The majority of NFL fans probably went to bed thinking the Cowboys were 1-0 and primed to challenge for a Super Bowl this year. They'd just beaten the New York Jets, in New York, on 9/11, in a game where Dallas was a five, even six-point underdog depending on where you look.
Tony Romo was BACK, baby! Jason Garret had Dallas looking better than ever, and Dez Bryant was a superstar-in-the-making, and Rob Ryan was looking like the best homeless person to ever coach in this league. Things were lookin' up for America's team.
After Sean Lee returned an interception to the Jets one, Felix Jones pounded in a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter to put the Cowboys up 14 points, and after trading blows for three quarters, Dallas looked ready to pull away. Then Tony Romo did what Tony Romo does sometimes.
It's a familiar story for Cowboys fans. On Sunday night, the play that sparked the collapse came with the Cowboys on the Jets one yard-line again, with a 7-point lead late in the fourth quarter, poised to go up two scores. One of those situations that seemed impossible to screw up. They could've taken a knee and it'd have been enough to seal a win.
By now you know what happened. Tony Romo dropped back, locked onto Dez Bryant in the corner of the endzone, but Darrelle Revis had him covered. So Romo scrambled, then gambled, diving from four yards away hoping to get into the endzone. Even in a tie game, this would be insane, but with a 7-point lead in the fourth, it's pretty much indefensible.
He fumbled, of course. The Jets recovered, and the Cowboys never saw the red zone again. Even when Dallas got the ball back in Jets territory, the offense sputtered--first with a delay of game penalty, then a false start, and finally, a blocked punt that went the other way for a touchdown.
Not all of this was Romo's fault, but that's part of what makes it such a perfect Tony Romo game. The problem is never all about Tony Romo. There will always be other players to blame, and ways to rationalize what went wrong without crucifying Jerry Jones' prodigal son. But here's the thing--when things start falling apart and momentum goes the other way, there's nobody on the field less dependable than Tony Romo.
The Dallas players still support him, and that's a good sign. “I know the other guys in this locker room wouldn’t trade him for nothing,” Dez Bryant said afterward. “He’s the best. He’s the real deal. We don’t care about what nobody says. As long as we know in this locker room who that guy is, hey, that’s the only thing that matters.”
And it's true. Regardless of what happened Sunday, Romo's still better than 75% of the quarterbacks in the NFL. But he may never be among the top 5 quarterbacks, either.
If adversity presents an opportunity for the best players in the league, there's no superstar in the NFL that's failed that test more often and more spectacularly than Tony Romo. He's been so consistently erratic in the clutch that you can't even blame Romo anymore.
It was Jerry and Stephen Jones who built an offense that depends on one of the least dependable stars in football. It was Jason Garret Sunday night who, with the Cowboys on the Jets one-yard line, decided to get cute with two consecutive plays from the shotgun instead of just handing the ball to Felix Jones. Maybe nobody could've expected Romo to fumble away his team's chances down there, but coaching in the NFL is a game of calculated risks, and at some point the Cowboys have to acknowledge what they're dealing with in Romo.
After Sunday night's game a Dallas fan e-mailed me. He wasn't even surprised; just depressed. "Tony Romo has about three plays a game," he wrote, "where you think, 1. Who was he throwing to? And 2. What was he seeing?"
"The sad thing is that replay clarifies none of the questions." It was true on the fumble that gave the Jets a second chance--where he dove into three different Jets players--and by the time he threw a pick straight into the hands of Darrelle Revis, it was almost like Romo was in on the joke. Who was he throwing to? What could he possibly have seen?
These are questions that Cowboys fans ask themselves every single year. It's not that a team can't win with Tony Romo playing quarterback, but a team built around Tony Romo can't win.
He's like the friend who goes out every weekend, and for the most part nothing goes wrong. Then every now and then he'll get blackout drunk and drive his car into a tree. If he does it once, it's an accident. Twice, it's an unfortunate coincidence. Year after year, time and again? Maybe it's time to stop handing him the keys. At some point it stops being "look what he did!" and becomes "that's just what he does."
If the Cowboys use Romo carefully, he's still better than someone like Mark Sanchez, and the rest of the roster's good enough to take them a long way. Rob Ryan had the defense playing way over their heads Sunday night, the Dallas skill players looked great, and had Romo not self-destructed on third-and-goal, Dallas walks away with a win.
So as often as the Cowboys' failures come back to Romo and what he can't do, there's a silver lining for he and his reputation. With each disaster, it becomes less about the quarterback who always melts down in the clutch. At some point, if it happens over and over again the exact same way, don't you have to blame the people who trusted him in the first place?