Upon realizing that Tony Romo was no longer going to be their quarterback, Cowboys fans—and, sure, ownership—went through a bizarre, condensed version of the Kübler-Ross model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then, finally, jubilation when they realized that Dak Prescott was younger, had a ton of room to grow, and was already capable of bringing the team to within sniffing distance of a Super Bowl.
ESPN reported on Wednesday that the team would be releasing the longtime star instead of pursuing a trade, or holding onto his rights while other teams did the QB scramble. The writing has been on the wall, but it was nonetheless surprising. Romo’s trade value has been nebulous for some time, but Jerry Jones expressed optimism that they’d work a deal out until the end. It didn’t happen, and now Romo is free (barring an unspoken agreement on Jones’s “do-right rule”) to sign wherever he pleases.
The obituary for Tony Romo’s time as a Cowboy has been written, on and off, for the past year. (Michael J. Mooney’s Texas Monthly cover story, published just before the injury that opened the door for Prescott, was a kind of unintended tribute.) But Romo ends his career in Dallas in a rare position. He’s a face-of-the-franchise icon whose name will almost certainly adorn the Cowboys’ “ring of honor” in AT&T Stadium in a few years; he’ll be free to choose his own pre-retirement destination, but he’ll remain beloved in the hearts of Cowboys fans even as he does so (assuming he stays out of Washington). Which means that wherever he signs next is a team that a lot of Cowboys fans are going to find themselves cheering for throughout the 2017-2018 season and beyond. So whose fight song should Romo-holics familiarize themselves with? Let’s look at the list:
The Broncos are, by insider accounts, Romo’s first choice. They’re a perennial contender whose defense is as ferocious as any Romo had during his time with the Cowboys, and whose receiving corps—headlined by Demaryus Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders—wouldn’t be a huge step down from the sort of receivers Romo got used to in Dallas. The team has had great success with another team’s used QB in recent years, and while Paxton Lynch was selected in the first round of the 2016 draft to take the helm, he didn’t prove up to the task last season. If they’re still not convinced that Lynch is ready, giving him another year or two to sit behind Romo and get there makes sense. Depending how the Broncos feel about Lynch, this is the most obvious landing spot for Romo.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have gotten as far as slightly-above-average quarterback Alex Smith seems poised to take them. They’re a solid team that has never been able to hang in the postseason with outfits quarterbacked by the Tom Bradys, Peyton Mannings, and Andrew Lucks of the world, and they could use an edge. Romo, when healthy, is absolutely an upgrade over Smith—but reports are that the Chiefs may choose to stick with what hasn’t been working nonetheless. (Cowboys fans who remember Kansas City head coach Andy Reid from his tenure with the rival Eagles may be unsurprised by this decision.) If Romo does end up in Kansas City, he can probably expect a standing ovation when he trots onto the field at AT&T Stadium when the Chiefs come to visit in 2017.
This one wouldn’t really sting for Cowboys fans, but the weird pseudo-rivalry that exists between the two might make things slightly awkward should Romo lead the but-for-a-quarterback contenders in Houston to a better year than the Cowboys enjoy. Again, there’s no question that Romo represents a significant upgrade from Brock Osweiler, but the question remains if the Texans would be prepared to move on from their prized 2016 free agent QB they dramatically overpaid less than a year ago. Romo would look great throwing passes to Deandre Hopkins, and he would still get to enjoy Texas barbecue. But even if the Texans want Romo, with a vast fortune tied up in Osweiler, they might not be able to afford him.
The Jaguars are another team that would get a serious upgrade if they took Romo, but they’d also be admitting a big mistake by moving on from their entrenched starter. Blake Bortles was a 2014 mistake, not a 2016 mistake, but he’s nonetheless someone the team has invested significant resources in, and who’s flashed just enough talent to make cutting bait contentious. Jacksonville would be a dark-horse candidate for Romo’s services, but he’d probably lift the team to “contender” status.
San Francisco 49ers
At roughly the same time the Romo news was announced, the 49ers inked a deal with Brian Hoyer—but anybody who remembers Hoyer from his time with the Browns/Texans/Bears probably knows that you don’t acquire Brian Hoyer and declare your quarterback woes solved. With that in mind, it’d be a mistake to assume that they’re out of the running here. Still, the 49ers have the second overall pick in the draft, and an apparent interest in Washington’s Kirk Cousins as a trade prospect, so they’re not at the top of the list of potential landing spots.
Romo’s from Illinois, and Chicago’s expected starter in 2017 is, uh, literally nobody right now. (Longtime starter Jay Cutler is on the outs, and backup Brian Hoyer just left for San Francisco.) They’re apparently at the top of the rumor pile for Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon, who’s somehow become a hot commodity in free agency because he looks like he might play a quarterback in a movie or something, but Romo is a much more proven entity and someone who the Bears’ hot-seat coaching staff could build around in the hope of securing a much-needed nine-plus win season to keep their jobs. It makes sense, but those Glennon rumors are strong, so who knows what anybody is thinking in Chicago right now.
Unpopular though it would be, this is definitely a landing spot that would make a lot of sense for everybody! Washington tagged Kirk Cousins as their franchise player for the second year in a row, but he’s a tradable commodity. Cousins has proven himself a viable NFL starter at times, but he’s wildly overpaid for what he provides in terms of consistency, so Washington would do well to sign Romo. The bigger question is if Romo would take a deal. “Do-right rule” or no, it’s plausible that, in exchange for getting released to seek his own team at the start of free agency, Romo made a commitment to Jones to avoid signing with a rival. This could happen, technically, but it’s way less likely than basically every other option on this list.