We were witnesses to quarterback nirvana on Sunday. Followed by an incredible fall from grace.
Simply put, it was Tony Romo's career in four quarters.
On the one side, there was Peyton Manning, perhaps in the midst of the finest quarterback season in NFL history. And on the other, Romo, who was poised to break a 62-year-old record for most passing yards in a game after a gilded afternoon of moonshots down the field and precise, on-target bullets that the Denver Broncos looked like they had little chance of stopping.
Norm Van Brocklin's vaunted mark of 554 yards has stood since 1951, and after the Broncos had tied the game at 48-48 with 2:44 remaining, everything was set up for Romo to take down one of sports' most incredible achievements.
Instead, it ended in heartache for Romo — and the kind of moment that will define his career, fairly or not — and a 51-48 loss for the Dallas Cowboys, in what was the fourth-highest scoring game in NFL history.
Romo, who had completed 25 of his first 35 passes for an insane 506 yards to that point, got the ball back at his own 20-yard line and a Denny's menu full of pass plays he could attempt. After a first-play sack, Romo tried to squeeze a ball into rookie tight end Gavin Escobar — the kind of soft, ineffectual throw into thick coverage he had not tried to make all game. Naturally, it was picked off on a good play by Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. But let's face it: Bad throw.
With a chance to slay most of the demons that had plagued him since the day he allowed an extra-point snap go awry in Seattle all those years ago, Romo threw the most Romo of interceptions possible. He did what everyone expected and no one expected, all at once.
In four scalding quarters, Romo had thrown for nearly half the yardage he had in the first four games of the season. He was toying with the Broncos' secondary. He was finding eight different receivers for passes, including three with at least 121 yards apiece. Romo was matching Manning's brilliance, even without Miles Austin in the lineup.
And it all came apart with one gut-wrenching, career-defining throw.
The statistics say that Romo is among the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks of all time. Our eyes told us that Sunday might have been his finest hours. Up until that point.
To be fair, though, head coach Jason Garrett deserves equal blame at game's end — and, boy, isn't that fitting? If you're going to go down, might as well have the anti-clutch coach right by your side. The Broncos took over after the Romo pick and ran the clock down to 1:40 left, on 3rd and 1 just outside the Dallas 1-yard line.
A smart coach would tell his defenders to let Knowshon Moreno score. The Broncos handed Moreno the ball, and he was tackled down — it didn't look like Moreno merely was trying gain the first without scoring, which is the smart play. Yes, letting them score is risky — you willingly relinquish the lead. But field goals that short are about a 99-percent likelihood, and with no timeouts to stop the clock, the Cowboys wrote their own fate by tackling him after the first down. Better to let Moreno score then allow Romo to get the ball back in his hands after his best game (and worst moment) ever.
It's fun to think about what might have happened if the Dallas defenders let Moreno score. Romo might either have (a) thrown another pick; (b) broken the Van Brocklin record and lost; or maybe (c) broken the record, tied the game and send it to overtime. Where the madness could have continued.
Instead, we have the Broncos winning and Romo and Garrett affirming their iron-clad reputations in the final three minutes of the game. Do 57 minutes not undo the final three? Not the way we think as football viewers. It takes a lot of great things to be a great quarterback or coach, but one bad thing can undercut it all. Fair? Hell no. Real? No doubt.
Fair or not, this game sums Romo up in a tidy, though hardly neat, way: So much brilliance negated by one misstep. It's hard to imagine Romo ever being able to slay this reputation, short of winning a Super Bowl. It's not fair, maybe, but it's real.