The Last Best Hope of Tony Romo
After a decade of hard-won victories and brutal setbacks, the 36-year-old quarterback—and every Cowboys fan—knows this: 2016 is the year he will write his legacy.
News broke in early March. Tony Romo would have part of his collarbone shaved off. The 36-year-old Dallas Cowboys quarterback has, on three separate occasions over six years, been driven to the ground with enough force to crack his left clavicle. The last time, on Thanksgiving Day, he could hear the bone break as it happened, like a wishbone snapping somewhere inside of him. After the play, he spit out his mouthpiece and pounded the turf with the one hand he could move. Cameras showed his wife bent over in anguished reaction, her face in her hands.
Now he was going to lie down and invite a surgeon to slice into his shoulder and remove roughly one centimeter from the left end of that clavicle with the help of a small spinning metal tool known as a burr. The surgery, called a distal clavicle resection, or a Mumford procedure, is not uncommon for competitive weight lifters or for middle-aged men who have spent their adult lives handling a jackhammer. You can find videos of similar surgeries online, though they’re not the kind of thing to watch if you plan on consuming food in the near future. The procedure involves tiny incisions in both the front and back of the shoulder, and let’s just say there’s a lot of fluid. When the burr is spinning inside the shoulder, it looks like a pinky-size industrial nightmare, with metal spikes moving faster than the eye can detect, obliterating everything in their path. Minuscule pieces of bone, muscle, and ligament scatter like fallout from a tiny explosion before the whole area is flushed out.
The idea is, if you remove some of the clavicle, there will be less contact with other parts of the shoulder during the next impact, minimizing both discomfort and the chance of another fracture. The success rates are generally high, but it doesn’t always work. If you don’t start moving that arm soon enough, you risk what doctors call “frozen shoulder.” If you move it too soon, you risk swelling and a delayed recovery. There is also the threat of infection and some chance you’ll live with soreness in that part of your body for the rest of your life.
Think about what it would take for you to tell a doctor to remove a centimeter from your collarbone. The pain. The desperation. The scarring. Think about the conversations you’d have as you made that decision, and where your brain would go. If you’re Tony Romo, maybe you think about moments when you were so close to glory you could reach out and touch it. Or about the feelings of despair when you saw it all slip away again and again. Or the hate. Or the hope.
This could be the year for the Cowboys, and Romo knows it. Because the window is closing. Dez Bryant is getting older. Jason Witten doesn’t have many years left. And the quarterbacks who win Super Bowls past the age of 35 have names like Unitas, Elway, Manning, and Brady. Over Romo’s career, he’s had good seasons and big wins, along with broken ribs and a herniated disc, but he must know that this is the year he writes his legacy. He must know he’s one season away from legendary, and one hit away from retirement. He’ll go down as either a champion and savior—the man who brought America’s Team back from its darkest days—or a stat-heavy choke artist, one who fades into the annals of history, a footnote in the story of someone else’s success.
Lost among these stakes is the fact that he is, by many measures, the most valuable player in the league. He’s had a 1,000-yard rusher only once since his first season as a starter, but he’s had the team in—or within a game of being in—the playoffs every year that he has played. In 2011 he accounted for a higher share of his team’s touchdowns—82 percent—than any other player in the NFL. Consider the 2015 campaign: with him, the Cowboys were 3-1 and looked like Super Bowl contenders; without him, the Cowboys were 1-11 and floundered toward the worst record in the league. The team has plenty of other weapons, but everything starts or stops with Romo.
And with Romo in the game, there’s always hope. Fans know this. This could be the year, because the team drafted Ezekiel Elliott, a stud running back with so much swagger that on the night of the draft at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre he wore a crop top that revealed his abs. (The last time the Cowboys had a solid running game, in 2014, the team won twelve regular-season games and came within one ridiculous play of the conference championship game.) This could be the year, because the defense will be healthy again. And the offensive line is one of the best in the league. And the division is suspect. And Coach Jason Garrett is too smart to keep losing.
It hurts to hope so much, but this could be the year. Because the Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl in more than two decades. Because the most storied franchise in the NFL has got to win. Because all the parts are there. Because the owner wants it more than any other owner. Because the fans want it more than any other fans. Because in the end, it will inevitably come down to one man—the quarterback—and that man is willing to have a centimeter of his collarbone shaved off to help his team.
Tony Romo will break your heart. This is a fact. He will do precisely the right things, in precisely the right order, to inflict the absolute maximum amount of pain in any given situation. He will find a way to make you root for him, for his story: the undrafted underdog who rode the bench for two and a half years before finally getting his shot, the veteran who’s never shaken his reputation for losing the big games. He will elicit hope in even the most dire circumstances—when you know you shouldn’t be hoping at all—and then crush those hopes with a perfectly timed failure. It’s a fumble or an interception late in the game. It’s an injury just as the team seems poised for a great run. This has become a colloquial truth constructed over the years, a narrative reinforced by dozens of examples—something even cursory Cowboys fans understand—but it also feels like an immutable law of the universe. Romo will always do the Romo-est thing possible.
Look, for example, to the afternoon of October 6, 2013. The 2-2 Cowboys are hosting the undefeated juggernaut that is the Denver Broncos and a rejuvenated Peyton Manning, who is throwing touchdowns at a record pace this season. Somehow, the Cowboys take an early 14–0 lead. Cameras focus on a red-faced Jerry Jones in his box, standing, slamming his right palm against his left while appearing to repeat the word “baby.” But Manning marches down the field with ease, and soon the Broncos take the lead. At halftime, it’s 28–20 Broncos, but Cowboys fans are happy they’re still in the game.
Romo looks explosive in the second half. An 82-yard bomb to Terrance Williams, a 2-yard out to Bryant, and a 10-yard strike to Witten, and then the Cowboys are up 41–38 early in the fourth quarter. On the touchdown play to Witten, Romo keeps his feet moving in the pocket, drifting around with some preternatural ability to sense his opponents. When the coverage doesn’t open up, he tucks the ball and runs. Just shy of the line of scrimmage, he pump-fakes, then winds his shoulder awkwardly to fling the ball through a thin pipe of space, past two linebackers, and into the arms of a sprinting Witten in the end zone.
Here we have Manning, the four-time MVP of the league, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, and he looks as sharp as he ever has. And here we have Romo matching him shot for shot—and winning. Manning has more than 400 yards passing and four touchdowns, but with seven minutes left in the game, Romo has more than 500 yards and five touchdowns on the day.
And that’s when it happens. Something that feels simultaneously inevitable and impossible. The Cowboys get the ball back on their own 20-yard line, with the score tied 48–48 and a little more than two minutes on the game clock. Fans know the team needs only a few first downs before it’s in field-goal position; the way Romo has been slicing through the Denver defense today, it seems destined. On first down Romo is sacked for a loss of 6 yards. On second down he drops back for a pass and the Broncos only rush three. DeMarco Murray runs a short route a few yards down the field—he’s wide-open. Romo, who hasn’t made a single mistake all game, for some reason elects to bypass Murray and throw it instead to back-up tight end Gavin Escobar, who happens to have three Broncos defenders in his immediate vicinity by the time the ball arrives. Everything slows down for a moment as—No! This can’t be happening! Linebacker Danny Trevathan dives to his left and rips the football from the air. He falls, cradling it at the feet of Escobar. Romo drops his head.
“I was baiting him,” Trevathan will tell reporters after the game.
Cameras catch Jones standing still, staring at the field, biting the inside web of his left hand. Manning, with his team already in field-goal range, runs down the clock. The Broncos kick it, and win the game, 51–48. Cowboys fans all over the world feel sick.
A blowout loss would have hurt less. The Broncos were, at the time, the best team in football, on a historic run. It would have been understandable, forgettable. But the Cowboys showed they were just as good or better. Romo set the franchise record for yards in a game and became one of only five quarterbacks to ever throw for 500 yards and five touchdowns in a single afternoon. But they still lost.
This is Tony Romo’s career summed up in one game.
Looking back, you can trace the origins of this narrative all the way to Romo’s high school days, in the small town of Burlington, Wisconsin. Die-hard fans know the history: the son of a construction worker and a grocery store clerk, Romo was the all-American, dimple-cheeked jock. He took over a lackluster varsity team in his junior year having never played a game of organized football before and got into the playoffs. He had a natural ability to read defenses, a cannon for an arm, and stats like nobody around there had seen before. In one game, during his senior year, he threw for nearly 400 yards and four touchdowns—in a loss. In the state quarterfinals, he threw a late fourth-quarter interception and his team lost by a point. He never caught the eye of scouts, so he ended up at Division II Eastern Illinois University. He collected individual records and awards but never won a postseason game.
The story as most people know it, though, starts with an NFL playoff game in Seattle—with a single play, really. This is January 6, 2007, a night game broadcast on NBC. With the Cowboys down 21–20 and 1:19 left in the fourth quarter, Romo has the team inside Seattle’s 2-yard line, ready to kick the go-ahead field goal on fourth down. Romo, who began the season as a backup, is in as the holder.
The long snap looks normal. Romo catches it as he has hundreds of times without trouble over the past three years. But as he brings the ball to the ground, turning it upright for kicker Martin Gramatica, something happens. The ball slips ever so slightly from Romo’s right hand, and as he moves to recover, it slips again. By now Gramatica is standing next to Romo and the play is botched anyway, so Romo picks up the ball and takes off.
The wide-angle view from behind the play shows nothing but air between him and the end zone—you just know he’s going to make it. He starts at the 9, arcs back to the 10, then drives forward to his left. He’s going to make it! He crosses the 5 and there’s nobody in front of him. He’s going to make it! Fans can feel the palpitations in their chests. At that moment, he looks like Roger Staubach in the glory days—when he was Roger the Dodger, scrambling for every last yard—and we can see what’s possible.
And that’s when Seahawks defensive back Jordan Babineaux appears from out of nowhere—he was lined up on the other side of the play and sprinted all the way across the field—and trips Romo from behind, dropping him within feet of the goal line.
Most Cowboys fans can tell you where they were that night. They know who they were with. (I was sitting next to a woman I was falling in love with, and this was the first time she saw just how devastated grown men playing a game could leave me.) It had been more than ten years since the team had won a playoff game at that point, and this was as close as you could get and still lose. The moment, the sting, was so surreal and foggy. Watching the play nearly a decade later, you still root for Romo: Go wider! Run faster! Just jump!
“It was just one of those things,” Cowboys coach Bill Parcells told reporters after the game. “It looked like a good snap. I can’t tell you what happened after that. We’re an extra point from being down to the eight teams left. That’s what’s the hardest thing.”
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren smiled and told the press, “You coach long enough, you end up seeing just about everything.”
In the locker room, Romo was reportedly near tears. “I take responsibility for messing up at the end there. That’s my fault,” he told the media. “I cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win, and it’s going to sit with me a long time.”
As heartbreaking as it was, though, fans had reasons to feel optimistic. After replacing Drew Bledsoe mid-season during a game against the Giants, Romo had won five of his first six starts and was elected to the Pro Bowl that year—a part of history overshadowed by the botched field goal. And it wasn’t just that he’d brought the team within a yard of its first playoff win since 1996. With his confidence, his leadership, his unbelievable will to win, it felt as though the Dallas Cowboys finally had a franchise quarterback again.
Part of understanding how Tony Romo can conjure such hope time after time is understanding what came before him. The three most storied quarterbacks in Cowboys history—Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, and Troy Aikman—all went on to become legitimate national celebrities. In the sixties, Meredith brought the young franchise to two consecutive NFL Championship games, and he went on to both a Hall of Fame broadcasting career and a mildly successful acting career. Staubach, the Navy veteran and Heisman Trophy winner, helped lead the team to five Super Bowl appearances—and two wins—in the seventies. And Aikman, of course, took the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins in four years. Over time, that role—quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys—evolved into perhaps the most iconic position in all of sports.
As a kid growing up in Grapevine in the eighties, I cheered for the Cowboys even in the down years. I had a picture of Everson Walls in my bedroom and collected shiny blue star stickers. My faith was rewarded in the nineties, when Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin dominated, and the “triplets” were the only thing anybody ever talked about. I can still recall the elation of an entire suburban middle school the morning after the Cowboys beat the Bills, 52–17, in Super Bowl XXVII.
But the last snap of Aikman’s career was on December 10, 2000. Between that day and the night Romo took over during halftime of a loss to the Giants on October 23, 2006, the franchise started at least eight quarterbacks—the best of which arguably may have been Quincy Carter, and he was released after just one successful season after he failed his third drug test. (He was out of the league a season later.) As the Cowboys spiraled year after year, they called upon a forgettable list of stand-ins that included Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner, and Chad Hutchinson, who started nine games in 2002. There were acts of utter desperation, including three starts by the already flamed-out Ryan Leaf and one by Drew Henson, who’d spent nearly half a decade away from football as he tried to make it in Major League Baseball.
By the time Romo came along, fans were desperate too. That he appeared to be a wholesome Christian with a charming smile and an affinity for beautiful blond pop stars—and a social life that seemed to parallel a plotline from Entourage—only endeared him more to fans. Glamour is a part of the Cowboys brand. He was seen playing in a recreational indoor soccer league, then sitting courtside at Mavericks games, then going out to dinner with Jessica Simpson at N9NE Steakhouse or Dragonfly.
It’s not that Dallas sports fans have been deprived. The Stars and Mavericks have both won championships in the years since the Cowboys last won the Super Bowl, and the Rangers have made it to the World Series twice. And North Texas isn’t exactly Cleveland or Buffalo, where so much industry and so many jobs have left for good and there’s nothing else in town to root for but sports. The population around Dallas–Fort Worth is booming like never before.
Cowboys fans are different, though. There’s a diaspora that lives around the world. Families who have never even been to Texas root for the team because the Dallas Cowboys symbolize something. Even when the team doesn’t win, it’s still a franchise of champions, like the Yankees or the Lakers or Manchester United. The phrase “America’s Team”—though it originated in a 1978 highlight film and is nowadays lamentably dusty—is imbued with certain meaning. It’s Tom Landry’s silhouette. It’s Staubach’s square jaw. It’s something simple and pure (sometimes to the point of self-parody). It’s classic, the way a lone star or a pair of leather boots is classic.
Above all, though, America’s Team is about winning.
In 2007, Romo’s first full season as a starter, the team won thirteen games, including an insane Monday Night affair in week five against Buffalo that saw Romo throw five interceptions but still somehow bring the team back for a last-second 25–24 victory. For the first time in what felt like forever, it was fun to watch the Cowboys again. (Some fans, so elated with the team’s success, dubbed themselves “Romosexuals.”) Romo set franchise records that year for touchdown passes and passing yards, and the Cowboys secured a first-round bye and home field throughout the playoffs. The opponents in the divisional round, on January 13, 2008, were the New York Giants, a team the Cowboys had beaten twice in the regular season.
Go back for a moment to that afternoon. Coming into the game, much of the talk revolves around the fact that Romo spent his off week vacationing in Mexico with Simpson. There are reports of him gallivanting by the pool and hiring a private chef, speculation that he’s broken his former coach Bill Parcells’s eleventh commandment: Don’t Be a Celebrity Quarterback. And though he struggled a bit in December—losing two of the team’s final three games—this will be Romo’s chance to finally redeem himself for the disaster in Seattle a year earlier.
The game is somewhat dull until the end of the fourth quarter. With sixteen seconds left in the game and New York up 21–17, the Cowboys have the ball on the Giants’ 23-yard line; the entire game will come down to this play. Romo is shouting as he approaches the line of scrimmage, pointing out potential rushers. Fans just know he’s going to get this. Before the snap, viewers watching on television see Aikman, now in his post-retirement role as sportscaster, draw a yellow circle around Terrell Owens, a troubled man who happens to be one of the greatest receivers of all time.
Romo drops back, and the offensive line, which has allowed sacks on each of the previous two drives, stands secure, giving the quarterback ample time. It’s happening! On the right side of the field, Owens is heading straight up the field toward the end zone, and it appears he has a step on the only Giants player nearby. It’s happening! Instead of Owens, though, Romo opts for Terry Glenn, who’s streaking up the middle of the field—and is covered by three defensive backs. The ball floats into the waiting hands of cornerback R. W. McQuarters, and the game is over.
On the sideline, Jones stands perfectly still, his arms crossed, his bottom lip tucked gently into his teeth, staring blankly at the field. At what will ultimately be Owens’s final postgame press conference as a Dallas Cowboy, he stands in front of a row of cameras, tears streaming beneath his oversized sunglasses, defending Romo.
“That’s my teammate,” he says through sniffles. “That’s my quarterback.”
Two years and a new billion-dollar stadium later, the team makes it back to the playoffs. The Cowboys beat the Eagles in a wild-card game, 34–14, and it feels like such a gigantic breakthrough—Romo’s first playoff victory, the franchise’s first in thirteen years—that most fans barely remember the debacle that follows the next week. Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings crush the Cowboys, 34–3. It is disappointment again, but this one doesn’t hurt as much. Romo has finally won a big game. We are on our way. We know next year will be the year.
But the next four seasons feature one depressing finish after another. In 2010 the Cowboys have justifiable Super Bowl aspirations again, and the Super Bowl just happens to be in Arlington this year. But the team loses four of its first five games. Then, in week seven, Giants linebacker Michael Boley drives Romo into the artificial turf with such force that he breaks the quarterback’s left clavicle. For a moment, Romo lies there, sprawled across the 45-yard line, before an official leans over and asks him if he’s okay. The Monday Night Football cameras zoom in on him from above, and the fans can see his cheeks inflating and deflating as he writhes in agony. Season over.
By the start of the 2011 campaign, Romo is healthy again, and fans are hopeful again. In the first game of the year, the Cowboys play away against the Jets in front of a national audience, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The pregame is full of tributes, with bagpipers and George W. Bush and an American flag that stretches from end zone to end zone. Then the Cowboys look incredible, taking a 24–10 lead early in the fourth quarter. But thanks to a Romo fumble deep in Jets territory and a blocked punt, New York comes back to tie the game. The Cowboys have the ball with a minute left and 30 yards to field-goal territory. On first down, Romo rolls to his right and . . . throws it directly to Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. The Jets kick a field goal and win, 27–24. The team will finish 8-8, losing the final two games of the season, to the Eagles and the Giants, and miss the playoffs again.
It is more of the same in 2012. Another 8-8 finish, another year coming down to the final week of the season—this time against Washington—and another loss for the Cowboys. As the teams make their way to the locker rooms, Robert Griffin III runs to meet Romo at midfield. The playoff-bound rookie quarterback puts his right hand on Romo’s back and leans in close to his ear. “I just wanted to say to you: Don’t listen to what anybody else is saying about you,” Griffin says. “You’re a great quarterback, man. This game doesn’t mean anything.”
The next year, 2013, brings yet another 8-8 season, yet another missed playoff, yet another heartbreaking elimination in the final game. The drama is the same, but different. This year Romo leads the team back for a 24–23 victory against Washington in the second-to-last game of the year, playing with what will later be diagnosed as a herniated disc in his lower back. In Romo’s absence, backup Kyle Orton plays the final game—and throws a very Romo-esque late interception.
By now, Romo is on his second enormous contract—this one worth a guaranteed $55 million. He has broken virtually every franchise record in the books. He’s married Candice Crawford, a former Miss Missouri turned local television reporter, and they have a young son, Hawkins, and another one on the way.
But fans are growing weary of the losses, and there are regular calls for Romo’s ouster in the media.
There was a Tony Romo before Tony Romo. His name was Danny White. Like Romo, White was a standout in high school who slipped past most scouts; he went to college on a baseball scholarship. White was drafted in 1974—as a punter—and played in the short-lived World Football League before coming to Dallas, in 1976. Like Romo, White spent his first few years as a backup, getting into the game only on special teams. He became the starting quarterback when Staubach retired, after the 1979 season.
White led the team to the NFC Championship game in his first year as a starter. But the Cowboys lost in Philadelphia, in a wind chill that dipped at one point to 17 degrees below zero. Down by two touchdowns with 38 seconds in the game, White heaved a bomb all the way down the field—only to see it intercepted.
White had the Cowboys back in the NFC Championship game in 1982, but they lost again. This was the year Joe Montana led the San Francisco 49ers to a last-minute victory, throwing a touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that has become known simply as “the Catch.” Forgotten next to Montana’s glorious comeback, though, is the fact that the Cowboys got the ball back after that with enough time on the clock. On first down, White hit Drew Pearson on a slant route that moved the ball across the 50-yard line, a short pass away from reaching field-goal range. In fact, only 49ers defensive back Eric Wright snagging Pearson’s shirt, literally by a finger, prevented the Cowboys from scoring and altering the shape of history. On the next play, White was sacked and fumbled. Game over. Twenty years later, Cowboys defensive back Charlie Waters would tell ESPN, “It’s just one finger of a defender catching Drew by his jersey to keep from changing Danny’s whole career.”
White got the Cowboys back to the NFC Championship game for a third straight time in 1983. They played Washington, a team they’d beaten in the regular season that year. Down 14–3, just before halftime, it appeared as if Washington defensive lineman Dexter Manley attempted to twist White’s head completely off his body, and the resulting concussion knocked White out of the game. Replacement Gary Hogeboom played admirably, but the Cowboys went out the same way they did the previous two years.
The playoff losses stacked up, and Landry finally replaced White with Hogeboom to begin the 1984 season—the first year the Cowboys missed the playoffs in more than a decade. So White was the starter again in 1985, and they returned to the playoffs, but again lost in the first round.
It looked as though the ship was finally righted in 1986, like that would be the year. The Cowboys had the best offense in the NFL, and White was the highest-rated passer in the league. But in a game against the Giants in early November, linebacker Carl Banks went unblocked off the edge and pulverized White. In the footage, the quarterback gets up slowly, then walks to the sideline looking at his right hand. You can see the grimace on his face. It’s a broken wrist. Another season over.
By 1988, White had become a backup. He retired in April 1989, the same month the Cowboys drafted a star quarterback out of UCLA named Troy Aikman.
After Staubach retired, he became a prominent businessman in Dallas. Now he’s the executive chairman of Jones Lang LaSalle Incorporated, a global real estate firm with revenues in the billions. After Aikman retired, he became a broadcaster on Fox’s “A” team, usually calling the most important game of the week. White passed for more than 20,000 yards and more than 150 touchdowns in his career. He set most of the Cowboys records—records that would be broken by Romo—but he never started in a Super Bowl, and that made all the difference. After White retired, he spent fifteen years coaching in the Arena Football League.
“Danny White was probably as fine a winner as we have had in football,” Landry told Gary Myers in the book The Catch. “He wasn’t gifted as some quarterbacks were, but he knew how to win football games. I don’t think anyone could have followed Roger and done as well as Danny.”
Though he’s still beloved in his home state of Arizona, White is all but forgotten in Dallas these days. To fans under the age of 35, his name seems only vaguely familiar.
Of all the dramatic losses in Romo’s career, the most painful was probably the end of the 2014 season. The team defied preseason predictions by going 12-4. With DeMarco Murray leading the league in rushing, and Dez Bryant seemingly past his off-the-field issues, and Romo having what remains, statistically speaking, the best December an NFL quarterback has ever had, everything was lining up. This looked like the team we’d dreamed of for so long.
In the first playoff game, against the Detroit Lions, the Cowboys were down 17–7 at halftime but managed to come back for the 24–20 victory. This time around, though, a single playoff win wasn’t going to satisfy fans. The next week, January 11, 2015, Dallas played Green Bay in the 24-degree Wisconsin cold. (I watched the game, sitting on a couch, with that same woman I’d been falling in love with during the Seattle game. By then we’d moved together across the country and back, bought our first house, and built a life in Dallas with a few other living beings that now depended on us.)
We can all still see it. Early in the game, Aaron Rodgers—the MVP of the league that season—has an injured calf that leaves him limping and vulnerable. With less than a minute to go before halftime, the Cowboys have a 14–7 lead and they’re driving in Green Bay territory. A pass to Romo’s best friend, Witten, is spotted as a first down, but when the Cowboys call time-out, the play is reviewed and the ball is moved back 2 yards, making it third down. On the next play, Romo bobbles the snap. By the time he recovers, there are defensive linemen in his face and his off-footed throw drifts out of the end zone. With the drive stalled, they bring in Dan Bailey—one of the most dependable kickers in the game—for a field goal, but it sails wide right.
Now Rodgers completes a deep pass to the sideline and Green Bay kicks a field goal. It should be 17–7 at halftime (if not 21–7), but instead it’s 14–10.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Packers are up 26–21. With less than five minutes in the game, the Cowboys have a fourth down at the Packers 32-yard line. A field goal from here would be tough in these conditions, and 3 points won’t help much anyway. So the Cowboys go for it. Fans breathe deep. This is the game.
With 2 yards to go, and the most productive running back in the league, you’d expect a run. But Romo drops back and—he has Bryant with single coverage speeding up the left side of the field! Romo throws the ball, and time seems to slow down. The ball hangs there, floating. And Bryant, now among the top receivers in the NFL, is ready to leap and pull it from the crisp wintry air. He’s got it! Bryant takes off, his hands outstretched, a solid foot over the defender. He’s got it! Both of his gloved hands guide the ball toward his body. As he twists, falling, he shifts the ball to his left armpit. He cradles it, preparing to hit the ground. He’s really got it!
As he comes to the green tundra, he plants his left hand and stretches out, extending the ball toward the end zone. When his body finally hits the ground, the ball comes loose, but the nearby official immediately rules it a catch and says Bryant is down inside the 1-yard line. He did it!
Then comes the challenge flag from the Green Bay sideline. And after what feels like three hours of debate, the call on the field is reversed—no catch—and Green Bay gets the ball back. The justification is an asinine rule that says receivers have to maintain total control of the ball all the way to the ground—and apparently on the way back up and on the way back to the sidelines and maybe also during dinner that night. The rest of the game is a screaming, angry blur. Reports show that the Packers ran out the clock and won.
Afterward, Jones, the steward of the franchise during all these painful years, smiles in front of a camera and tells a reporter that in the moment he thought the review was an effort to spot the ball accurately, that it never occurred to him that an official might think Bryant hadn’t caught the ball. Commentators that night will call the play “the Catch That Wasn’t a Catch.”
Romo finally made the play. He got it. We all saw it. And we still lost. You can’t beat the laws of the universe.
Football is a game made up of losers. Every team but one ends each season a loser. It’s a game that eats its participants and bleeds its fans. It’s a game measured by championships, especially in Dallas. There are millions of variables at work in any single football game, but we remember only who won, often on the final play. We want to believe that the game is just, that the deserving eventually win. And we want to believe our man is deserving because we as fans are deserving. But this is a game that has bestowed Super Bowl glory on quarterbacks with names like Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer and Joe Flacco and Jeff Hostetler. And deprived quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Fran Tarkenton and Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly.
What makes Romo so good is also what makes him a loser: he’s willing to take the big risk. He’s willing to throw it downfield, instead of checking down. He’s willing to pick it up and run to the end zone, willing to heave it deep on fourth down. We hope because we’ve seen him take these risks and be amazing. We hope because we know what a great story it will be when he wins. And even if he doesn’t—even if he’s forgotten by history—he’s already given fans so many great moments. Moments in which they could stare at a game and forget about the troubles of the world. Moments they could share with people they love.
Romo underwent the Mumford procedure on March 8. The next day, the Cowboys released a statement saying the surgery had been “successful.” For the first time in several years, he had a full off-season to recover and to prepare for the season ahead.
In his last meeting with the media before training camp started, in August, Romo said he felt good. “I’m throwing the ball as well as I ever have,” he explained. Twice he said he was trying to “perfect” his “craft.”
Maybe that means that this year will be the year he gets that extra yard. The year he’s able to score on that final possession. Maybe this is the year Romo ends the final play of the final game a winner. We all remember that night in Seattle, or that day against the Giants, or the loss to the Broncos, or the pain of the Green Bay game. But we hope, because we have Tony Romo.
Maybe this is the year.