EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Tony Romo(notes) sat hunched on a locker room stool, staring down into his cell phone as he scrolled through his messages. He’d just played a starring role in a brutal collapse, a sure-bet Dallas Cowboys victory turning into a 27-24 crushing loss to the New York Jets.
The heat was coming, everyone knew.
New season for the Cowboys, same old question about late-game failures. Same old criticism about big-play mistakes for their quarterback.
Dallas was one yard and 8:59 from a statement, show-the-critics-they're-wrong victory over the Jets. “A very big prize,” said owner Jerry Jones.
Then Romo fumbled on New York’s 1-yard line. Then the offense stalled, a punt got blocked, and the Jets went on to score. Then Romo threw an easy pick to Revis with 49 seconds left and the Jets went on to score again.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
Disaster. Disaster. Disaster.
And just like that Romo was sitting on that stool in disbelief, seemingly not in a hurry to go anywhere.
“I cost us the football game tonight,” he said.
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All around him his teammates quietly changed into suits, grabbed a box of Popeyes for the flight home and answered questions about the inevitable backlash against their quarterback.
“At this point I don’t really care about what the fans say about him on the outside looking in,” said defensive end Jason Hatcher(notes). “I don’t care. I love Romo. I’m going to fight for him as long as I’m here. He’s going to be my quarterback and we’re going to ride with him.
“Nine is our quarterback and we’re going to ride with him.”
Publicly, Romo still owns his locker room, and that’ll be the key constituency going forward. Where he stands with the Cowboys' vast fan base is another question, one that Texas talk radio will be pleased to discuss all week.
There is no questioning his ability to earn his teammates’ trust, admiration and friendship. As bitter a loss as this was, what made it worse is that this was a guy they all wanted to see bounce back from last year’s collarbone injury and past doubts about big-moment mistakes.
For more than three quarters, Romo and the Cowboys’ offense were terrific. He was 20-of-28 for 309 yards with two touchdown passes and had his team on the Jets’ 2-yard line, about to punch it in for a 14-point lead. Six-point underdogs and starting a season where expectations had been tempered, it was Dallas, not New York, which looked like a Super Bowl contender.
Then Romo scrambled, dove for the end zone and fumbled. In spectacular fashion it all fell apart from there.
This is the conundrum of Tony Romo: so much to like, so much to wonder about.
“When Romo gets hot, he’s as good as there is,” said Jets coach Rex Ryan.
Romo came out of Eastern Illinois in 2003, eventually burst onto the scene as a viable quarterback, dated a string of blonde starlets and earned the reputation for late and/or big-game gaffes.
This one just came as if it was on cue.
“One thing I’ve known about him is he has a great resiliency about him,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “You just have to go on to the next one. He understands that.”
That’s about all Garrett could offer – resiliency. No one doubts that about Romo. He's still standing, after all. It’s the decisions in key situations that are forever problematic, mistakes that never seem to get fixed.
On the fumble: “I was trying to protect the ball,” Romo said. On the pick to Revis: “Obviously it wasn’t a good decision.”
Romo just kept hanging his head. His teammates were trying to pin blame away from him but he’d have none of it.
“It’s just disappointing and frustrating right now because we win that football game if I don’t do what I did,” Romo said. “It’s hard to swallow just knowing that we lost this game because of me [Sunday night].”
Romo is Dallas’ quarterback, there isn’t a controversy here. Jon Kitna(notes) is not going to replace him. Jerry Jones said he was “just as exasperated as anyone standing or living,” but his faith in Romo is unquestioned. It goes double for the players.
“I know the other guys in this locker room wouldn’t trade him for nothing,” said wide receiver Dez Bryant(notes), who scored the Cowboys’ first touchdown. “He’s the best. He’s the real deal. We don’t care about what nobody says. As long as we know in this locker room who that guy is, hey, that’s the only thing that matters.”
In the end winning is what matters in the NFL. Garrett appears to have brought a new level of effort to the franchise. The Cowboys played with heart and intensity and talent for nearly 3½ quarters.
In the end they kicked it away, though. In the end, the Jets made plays and Romo made turnovers.
In a season that so many believe will define the 31-year-old’s NFL career, one that could be his last chance to prove he can be an elite player, the opener went according to past scripts.
Romo could scan the messages from friends and family, he could listen to the continued confidence from his teammates, but he long ago learned this is a league of action, not talk.
“I have to do better,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
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