Monday, December 30, 2013

The Legend of Romo

            It’s that time of the year again. December. For Cowboys fans, a familiar feeling is in the air. The Cowboys looked good in November, going 3-1. The defense wasn’t great but heading into the last 1/4th of the year, they look in prime position to take control of this VERY winnable division. At 7-5, the Cowboys could probably go 2-2 and have a shot at the playoffs. It will be close, but given the amount of talent on this team, the Cowboys should get into the playoffs.
            Stop me if you have heard this story before. This was pretty much the same scenario the Cowboys were in last year. And the year before. And two years before that. And a year before that. In fact, the cowboys haven’t been in a comfortable position heading into December since 2007. That was 6 years ago! They haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 and have lost two consecutive regular season finale “win and your in” games (3 in the last 4 years.) For one of the most storied teams in NFL history, that is sad. For “America’s Team” it is pitiful.
            Its easy to make excuses. Have they been injured? Yes. Have they had bad coaching? Yes. Have they just been plain unlucky? Yes. But, since 2006, one thing has been more consistent than anything else: Tony Romo. The most talked about quarterback outside of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady has a bit of a reputation, very similar to that of the entire Cowboys team. He looks great, in fact ELITE, in September, October and November. He makes plays. He manages the game. He leads this team. But, come December, he fails. He throws the game away. In 06, it was this fumble. In 07, this interception. In 2012, this interception. And it goes on and on.
            Unless the Cowboys win a Superbowl, the question will remain: is Tony Romo to blame? Are all of these apparent blunders truly his fault or is there something deeper here? Many defenders of Romo have used statistics as their primary tool. Since he started in the league, there has not been a QB with a better fourth quarter rating than Romo. That’s right: not Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. Romo has also lead 22 game winning drives in his career. Since 2006 (when Romo entered the league), Tom Brady, considered the most “clutch” QB since Joe Montana, has 20. On paper, Romo is one of the best in the game. But there is no other QB with as many lowlights in big moments than Romo.  
            Of course, many articles have been written on this subject. My personal favorite is this one by none other than Bill Simmons. If you’re too lazy, it basically says to turn away from all conversation about Tony Romo. Like the meaning of life or whether UFO’s exist, conversations about Tony Romo only leave you feeling sad and frustrated. ESPN Dallas (yes that exists) writes a “Tony Romo: hero or villain” piece every other week. And you can bet Tony Romo is talked about every Monday morning in almost every office in Dallas. If Romo got a nickel for every time his name was mentioned, he would be richer than Bill Gates.
            So, I’m not here to talk about Romo, at least in the way you are used to hearing about him. In short, I cannot add to the debate about whether Romo is good or bad, elite or not, franchise or folly. Everything that has been said on the topic is out there and, like I said, Romo will never get the credit (or solace) he deserves unless he puts it all together. I’m not here to talk about what did happen, rather, what could have. The question that this article will address is one that needs to be explored: what if Tony Romo never existed?
            Let me repeat: What if Tony Romo never existed?
            To clarify, I don’t mean this question literally. Obviously, there are philosophical and metaphysical implications by “never existed.” What I mean is, what if Romo never played QB in the NFL? This question is not all that crazy considering that Romo probably shouldn’t have been an NFL QB in the first place, if things go as they normally do for people in Romo’s situation.
            For those that don’t know, Romo was not some highly touted or scouted player from Alabama or Ohio State. He was a small town kid that went to a small town college and played small town football. He went to Burlington High School in Burlington, Wisconsin. If that doesn’t scream small town, then nothing does. He attended Easten Illinios University, a Division 1-AA school in Charleston, Illinois. Ever heard of it? Now, Romo was a pretty damn good QB in college. He threw 85 touchdowns and was the first player FROM HIS CONFERENCE to win the Walter Payton award.
But, again, this post isn’t about Romo. In fact, a post like this wouldn’t even need to exist if Sean Payton wasn’t around. See, even though Romo was good, damn good, he didn’t catch many NFL scouts’ eyes. They were much more interested in future NFL superstars like Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller and Rex Grossman, all of which were chosen above Romo in the 2003 NFL Draft. In fact, Romo wasn’t even drafted. He entered into the abyss of undrafted free agency. He probably would have stayed there forever if Payton, a member of the Cowboys coaching staff at the time and ALUM of Eastern Illinois, didn’t give one to a fellow alum and place Romo on the Cowboys practice squad. The rest is history: Romo proves he is a NFL player, then starter, then pro bowl player.
But, let’s say none of that happened. Let’s say Sean Payton didn’t use his bias to grab Romo off the streets. Let’s say Romo faded into the background. Where would the Cowboys be now? Hoisting multiple Superbowl trophies? Doubtfully.
Let’s take a time machine back to 2006 for a second. The Cowboys were 10 years removed from their last championship and at least five away from NFL relevance. Gone were the days of the triplets and the doomsday D. This was the Bill Parcells era featuring a veteran and declining Drew Bledsoe, and a whiny and overpaid receiver in Terrell Owens. It’s not that this team was bad. The defense was actually pretty solid and they had some young talent. They were just lacking that spark, that special player who could take over a game. They were, at best, a boring team and, at worst, uninspiring. Facing the facts, they were a mediocre team that had been mediocre ever since 1998. This was a team that had a ceiling, a floor, and not much in between.
In 05, the team was 9-7. But, don’t be fooled, their record was much better than the team was. The team stated 2006 3-2, which was pretty good given that their offense was inept. This was a 5-0 defense playing with a 1-4 offense. It was obvious Bledsoe was done. He couldn’t make the throws needed to win games. In Week 7, he was pulled for Tony Romo and never saw the field again.
But, remember, in this universe, THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Romo doesn’t exist, so Bledsoe keeps playing. Maybe Bledsoe gets pulled and is replaced by whoever the second string QB is. Who was it? It doesn’t matter. The Cowboys didn’t draft a young QB that year so it would probably be another random practice squad player like Romo was. Maybe the Cowboys would luck into another Romo. Probably not. This universe is about probability, though, which is why Romo never got a job in the first place. So, a scub comes in to replace Bledsoe or Bledsoe, the scrub version, plays the rest of the season out. It doesn’t matter. The Cowboys finish the way they were playing: good defense, bad offense, no playoffs.
Now, it’s 2007. The Cowboys finished with a mediocre record. The good news? The defense played well, they have a solid running game (Julius Jones and Marion Barber), a good o line, etc. Now they just need a quarterback. Bledsoe’s contract is done and he retires. If the Cowboys can find a quarterback, they have the team needed to finally get this team back to relevance, back to America’s Team.
It’s 2007 and the Cowboys are in luck! This year’s selection of QBs is touted as one of the best yet. Since the Cowboys finished only mediocre, and not horribly, they will have to probably trade up to get the franchise QB. But, for this team that is “one player away,” it is worth it.
It’s 2007 and there are two QBs at the top of this class. At 6’6, JaMarcus Russell is the can’t miss prospect of this draft. He has a rocket arm, is athletic, and can make any throw. He lead LSU to a Sugar Bowl Championship and is expected to lead whatever NFL team he is drafted by to a NFL championship. Is a little lazy? Sure, but once he gets paid, he will get motivated.
Or, the Cowboys could luck into another can’t miss prospect. Brady Quinn is held as the perfect NFL prospect. A smart, athletic leader from Notre Dame, Quinn brought the fighting Irish back to college football relevance. He is the real deal and is the perfect player to be the face of the franchise.
It’s 2007, not 2013. We know better. We know Quinn ends up being your average NFL backup, unable to make the throws and unwilling to lead a team. We know Russell ends up being one of the biggest busts in NFL history. In fact, the best QB in the 2007 draft class is probably Matt Moore, who was an undrafted free agent that, ironically, the Cowboys signed. We know this because hindsight is 20/20. The Raiders didn’t know it when they drafted Russell with the first overall pick and paid him a six year, $68 million dollar deal, with $31.5 million guaranteed. The Browns didn’t know it when they “stole” Brady Quinn late in the first round and paid him a 5 year, $20.2 million dollar deal with up to $30 million in incentives. But, most importantly, Jerry Jones didn’t know it.
An interesting fact about Jerry Jones: he has NEVER missed out on a player he wanted. Call him crazy, a bad owner, a worse GM, but the man gets what he wants. And, frankly, that’s at least 50% of the reason why the Cowboys had 3 Superbowls in 4 years in the early 1990’s. It’s also 50%, at least, of the reason why the Cowboys haven’t won any since. Jerry Jones has made some horrible decisions since that time. One thing he did right was trust Sean Payton, if for only once, on Romo.  But, remember, that never happened here. What happened here? Jones was looking for “the one.” The next Cowboys franchise QB to put on magazines and commercials. And this class had two of them!
Let’s say it was Russell. Jerry sees this athletic, playmaker and falls in love. It’s not that incomprehensible. In fact, it seems quite possible when you think about Jones’ love of pure talent. There may have never been a more talented prospect than Russell, ever. Motivation issues? Nonsense! The Cowboys have Bill Parcells, the motivation coach of the century. If anyone can whip him into shape, it’s Parcells. Plus, once he gets that fat contract, Russell will WANT to win. He will be the franchise QB of the Dallas Cowboys!
Of course, there’s that problem of the Cowboys having a mid draft pick in 2007. But, with some wheeling and dealing, Jerry could get Russell. It may take a lot but Jerry always gets what he wants. Always. Plus, this is my world, I do what I want with it!
So, with the first overall pick, the Cowboys land JaMarcus Russell and the headlines spread across the country. Can you imagine that Russell to Owens combination? Dallas fans are going insane- buying as much JaMarcus Russell memorabilia as they can. Russell is ushered in as the savior of this franchise. People are crowding Valley Ranch to watch the throws, the bombs! Russell had a contact problem in Oakland, so he missed all of minicamp. That wouldn’t be a problem in Dallas. There’s no way the #1 overall pick, franchise QB of the Dallas Cowboys, AMERICA’S TEAM, isn’t getting paid. In fact, he probably gets more than in Oakland. Much more. And the circus starts in Dallas….
Maybe Parcells does get Russell in shape. Maybe a solid running game, a good group of veteran receivers and a solid o line is exactly what Russell needed. Maybe JaMarcus Russell ends up being much better than Romo ever was…
Wait, what am I saying? Not a chance in a million years. Good players make bad teams good: Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, RG3, and Peyton Manning all were in similar situations as Russell and made their teams relevant. Russell didn’t. He couldn’t handle the pressure of Oakland. He got fat and lazy, literally. He had all the tools but just was not a craftsman. You think the pressure of being the Dallas Cowboys QB would change that? Could you imagine what would happen if he put up some of the clunkers in Dallas that he did in Oakland? He wouldn’t hear the end of it, from the media, to the coaches, and certainly the owner. Being the QB of the Dallas Cowboys does one of two things: it makes you fight against the hype or succumb to it. Which one sounds more like Russell? Add in the money from the contract and side deals and you have the ultimate recipe for disaster.
But, let’s be real for a second, the Cowboys probably could not get Russell. For, as good as Jerry Jones is, he would have to fight an aging and senile Al Davis. There is no way he is letting Russell go. The Cowboys would have had to turn to plan B: Brady Quinn.
For as good as Russell was, Quinn was nearly as good. Maybe he couldn’t throw the ball as far as Russell but he made up for it, possibly, in intangibles. He just had that look in him that he was meant to play QB in this league. He went to Notre Dame and had the classic Notre Dame look. Maybe Jerry wouldn’t have been enamored by what he saw on the field, but the second he got Quinn alone in an interview, there’s quite a good chance he would be blown away. You could see Quinn as the face of this franchise. And, he was also a ridiculously good college football player. He seems like the perfect project for Parcells.
Remember how Quinn fell in the 2007 draft? That’s only good news for the Cowboys. In fact, ironically, Quinn fell to the Cowboys draft spot before they traded it away to Cleveland, who ended up drafting Quinn in that spot. Of course, the Cwoboys had a rather late draft pick because they were a playoff team. But that didn’t happen in this universe. The Cowboys have a mid pick, which would have been good enough to land Quinn.
Yet again, Dallas explodes. Is he the spectacle that Russell was? No. Does it matter? Hell no: he’s the new QB of the Dallas Cowboys! He is still featured on PLENTY of magazines, interviews, etc. He gets paid a fortune, more than in Cleveland. And he is thrust into one of the most pressured filled jobs in professional sports.
It is more likely that Quinn succeeds on the Cowboys than Russell. After all, being the QB of Notre Dame is also a pretty damn important job. But, here, the lack of talent is obvious. Quinn cant hit Terry Glenn on a crossing route, TO on the outside, or Witten in the middle of the field. He isn’t bad, maybe not even a bust. But, he is mediocre and, frankly, probably not all that much of an upgrade over Bledsoe. He can’t make the throws and certainly lacks the spark the Cowboys were looking for in the first place.
Before readers take to the comment sections, keep in mind I get it: this is all speculation. Who really knows if this happens. Who is to say what is likely or not. The only thing I know is what I see on the field. Russell is talented but unmotivated. Quinn is a poor decision maker and inaccurate. Maybe Sean Payton and Bill Parcells change that. Probably not. Why? Because both Russell and Quinn were given time, a lot of it. They were both given different systems, and different weapons. Neither produced in smaller markets with less attention. I can’t imagine Randy Galloway, or any other Dallas media member, helping either of these guys out.
Maybe the Cowboys are a little more prude here. Maybe they decide to sign a veteran free agent and draft a QB in later rounds. Okay, so they sign Jeff Garcia and draft Drew Stanton? They sign Matt Schuab and draft Trent Edwards? How does this help?
The Cowboys probably end up in a much worse spot any way you slice it. Russell and Quinn are signed to long term deals, so there isn’t a chance in hell that the Cowboys get a chance at a franchise QB until at least 2010. Then what? The Cowboys waste three more years until they can draft Sam Bradford, Jimmy Clausen, or Tim Tebow. Then what? It’s not like any of those guys end up anywhere. How long is it before the Cowboys even come close to the playoffs? How long is it before they become the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and other teams who were good LONG before I was born?
Let’s flash back to reality now. Its 2013. The Cowboys haven’t made the playoffs in 3 years. It is tough, if not seemingly unfair, to be their fans. December rolls around and, as sure as the smell of Gingerbread and the rush of Christmas, the Cowboys will lose. They have a QB who frustrates us more than anything else and a team who lives vicariously through our frustration.
And yet, things could have been SO MUCH WORSE. The Raiders have not recovered from JaMarcus Russell, financially or emotionally. The Browns have not recovered from Brady Quinn. No free agent QB or late round draft pick has come close to the success of Tony Romo. Does it suck that the Cowboys are 8-8 the past two years and look to be headed towards the same place this year? Yes. But, this team is relevant! They have been in pseudo-playoff games the past couple of years and have actually won a playoff game in the past four years. That’s one more win than most NFL teams.
The Cowboys have messed up, a bunch. They have notoriously overpaid players, in fact, they are in as much debt as America is next year (not actually.) They have changed out coaches, coordinators and systems and nothing has been the “perfect fit.” But, you know what, they matter. Every year that Romo has been QB they have mattered. They have looked good, even great, during the season. It’s a shame they can’t finish but at least they started. In the past five years, Jerry Jones got one position right: the QB. It just so happens that is the most important one to get right.
So go ahead critics. Tell me how Romo chokes, how he is overrated, how he will never be Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. You know what, he will never be JaMarcus Russell either. He will never be Matt Schuab or Jeff Garcia. In fact, he at least has the chance to be elite. Whether he does it up to fate, but one thing is for sure, he will always be talked about.

No comments:

Post a Comment