By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 7, 2007
SEATTLE, Jan. 6 -- Tony Romo looked as if he was about to cry. Television lights burned into his eyes. He clutched a microphone stand with one hand and shielded his face with the other. He squinted. His voice stuttered and seemed about to crack.
He paused. One moment. Two moments. "It hurts real bad right now," the Dallas Cowboys quarterback said as he tried to digest the slip of a snap and the drop of the ball that led to the Cowboys' 21-20 wild-card playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night. "For the game to end like that and for me to be the cause hurts me a lot."
He squinted again.
"I cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win. It is going to stick with me for a long time," he said.
And in a moment, everything in the autumn of Tony Romo -- the magazine covers, the Jessica Simpson rumors, the premature placing of his name on the team's ring of fame -- was gone. Simply because he failed to execute the most routine of plays: the catching and holding of a ball for a field goal that was as long as an extra point.
Only 1 minute 19 seconds remained in a game the Cowboys had seemed to control, only to lose control and then look ready to take again. They were a yard from a first down at the Seahawks 1-yard line. On fourth down, place kicker Martin Gramatica stood ready to bang in the field goal that would give Dallas its first playoff win since the end of its glorious run in the mid 1990s.
But the kicker never got the chance. He said he saw the ball only for the instant Romo caught the snap from L.P. Ladouceur. Then it was gone, fumbled. And with nothing else to do and the roar of 68,058 in Qwest Field deafening, Romo started to run toward the end zone, aiming for at least the 1-yard line, where the Cowboys would get a first down and have another chance.
Instead, he was tackled just feet short of the 1 and fumbled, sending the crowd into a frenzy. The Cowboys slumped to the sideline. Shocked.
"Listen, it was a good snap," Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells said. "It was one of those things."
Moments after the victory was sealed, the Seahawks celebrated in their locker room. Several times this year, Seattle has been on the brink of defeat only to have something stunning happen at the final instant. Saturday's win might have been the most miraculous of all.
"We keep doing this; we have so much character on this team," running back Sean Alexander said.
Yet Seattle also knew it was fortunate.
At the start of the fourth quarter in what had been a sluggish game, Seattle trailed 17-13 after Dallas kick returner Miles Austin raced 93 yards untouched down the Cowboys sideline for a touchdown. That deficit grew to 20-13 midway through the quarter. And hope became even bleaker after the Seahawks were stopped on fourth and two from the Dallas 2 with 6:42 left in the game.
But then Dallas wide receiver Terry Glenn was stripped of the ball on the 2 by cornerback Kellly Jennings, who was playing only because injuries had depleted the Seattle secondary. The ball rolled toward the edge of the end zone, where Lofa Tatupu tapped it to Michael Boulware for an apparent game-tying touchdown.
But replays showed Tatupu had stepped on the sideline, and the play was ruled a safety. Yet the Seahawks had momentum. A few moments later, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit Jerramy Stevens for his second touchdown of the game and the Seahawks had a 21-20 lead.
Desperate, Romo moved Dallas back down field until the Cowboys were in the shadow of the goal post. On third down just before the field goal attempt, it appeared tight end Jason Witten had gotten the one yard and the first down that would have broken Seattle. But another replay showed he was inches short, which brought out Gramatica.
Gramatica later would say Romo is the best holder in the league. But asked to explain what happened, the kicker could only shake his head. He didn't know. None of them did. Just weeks ago, Romo seemed the Prince of Dallas. He had come off the bench to replace a robotic Drew Bledsoe, and looked unstoppable. But in recent weeks, things had gone wrong. The Cowboys lost four of their last five games in the regular season and Romo had eight interceptions and seven fumbles in that time.
Last night was his eighth.
He was asked if he was shocked by the fumble.
"Yeah, that is a good word for it," he said. "You practice a lot of things and you think a lot of things you know that dictate the outcome of the game and you don't normally think that that is going to be the cause of the end."
When he started to run, he said he thought he was going to get to the end zone. There were no Seahawks in front of him, and with everyone lunging forward in an attempt to block the kick he seemed to have the right momentum. He never saw or heard Babineaux coming from behind.
"He was almost home free," Babineaux said.
Instead, the safety who had been moved to cornerback for this game dived. He felt his arms grab Romo's legs, he clenched them together and didn't let go.
"We wanted this one too much," Babineaux said.
Parcells, who saw the Cowboys lose in almost similar fashion to the Redskins when a game-winning kick was blocked, could only shake his head.
"It looked like it was a good snap. After that, I don't know what happened," he said.
All of which made Romo feel worse. After the autumn in which he could do no wrong, winter has been cruel. Team owner Jerry Jones offered comfort, to no avail. Parcells said he assumes Romo is the team's quarterback of the future. But all that seemed too hard to absorb on the night Romo said, "I don't know if I have ever felt this low."
Someone asked if he thought, like Parcells, he deserved the starting job next season. Again he paused -- for a long time.
"I don't want to answer that," he finally said.