“This is a sausage fest,” Tony Romo said to no one in particular. He accepted his Miller Lite from the attendant in this hospitality room in a tucked-away corner of the Radisson Paper Valley hotel in downtown Appleton, Wisc.
Romo had looked around the suite and seen that only one female, a Dallas Cowboys public relations manager, was among the assembled group watching college football, swilling on-the-house booze and eating fried foods. This is the scene at every hotel when the Cowboys go on the road, as the traveling media horde and a handful of coaches and team staffers come together to pass the time and make plans for carousing in a strange city. But Romo was seeing all this for the first time, a guest of quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, and clearly wasn’t impressed.
That was Nov. 6, 2010, and Romo was back in his home state. Despite suffering a broken collarbone two weeks earlier, the Cowboys’ franchise player was a traveling cheerleader for the club’s hopeless attempt to beat the Green Bay Packers — the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and the head office fired head coach Wade Phillips the next day.
Five years later, after another one-sided loss at Lambeau Field, Romo again finds himself with a broken collarbone and watching another unimpressive party, the 2015 season. As we careen toward the end, it will be convenient for Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and other apologists of America’s (crippled) Team to lament what this year might have been if only Romo had been healthy throughout. They'll reassure everyone that he still has several good years left in him and that the prudent thing to do will be to stick to the plan, building around him by using their top 10 draft pick to add more help on the defensive line or in the secondary.
But the Cowboys aren’t one defensive player away for competing for anything serious. Nor will one running back, another wide receiver or the next Jason Witten understudy put them over the top. And the insistence on going all-in to win during the Romo era compromises their future.
In Green Bay on Sunday, backup Matt Cassel played the most comical game of any quarterback in the NFL this season. Bothered by a wet football and the Packers’ pass rush surrounding him like an intestinal casing, he completed 13 of 29 passes for 114 yards. The ball slipped out of his hand and landed three yards in front of him. It wobbled end over end downfield and fell harmlessly. It bounced off of a sleepwalking Dez Bryant.
The rest of the team wasn’t much better. To set up the clinching touchdown in the final minutes, Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy carried Cowboys defenders almost 20 yards on his back. And despite being technically “in it” until the last couple of drives, the Cowboys never looked competitive. They were wholly unprepared for Green Bay’s screen passes — interesting because the Packers run them almost every other play — and were afraid to take risks with the ball in their own territory, despite the fact that they have absolutely nothing to lose in a season in which the NFC East is begging for some team to win by default.
Garrett and his staff once again did not have the Cowboys well prepared from a tactical standpoint. Throughout the afternoon the head coach avoided making the game management decisions that might have allowed them to overcome that, and eventually the team’s precious passion was proven to not be enough. It hasn’t been enough all year.
But they’ll have passion next year. And they’ll have some nice pieces across the roster, some talented players with a bright future. Still, they’re fooling themselves if they think Romo’s return alone will make them contenders again. And unless they use that top 10 pick on a quarterback who can lead them forward after Romo’s next collarbone injury, or back surgery or whatever new misfortune befalls him, they’ll continue to be stuck at the sausage fest.
Romo’s a really good player, but his age and recent injury history mean he's no longer dependable as the long-term answer. If Garrett and the Joneses can’t see the need to make arrangements for the future, they’re delusional.