And so the saga of Tony Romo comes to an end. Ultimately, he wasn’t traded. He wasn’t released. Instead, the former Cowboys quarterback has opted for retirement, and he’s expected to sign a lucrative contract with CBS to immediately step into their lead analyst role, partnering with Jim Nantz for the top game the network broadcasts each week.
This time last year, Romo was an aging veteran coming off of one of his best seasons, looking to lead the most promising Cowboys team in years to glory. Then, in the preseason, disaster struck: Romo went down hard, suffering a back injury that looked to end his season before it even started. In his stead, fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott took over and shocked the league, playing lights-out football to the point that even after Romo returned to the active roster earlier than anticipated, he did so as the Cowboys second-stringer. By late October, the Cowboys were in a quandary—what do you do with two starting quarterbacks? When Prescott led the ‘Boys to the top seed in the playoffs—ultimately losing in one of the most exciting postseason games in recent memory—that become the question for the Cowboys. It was Prescott’s team, which made something that seemed unthinkable just a few months earlier a fact of life: Tony Romo was expendable.
Except, to Jerry Jones, maybe he wasn’t. It was clear that Romo had no real future with the Cowboys, and reports swirled that Romo was lobbying for his release, eager to play in 2017. The Cowboys insisted that they were looking to trade their former star—a tall order, given the fact that at the start of the season in the fall, he’ll be a 37-year-old with extensive (and recent) injury history, including repeat blows to key body parts such as the spine and collarbone. If anybody was interested in making a trade for the aging icon, they failed to make an offer that caught Jones’s attention, and as the winter faded into spring, league sources reported that Romo would be released in early March, free to pursue the final years of his career with the team of his choosing.
That release never materialized, and teams around the league offered lucrative contracts to middling passers like Josh McCown (a year Romo’s senior) and Mike Glennon (who’s thrown eleven passes in the last two seasons). Teams who were interested in kicking Romo’s tires were barred from doing so by the NFL’s tampering rules, which prevent players under contract to one team from having discussions with another.
It was reported earlier this week that Jones would allow Romo’s representatives to have those conversations with parties interested in a trade, but by then, it was clearly too late. This morning, Romo announced his retirement from the NFL, and he appears to be on the verge of signing a contract with CBS to replace Phil Simms as the network’s primary analyst.
As with everything else in the Romo saga, it’s probably best to wait until we hear directly from the player himself—and see the signed paperwork—to assume that any of this is a done deal. But if it is, there are plenty of questions left on the table.
Chief among them: what exactly was Jerry Jones doing? Although his concession this week that teams could legally tamper with Romo made a trade perhaps more likely, we don’t know Jones’s asking price for Romo. Unless and until Romo was released from his contract entirely—something that Jones resisted for at least a month after it became clear that he wasn’t going to get a high draft pick—Jones had the ultimate say in where he’d play. Had Romo been released in early March, before the start of free agency, he may well have signed in Chicago (who paid Glennon) or with the New York Jets (who grabbed McCown). More likely, he may have gone to Denver to play for John Elway—following in Peyton Manning’s footsteps—or headed down I-45 to Houston in a scenario that Jones, protective of the Cowboys fanbase in Texas, would have almost certainly hated.
Jones suggested that a “do-right rule” would ensure that, even if he were released, Romo would sign with a team that both he and Jones were comfortable with. It’s possible that the two couldn’t agree on what team that might be, or that Romo, after considering all of his options, simply decided that playing football in 2017 (and risking his already fragile health) seemed less attractive than spending the year talking about it on television from a climate-controlled booth. Because the process played out so bizarrely, it’s impossible to know to what extent this is Romo making the choice or if he was hamstrung by the way that Jones and the Cowboys held up his rights over the past few months.
Either way, though, it seems that for now, Romo’s done throwing touchdowns. Early reports on his CBS contract suggest that it might be structured in a way that would allow him to jump out of retirement if another team’s starter went down in, say, late October—if a contender needed a hired gun to stroll in and lead, Romo would certainly be an intriguing option. There could be costs to Romo in that scenario too—NBC’s Pro Football Talk suggests that leaving the broadcast booth could lead to Romo getting Dak’d yet again, this time by an announcer who was more fully committed to that studio life.
One thing is for certain, though, Tony Romo’s career has been a wild ride. He’s among the best players of his generation, but on mediocre Cowboys teams for much of his prime. His propensity for ill-timed picks in high-profile games has led him to face more criticism than a quarterback with his success rate and ability should reasonably face. But despite that, he’s resilient. He lost his job to a fourth-round rookie after spending a decade as the face of the Cowboys franchise, and he broke his back—a rare injury even for football players—not once, but multiple times. Yet he’s still healthy enough to stride into the sunset to take on as high-profile a role in the NFL as any retired player could hope to have, without even having had to work his way up the ladder of announcers. No matter what ultimately happens with Romo, it isn’t goodbye, it’s “See you in September.”
Update (4/4/17, 2:45pm): Romo and CBS formally announced the deal shortly after the Cowboys—in an unusual move for a retired player—formally granted Romo his release, making official that he’s both an employee of CBS and that he’s free to sign with any team in the NFL at any point before or during the 2017 season.