Tony Romo Is the Greatest Cowboys Quarterback Since…

Troy Aikman? Roger Staubach? Don Meredith? The dawn of mankind? How you answer that question shows how you feel about the undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois University who is now the undisputed star of America’s Team—and whether you’re willing to put up with the tabloid headlines that follow him everywhere.
Illustration by Shawn Barber

What’s not to like about Tony Romo? He’s the most exciting Dallas Cowboys quarterback since Troy Aikman in his prime. He has Don Meredith’s devil-may-care charm, that same winning attitude where all things are possible and, admit it, nothing that happens on a football field is all that important anyway. Born with Roger Staubach’s innate ability to lead and to improvise, he has the talent to transform disaster into triumph, to rally a team and in one magic moment change the course of a game or even a season. An undrafted free agent, Romo has been tested in the NFL for less than two full seasons, but people are already calling him a young Brett Favre. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch. But I’m inclined to agree with the judgment of Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears’ All-Pro linebacker, who called Favre “an old Tony Romo.”

So how good is Romo? We’re about to find out. As the Cowboys prepare for a run at the Super Bowl—they lost by a hair in the playoffs last January to the eventual champion New York Giants, a team they’d beaten twice during the regular season—Romo is at the center of everyone’s radar screen. His popularity already exceeds his accomplishments: His number 9 jersey is the league’s hottest seller, in keeping with a franchise that has long led the NFL in TV ratings and brand loyalty. Every aspect of his personal life is the stuff of headlines, especially his relationship with Jessica Simpson. When Staubach was interviewed last spring during a business trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, the reporter diverted from his line of questioning about the economy and asked, “Did Jessica Simpson’s romance with Tony Romo really cost the Cowboys the Super Bowl?” (“It caused debate,” Staubach acknowledged. But the Super Bowl? Come on.)

Romo has emerged as the “Lone Star Joe Namath.” He is as likely to show up in the pages of People magazine or the National Enquirer as Sports Illustrated. Entertainment Tonight sent a reporter to a press conference to ask him about Britney Spears, one of the many bimbos on his speed dial. Anywhere there are cameras and spotlights, you are likely to encounter Romo—judging the Miss Universe pageant, escorting American Idol Carrie Underwood to the Academy of Country Music Awards, throwing out the first pitch at a Cubs-White Sox game in Chicago, playing in a celebrity golf tournament. Even Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who got the best of Romo in the playoffs and is now competing with him as the cover boy for the new season, complained at a press conference last fall that an inordinate number of questions directed at him were about Romo.

It’s no secret that the quarterback of the Cowboys is a Texas—and a national—icon, better known in the state than the governor or any celebrity. There have been exceptions, of course: Only hard-core fans will recall Steve Pelluer or Gary Hogeboom. But any schoolkid smart enough to recite the heroes of the Alamo can probably also rattle off the Cowboys icons—Meredith, Staubach, and Aikman. Though it is too early to assign Romo a permanent place among the Cowboys elite, he has shown bursts of magic, early indicators that great things are possible.

One of the most memorable plays in Cowboys history came last season against the St. Louis Rams, when the center snapped the ball over Romo’s head. Resisting the safe move, which would have been falling on the loose ball, Romo instead grabbed it on the bounce, averted two tacklers, and dashed 40 yards for a first down. “Craziest play I’ve ever seen,” All-Pro tight end Jason Witten later told reporters. “I tried to make some blocks out there, but it’s hard because you become a fan. You just sit there and watch him.”

Not since the halcyon days of Aikman and Staubach has a quarterback inspired such confidence among the Cowboys’ rank and file. “His teammates believe in him, and he believes in them,” Staubach told me. “That’s what leadership is.” There was a perfect example last year in Buffalo. Playing before a hostile crowd—Bills fans egged the Cowboys’ bus as the team drove to the stadium—Romo put his team in a hole by fumbling and throwing five interceptions. But in the closing minutes, when things appeared hopeless, he pulled the team together. Completing nine of eleven passes, he directed the Cowboys to a touchdown that cut the Bills’ lead to two points with twenty seconds remaining. Then the Cowboys recovered an onside kick, and Romo moved them close enough for a 53-yard game-winning field goal as time expired. In the dressing room later, he shrugged it off as just another day at the office, telling reporters, “I’m always thinking we’re going to go out and score on the next drive.”

Yet for all the hype, Romo remains an enigma. He has already set passing records for the Cowboys, but he has also failed to produce a victory in a playoff game in each of his two seasons. He has shown that he has the ability to take the team back to the promised land, but he has also embraced the tabloid spotlight in a way that no other Cowboys quarterback ever has. That makes a lot of fans nervous. A friend told me that his mother-in-law loves Romo because he is always smiling. His father-in-law doesn’t trust him because he is always smiling. None of this appears to faze Romo, who treats both triumph and disaster as silly impostors. After botching a hold on what should have been a winning field goal against Seattle in the 2006 playoffs, Romo returned a year later to lead the team to thirteen wins, the Cowboys’ best regular-season record since 1992, when Aikman guided the team to victory in Super Bowl XXVII. Romo put the playoff loss to Seattle in perfect perspective when he said afterward, “I learned a long time ago that if the worst thing that happens to me is sports-related, I’ve lived a

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