressed Staubach and Aikman? Because coach Jason Garrett doesn't provide the commanding sideline presence Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson did?
An NFL coach who loves Romo's talent and stays in touch with several Cowboys assistants told me: "That team badly needs Romo to take over as its leader. And all he really wants to be is a good soldier. Not a general. Just a very good soldier."
That's because, deep down, Romo knows he's still your basic undrafted free agent. Staubach won the Heisman. Aikman was the first pick in the draft. Romo doesn't trust he can be routinely great. He keeps waiting for someone to tap him on the shoulder and tell him he just got punked -- he isn't really a Dallas Cowboys quarterback. That's why he was so happy-go-unlucky in those first couple of seasons. He was trying to grin away the Texas-sized pressure, shrug off the voice inside telling him, "You know you don't belong here."
That voice keeps telling him he WILL self-destruct. And he does.
The NFL coach said: "If he had just made a routine play on that last play Sunday, maybe a safe 7 or 8 yards to Witten "
Romo has two years left on his contract. Jerry Jones says he wants to extend it. How could he replace a QB with Romo's top-five capability? Jerry is stuck in the Romo trap. Damned if he does or doesn't.
Heart: This column's ending. Time for me to make a decision on Romo.
Head: Do you realize that, of all the quarterbacks with at least 25 starts since 2010, Romo has won the second-fewest games, trailing only Carson Palmer?
Heart: But the Cowboys are still 1-0 in the division. There's still time for Tony to get hot and
Head: STOP IT.
OK, that's it. I give up. He has torn me apart long enough.
Tony Romo will never, ever win a Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys. So much will go right. But in the end, something always will go wrong.