By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Having guided the Cowboys to the Seahawks' 2-yard line, Romo knelt in preparation for kicker Martin Gramatica's chip-shot, bet-the-farm 19-yard field goal that would give Dallas a 23-21 lead with 1:15 remaining in their Wild Card playoff game. Romo's transcendent bobble detoured the kick and re-routed an era. The resulting chaos and 21-20 loss sealed the deal on Parcells leaving, Owens staying, Phillips arriving and Romo's legacy—no matter how many Super Bowls—forever including a hiccup.
His rehab, however, began immediately. In an emotional, gutsy appearance that made you want to reach through the TV and hug him, Romo met the media in a somber room under Qwest Field. He admitted fault, accepted blame and valiantly refused to let that welling tear trickle down his cheek.
In the ensuing dark days back in Dallas, Romo received encouraging phone calls from Owens, Staubach, Aikman and tight end Jason Witten, who says it took his friend about two weeks to show his face in public.
"I've been asked about it five or six times," Romo says, obviously joking. "I wished it didn't happen but it did, and I can't change it now. I've got to move on, and honestly, I'm too engrossed in this season to worry about how last season ended. Thankfully, my holding days are over."
Says Phillips, "That mistake was as a holder, not a quarterback. There's really nothing psychologically to get over as a quarterback, because he played a great game and had them in position to win the game."
Adds Owens, "With Tony, you know it will just make him stronger."
While veteran backup quarterback Brad Johnson now handles the holding, Romo has miraculously resumed his grip on a frenetic, infatuated Cowboys nation. During camp fans unfurl 6-foot Romo posters, relentlessly chant his name after practice and escalate the volume with the slightest fist pump from their beloved quarterback.
In a town that still reviles Jackie Smith for a dropped pass 28 years ago and hasn't totally pardoned Mavs guard Derek Harper for inadvertently dribbling out the clock against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1984, how the heck has Romo—whose singular, solitary screw-up cost the Cowboys their first playoff win in 10 years—avoided being crucified?
Simple. His pedigree qualifies him as an underdog. His hobnobbing with Underwood, Miss Universe and even Metal Skool has transformed him into a small-town kid suddenly larger than life. His dimples and "aw, shucks" demeanor wow the women. His delivery—from side-armed to back-pedaling to anything but classic—connects with men. He's not following a legend but merely a litany of post-Aikman failures including Randall Cunningham, Carter, Anthony Wright, Ryan Leaf, Clint Stoerner, Chad Hutchinson, Drew Henson, Vinny Testaverde and Bledsoe.
But, mostly, it's Romo's talent. Regardless of his very recent past, we want to believe—we need to believe—that Tony Romo is the here and now.
And we're not alone.
"The kid's 6-5 including a playoff loss, but I think everyone recognizes he has a winning charisma you just can't teach," says legendary Cowboys scouting guru and NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt during a practice at The Alamodome. "The other 10 guys believe he's going to make a positive play whatever the situation. He's a special personality that just lights up a room. He's a lot like Roger [Staubach] in that way."
When introduced to Romo at last spring's NCAA basketball tournament in Atlanta, Brandt's son, Hunter, had an urgent question for the quarterback.
"He goes, 'What's Jessica Simpson like?'" Brandt says. "Tony just laughed it off, but he's got that spark that relates to us old guys, the young kids and everyone in between."
Despite the I-AA background and the three-interception second half against the Giants, Romo dazzled in his first start. Before a national television audience on a Sunday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, he helped erase an early 14-0 deficit by throwing for 270 yards and a touchdown in a 35-14 coming-out party. In the wake of the dynamic debut Parcells, as if a red Corvette were injected into his miserable mid-life crisis, invoked the name of Johnny Unitas. NBC's John Madden compared Romo to Joe Montana. Aikman called him "amazing." Sports Illustrated dubbed him "Tony Terrific."
Phillips, who watched Romo from afar last year as defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, has even linked his new quarterback to three of his old ones—Doug Flutie and Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and John Elway.
"Tony can make plays other guys can't make," Phillips says.
Romo threw while jumping. He slung it under defensive linemen side-armed. He lofted it over defensive backs—seemingly ill-advised—while in reverse. He passed for 2,903 yards with 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and, despite only 10 regular-season starts, became the first Cowboys Pro Bowl quarterback since Aikman in '96.
"He's not the most orthodox guy, but in his case that's an asset," Aikman said during a Fox broadcast late last season. "The bottom line is he's got a great feel for the game, a nice touch on the ball and he consistently makes plays. Looks like the Cowboys have found something with him."