Last week, Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, got word that Redskins defensive back DeAngelo Hall had claimed that he would target Romo’s broken rib when the Redskins met them here on Monday night.
With less than three minutes to play, it looked like the Redskins and Hall would escape from Dallas with a 3-0 record and his boast intact. Their lead stood at the slimmest possible margin, 16-15, behind a short touchdown pass from Rex Grossman to Tim Hightower.
But on third down and 21 yards to go from the Cowboys 30-yard line, Romo, who had stayed safely in the pocket all night, rolled to his right out of desperation. Far down the field, he spotted his only tenable receiver, star Dez Bryant, who had burned Hall a few times for shorter gains.
In the end, it was not Hall who targeted Romo, but the other way around. Romo’s bomb hung in the air interminably but when it fell, Bryant made the catch for a 30-yard gain and an improbable first down. Worse, Hall, who’d talked about the tackling he’d do with his helmet, grabbed Bryant by his face mask to bring him down, adding a 15-yard penalty that made the play a 45-yard gain to the Redskins 25-yard line.
Yes, from the brink of fourth-and-21 desperation and a punt that probably would have doomed them, the Cowboys were suddenly in field goal territory. Romo, kept under wraps all night, had struck with his trademark audacious improvisation. The late mistake, the mental Romo blunder? Not this week.
Football and bad karma, they go together through the years like the words “Redskins and Cowboys.”
“They sent just about everybody,” Romo said of that Redskins third-down blitz. “Dez did a good job of continuing to run his route. I put a little air under the ball and let him run under it.”
The Cowboys squandered as much time as they could, then let Dan Bailey kick his sixth straight field goal of the night, a 40-yarder for an 18-16 victory that left both teams with 2-1 records. For the Cowboys, it was a vital victory. But for the Redskins, it was more documentation that even on the road and, yes, with Grossman at quarterback, they could be competitive to the end.
That final Dallas field goal set up the perfect last 100 seconds of a night that was a war of attrition between two frequently frustrated but always gallantly game quarterbacks, the handsome Romo and Grossman, the Redskins’ far less heralded journeyman.
Perhaps the final 1-minute 40-second test wasn’t fair, not in Cowboys Stadium with its wall of noise. Grossman, who’d thrown that one key touchdown pass as well as a first-half interception, ended up with 250 yards on 22-of-37 passing. And Romo? He was 22 for 36 for 255 yards, but no touchdowns. Yes, a virtual draw. But not quite.
In those final 100 seconds, Grossman made hearts jump all across Texas, and all over America, no doubt, as he completed two balls for 31 yards to get the Redskins close to midfield.
Then the cruel final act, so typical of Grossman’s career, befell him. Rolling to his left, he never saw Anthony Spencer rushing him from behind — his blind side. The sack stripped the ball from Grossman, just like the two crucial fumbles he lost here last year in a 33-30 defeat. Dallas recovered with less than 30 seconds to play. The End.
“I wanted to try to make a play. I felt like I could slide [left] and get it to Santana on a broken play,” Grossman said. “We’d moved the ball pretty decent [on the last drive]. We were in good position, about 48 seconds left, needing about 25 yards to put it in field goal range . . .
“We couldn’t put ’em away.”
Nevertheless, for four taut quarters, Romo and Grossman made this one long night of quarterback grit in the face of various adversities.
Seldom does an early-season game begin with a quarterback faceoff that offers such a blend of real drama tinged with dark comedy. For an odd couple at quarterback, you could hardly top Romo, the Cowboys’ starlet-dating glamour boy running “America’s Team,” against the Redskins’ Grossman, whose nickname, “Sexy Rexy,” is in part sarcastic.
For those who prefer the late-to-bloom, always-nagged quarterback over the prematurely anointed what-have-you-won Tony type, this was a perfect night for Grossman to show that, in the right offensive system, he could manage a balanced offense and also strike at key points.
For this unlikely pair, this was also a meeting under a dark cloud. Romo was attempting to play despite suffering a broken rib eight days earlier. He gutted out that game, a win against San Francisco. But, since then, the Redskins had plenty of time to prepare a defense for a quarterback wearing a flak jacket and requiring special pass protection. In addition, it quickly became obvious that Romo was not anxious to throw deep often or scramble.
Grossman’s problem is his reputation. He’s gifted, but only to a point; audacious but sometimes reckless; a talented passer but an immobile one prone to fumbles; a fine reader of defenses, except for the defenders he sometimes doesn’t identify until it’s too late and he’s thrown the ball into their arms.
Early in the second quarter, he not only threw into triple coverage but underthrew the pass as well, directly to linebacker Sean Lee.
Trying to prosper on the road in a mammoth, hostile, trillion-dollar stadium against an arch rival made this a tough test for Grossman, but if he could pass it, this was an exam that might graduate him to the next level in the estimation of his teammates.
The battle between the two quarterbacks developed almost like a boxing match. Romo, under wraps, played not to lose for an entire half. But he also was not knocked to the turf at all until the third quarter, when rookie Ryan Kerrigan batted the ball out of his hand in the pocket, leading to a sack. For all the danger he encountered, Romo might as well have been wearing a no-tackle jersey at Cowboys practice.
The Cowboys’ 10th and final attempt at a third-down conversion, the pass to Bryant, was Romo’s trademark: the heartbreaking play, either for his own team or, considerably more often, the opposition. He may make incredible and unnecessary blunders at the worst times, but he also makes dazzling created-out-of-nothing plays that most other quarterback’s simply don’t.
To claim that Grossman’s final fumble was a trademark, too, would be exaggeratedly unfair, though some may say it. Necessity forced him to try to make the kind of broken play that defines Romo.
“We’re going to have to swallow this one,” said Grossman who knows he needs to contribute with efficiency, especially close to the goal line, what the flash quarterbacks provide with dash. “We need to finish those drives in the red zone. Maybe we can put a team away earlier.”