For Tony Romo and Cowboys, another season ends in frustration

The Washington Post’s mike Jones breaks down the Redksins’ win over the Dallas Cowboys last night for the team’s first division title since the 1999 season. (The Washington Post)
December 31, 2012

The legacy of an NFL quarterback, fair or unfair, driven by narrative or reality, feels ironclad even as it develops, especially when there is a blue star on the side of his silver helmet. It really lasts only until the next game, but the problem for Tony Romo may be that he is running out of next games.

Romo’s latest chance to redefine his reputation, to cast himself as something other than a golden arm incapable of winning a game they remember you for, arrived Sunday night at FedEx Field. He took over at his own 15-yard line, down by three with 3 minutes 33 seconds left. And Romo, with the NFC East on the line against the Redskins, played precisely to type.

As Washington and its rookie quarterback plan for the playoffs after a 28-18 victory, the veteran Romo will again have to examine how he failed to lift the Dallas Cowboys in a season-ending defeat. Two plays into the last-gasp drive, Romo’s floating interception in the left flat, snatched at his own 25-yard line by outside linebacker Rob Jackson, sealed Washington’s playoff spot and Dallas’s latest bitter end.

“I wish I’d have made a different decision,” Romo said after the game. “It just hurts a lot right now, to even think about and talk about.”

Romo’s third pick capped an uneven night. He also threw interceptions on the Cowboys’ first two possessions and mustered 202 passing yards while completing 20 of 37 attempts, good for a 55.9 quarterback rating and another small showing in a huge game.

“Your legacy will be written when you’re done playing the game, when it’s over with,” Romo said. “You’ll look back and talk about those things. It’s disappointing not being able to get over that hump.

“We’re going to have a chance to play in a bunch more of these in the future. I can see that on the horizon with our team. But none of that will be talked about or thought about by me or anybody right now. It’s just about what we didn’t do tonight. It’ll eat at me for weeks now.”

Is it fair to call the game a referendum on Romo’s ability to lead a champion? Who can say? It was, without question, an encapsulation of Romo’s slumped-shouldered career – ill-timed mistakes, dazzling moments, not enough to claim a win-or-go-home victory. In his seven years as a starter, Romo has played in seven games the Cowboys needed to win to keep their season alive, playoffs or regular season. He has won just one of them.

Romo’s two fit-in-a-shoebox throws with 5 minutes 50 seconds left in the game, a touchdown to Kyle Ogletree and a two-point conversion to Dwayne Harris, brought the Cowboys to within a field goal. The throws served only to tease, to remind Dallas of Romo’s talent and how little it has brought them.

Romo is 32 now, and Robert Griffin III plays in his division, and so Romo may not again have the chance he had Sunday night. He could convince legions of Cowboys fans he would not always throw interceptions, or get blown out, or even drop a field goal snap, at the wrong time. In one game he could send the Cowboys to the playoffs, win the NFC East and assert himself the Redskins’ nemesis. He could alter his legacy and give himself more chances to burnish it.

Then the teeth-gnashing over Romo’s questionable decisions and penchant for errant passes began immediately. The Cowboys’ first possession began just outside of the red zone. On third and eight, Romo dropped back and fired a quick slant to wide receiver Kevin Ogletree. The pass led Ogletree too far, though, and sailed into the waiting arms of cornerback Richard Crawford. Romo walked toward Ogletree with palms up and snapped off his chinstrap.

The Cowboys’ defense bailed him out with a stop, and given the ball in his territory Romo pushed Dallas back to midfield. On second down, Romo spotted Miles Austin one-on-one with cornerback Josh Wilson down the left sideline. Romo heaved the ball deep down the sideline, both a perfect spiral and an utter prayer. As the pass dropped, Wilson appeared to be the receiver and Austin the cornerback. Wilson intercepted the pass in stride.

Romo had dropped back six times in the Cowboys’ first two possessions, and those plays resulted in one completion for 23 yards, a sack and two picks. Those kind of moments infuriate Dallas because of what he is capable of. Romo promptly completed his next eight passes, including a second-quarter touchdown strike to tight end Jason Witten for the first score of the game.

In the second half, Romo’s final stand, the Redskins stymied him at first. After the Redskins went ahead 21-10, when the Cowboys desperately needed a score in the fourth quarter, Romo led the Cowboys to the edge of field goal range. The drive sputtered, and then Romo took an 18-yard sack by London Fletcher on third down to undo Dallas’ progress.

He would have one final chance. Romo used it to make another throw he wanted to take back. As the clock hit zero, Romo unbuckled his chinstrap and waded through a sea of opponents and cameras. He held his head up and disappeared inside the tunnel, another season over.

“It stings,” Romo said. “It hurts, especially the way it ended. It’s a very frustrating, tough thing.”

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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