I remember Tony Romo’s first real outing as the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback. It was October 23, 2006, in a game against the New York Giants, with Drew Bledsoe as the starter and Bill Parcells calling the shots. I was living in New York City, so I watched it surrounded by Giants fans in a friend’s dorm room. I was needled and ribbed with each of Dallas’s missteps, and there were more than a few.
It seems funny now, but there was a sentiment among the fandom that Bledsoe was a choke artist, someone whose late game screw-ups would inevitably doom the team. After a particularly rough interception from the veteran quarterback, one where Bledsoe himself seemed mystified and lonely in the aftermath, Parcells made the call. Out came Tony Romo in the second half — the unheralded, undrafted free agent sent in to save the day. Except he didn’t. Romo made a solid showing, but his own miscues and lack of polish quickly surfaced. Despite the switch, the Cowboys couldn’t pull out the victory.
Still, it marked a change, albeit one not quite so evident to Cowboys fans at the time. We didn’t realize that Romo would go on to quarterback the team for the next decade. Nevertheless, unbeknownst to most, it was the end of something and the beginning of another. The Cowboys had gone through signal callers like toilet paper in the bleak interregnum after Troy Aikman’s retirement, a period which saw a seemingly endless parade of also-rans and raw newcomers faltering in quick succession. But now there was hope, hope that maybe this new QB, who’d shown flashes of talent and good instincts, could be the guy to turn it all around.
There’s hope again in Dallas, and the excitement that comes from another underdrafted young quarterback unseating the old hand and impressing everyone with his abilities. But it comes with a certain melancholy — the realization that Tony Romo, one of the greatest Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks of all time, and the man who started a new era that night against New York, will leave this team and this town without ever getting his due.
When looking back on Tony Romo’s career, it’s easy to look at the almosts, the moments where he seemed desperately close to success only to have it ripped away by some unlucky break. For years, if not decades, Cowboys fans will beat the drum about the catch that wasn’t. We’ll think about the potentially game-changing play where Miles Austin got lost in the lights. And, of course, there’s that damn botched snap, the one that seemed to set the tone for public opinion about Romo for the rest of his career.
And for a certain contingent of fans, Romo will be forever tarred with the team’s nadirs under his watch, whether or not the finger can be fairly pointed at him: the 2008 upset in the playoffs, the 2010 shellacking at the hands of the Vikings, four season-ending Week 17 losses. There were game-changing end of half fumbles, win-robbing penalties, self-iced kickers, and other unfortunate events that made it seem like the team was snakebitten. It’s easy to see the Romo era (or more accurately, the Jason Garrett era) as a stretch of lost opportunities and disappointments. That will always be a burden on Romo’s legacy, whether it’s fair or not, and some fans will never get over it.
There’s no talking to these folks about Romo, no convincing them. There never has been. Nevermind the stats that say he’s consistently been one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Nevermind his ridiculous number of fourth quarter comebacks. Nevermind the painstaking analyses that have shown how many impressive little things he does on the field to help his team succeed.
Nevermind the years that he’s been hampered by baffling play-calling, porous offensive lines, ramshackle defenses, dismal game management, and haphazard front office decision-making. Nevermind the insane number of games where the Cowboys fell behind, and half the reason the team was still in a position to win by the time the fourth quarter rolled around owed to his herculean efforts. Nevermind that there are fifty-three players, dozens of coaches, and an army of front office personnel, just as responsible for each success and failure.
For these naysayers, none of that matters. Every game where he brought the team to the brink of victory despite the prospect of likely defeat, but couldn’t put out the fire quickly enough, is a glaring indictment. Every time the defense gave up a big lead or the coaches were out schemed or the ball simply bounced the wrong way is placed on his shoulders. No matter what he did, some people (frequently, loud people) only saw the worst, and laid every Cowboys failure at his feet.
But that’s not what I’ll remember when I think back on Tony Romo’s tenure with the Dallas Cowboys. I’ll remember the man who led an impossible comeback against Buffalo on Monday night. I’ll remember the player who engineered a come-from-behind, overtime victory against the 49ers with broken ribs and a punctured lung. I’ll remember the quarterback who ended the undefeated streaks of the Colts and the Saints. I’ll remember his improbable, Houdini plays that left me mesmerized. I’ll remember the man who got the playoff monkey off the Cowboys’ back, who helped shatter the so-called December curse, who could celebrate a playoff victory face down on the turf, and who, regardless of whether things turned out as we hoped or not, gave the faithful and fanatical ten years of exciting football worth watching and rooting for.
For a certain generation of fans, the ones who were too young to really remember the glory days of the Triplets, who came of age in the doldrums that followed them, Romo will always be our guy, the one who rode out the storm. Professional football is entertainment, and it’s easy to put too much emotional investment in a silly game. But for many, he represents what the Dallas Cowboys of this era were and aspired to be: talented, underestimated, maligned but resilient, and the picture of class. Whatever his success or lack thereof on the field, it is sad to see his era end. While Romo can dry his tears on his millions of dollars, it is sad as a fan to see him leave without veneration, without all due appreciation, without achieving what the diehards in Dallas always believed he could.
In Deuteronomy, Moses sees the promised land, but is not permitted to enter, coming so close to what he’d been working toward for so long, but left unable to enjoy the land of milk and honey himself. As Romo leaves Dallas, the efforts to create a “Romo-friendly” team — an offensive line that can protect him, a run game to balance the team’s attack, a defense that can hang onto a lead — have left the Cowboys with a squad poised for success, one Romo would love to captain. Instead, with everything finally in place, he’s off to another city and another system and another team in need of his services, with another admirable young man set to enjoy the fruits of that labor. That is a harsh irony, particularly given how Tony’s story began in that first game against the Giants, and it’s undeniably bittersweet.
But life is bittersweet. Romo may never get the appreciation he deserves in Dallas. No matter his stats, no matter his records, no matter his accomplishments, there will always be people who can’t get that first botched hold out of their heads, who will point to the scant number of skins on the wall and say “good riddance.” Others will see the truth, see how much he brought to this team, how much of its success was galvanized, not limited, by him. And we will look to the future with hope, but look to the past and lament that this talented player and good man never found the sort of success and acceptance he arguably should have enjoyed here.
It’s a shame, but it’s also an occasion to look back and be grateful as fans for ten years of a QB worth cheering for. We bid Tony Romo fond farewell, wishing him the best wherever his next stop may be. And we can only hope he knows that regardless of who said it first, the true believers will always look to him, remember what he did for our favorite team, and say “that’s my quarterback.”