Tony Romo's Make or Break Year
This story is part of Richie Whitt's mostly upbeat but occasionally depressing 2011 Cowboys preview. Elsewhere, find stories about the Cowboys' fantasy prospects, how to gamble on your home team , Jason Garrett and the footballness of football , and Rob Ryan swearing his $% off, as well as a week-by-week breakdown of the Cowboys' mediocrity .
Hey, Tony. Wait, shouldn't you be ...
Out on the field? In the huddle? Throwing back-shoulder fades? On your way to a Super Bowl already?
Anywhere, but ... here?
"I know," says the Cowboys' quarterback, sheepishly sidling up to a urinal in an Alamodome men's room, smack in the middle of an early August training camp practice. "I load up on Gatorade and then it hits me. Pretty much the same time every day I'm out here and oops, gotta go piss. I need to work on my timing, I guess."
And with that the quarterback zips up, washes his hands and jogs back to the field to rejoin his team's afternoon drills. To say the least, it's an odd pause in the proceedings.
But for the Cowboys these days, everything — from Tony Romo's bloated bladder to Jerry Jones' downsized dreams — feels awkward.
"We were reminded of a pretty good lesson around here last year," the owner says during the August 5 workout, noting that the 2010 team finished 6-10 despite the NFL's highest payroll. "Life doesn't always work out the way you plan it."
From last season's disastrous 1-7 start to Romo being sidelined by a season-ending injury, the Cowboys have shelved their pride, tweaked their expectations and stubbornly accepted the perception that they're a middle-of-the-pack team, almost invisible on the NFL's radar. The rare preseason dismissal of the Cowboys as Super Bowl contenders is the byproduct of last season's porous defense, which surrendered a league-high 33 passing touchdowns. A lack of depth on the offensive line and the absence of a reliable kicker don't help either. But it starts, as always, with a wobbly premise that the quarterback no longer has — or perhaps never had — the talent and temperament to lead Dallas deep into the playoffs.
While attempting to manage his potty breaks, it is, in the eyes of fans, time for Romo to shit or get off the pot.
A year ago, Romo was coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he led the Cowboys to their lone playoff win in 13 years. He was ascending into the class of elite NFL quarterbacks, and his Cowboys were the sexy pick to become the first team to play in a Super Bowl in its own stadium.
But on Monday night, October 25, with his team 1-4 but leading the New York Giants and driving, Romo was sacked by Michael Boley, who arrived in the backfield unblocked because of a missed assignment by rookie fullback Chris Gronkowski. Boley landed firmly atop Romo on the Cowboys Stadium turf. Visibly shaken on the sideline, Romo tried to run back onto the field and return to the game. Trainer Jim Maurer yanked Romo's jersey, saving him from further injury but not his team's epic implosion.
Broken collarbone. Shattered season.
"I could tell you that I learned a lot from watching and that it was a positive experience seeing the game from a different viewpoint, but I'd be lying," Romo says, sitting in a golf cart one day after practice. "Truth is it sucked. Most frustrating deal I've ever been through. I love to play football and to not be able to go out there with my team was horrible."
Usually at Cowboys camp there's a buzz. Often it's a new toy: Terrell Owens one year, Pacman Jones the next. A Bill Parcells' harrumph or two got mixed in for a while. At the very least, there's always the low hum of Super Bowl talk. But not this year.
Coming off the NFL's five-month labor lockout, the Cowboys started camp without a screaming theme. No torturous preseason travel. Same head coach that ended last season. Ten of 11 starters back on defense. No. 1 draft pick Tyron Smith and new safety Abe Elam may be decent players and all, but compared with the annual Cat 5 hurricane that is America's Team, they packed all the punch of an anonymous tropical depression 100 miles off the coast of nowhere.
The Cowboys almost signed free-agent jewel Nnamdi Asomugha. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan sorta made news with an indirect jab at the "all-hype" Philadelphia Eagles. And Dez Bryant might have grown up right before our eyes, signing more autographs than any player in camp, and halting his inexplicable blaming of the media for this or that.
If there was a sliver of controversy this summer, it centered on No. 9 and his season of reckoning. Healthy. Married. 31. Out of excuses. At the proverbial fork in the road. This way: A mature, polished quarterback able to single-handedly lift 8-8 talent to an 11-5 record and keep the Cowboys in the conversation. That way: An underachieving tease too consumed with golf and celebrity and wearing his cap backward and playing (literally) hide and seek on his bachelor party, all of which will leave him ultimately unable to fulfill his potential or prevent 2011 from being the end of his discussion.
Before getting injured, Romo was on pace to throw for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns. He is still one of football's best ad-libbers, keeping plays alive with his mobility and keeping them positive with his creativity, as he did on a scrambling touchdown to tight end Jason Witten in the preseason. He has dangerous targets in receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, running back Felix Jones and Witten. In the off-season, he organized player workouts, got married to long-time girlfriend Candice Crawford and generally was the subject of no bad news.
If you listen closely, he hasn't even given up on a Super Bowl scenario for the Cowboys.
"My expectations don't lower," Romo says. "It rubs me the wrong way every day I go home if I don't feel as though I performed that day. From a team perspective, whenever I line up and put a jersey on I'm not out here to finish second place. I don't think I'm ever gonna go out here and be like, 'Well, expectations are lower, we're just hoping to be a pretty decent ball club.' That's not who I am. I think our expectations are still high."
Despite his undeniable skills, improved leadership and apparent maturity — hide and seek notwithstanding — the critics quick to write off the Cowboys this year also long to script the demise of Romo. Once upon a time the "same ol' Rangers" would never get to the World Series because of the heat. The "soft" Mavericks would never win an NBA championship with Dirk Nowitzki as their best player. Romo's stats "look good on paper," but ...
"I hear that, and I understand where it comes from, but I'm a big believer in Tony," Jones says. "If I had doubts about him and his ability ... I like this team. I really do. With Tony healthy and back to playing like we know he can, I think we can get to where I thought last year's team was going."
Still, it's out there. That urge to look over and say, Hey, Tony. Wait, shouldn't you be ...
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