ARLINGTON, Texas – The postgame locker room of the Dallas Cowboys was, Jerry Jones said, as quiet as he could ever recall.
There were hung heads and hushed tones and, of course, a quarterback who had just delivered 506 passing yards and five touchdowns, who had gone toe-to-toe, throw-for-throw with Peyton Manning only to find himself silently staring off into space as he buttoned his dress shirt, no doubt running his final, futile attempt through his mind.
This here was Tony Romo in all his glory and all his grief, for 58 minutes rising to the highest standards of the sport, dueling the NFL's elite in an old Texas shootout. And then, with the score tied and a chance at an all-timer of a victory laid out in front of him, having it all come undone in the most predictable of awful ways.
Romo threw for half a thousand and it went for naught, courtesy of a brutal pick to Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan, deep in his own territory, with just 1:57 remaining. It allowed the Broncos to run the clock down and boot a winning field goal and escape with perfection (5-0) intact.
Denver 51, Dallas 48, and for all the brilliance and bombs, all the creativity and comebacks Romo delivered, this will be recalled by so many as the one he gave away, the latest in the coincidental collapses that just keep on coming.
"You have to protect the football," Romo said. "That's line one."
None of it is fair. Manning threw a pick, too, that Dallas used to take a 41-38 fourth quarter lead and gain the upper hand in the back-and-forth touchdown brigade. It's just Romo, as is his way, did it in the most critical of moments, when there'd be no more chances for dramatics. So there were the cackles of the critics and the laughs of the wise guys; Tony Romo chokes again.
"They will [say that] until he wins the Super Bowl," Jones said.
Jones isn't just Romo's boss and the prime believer in his ability to deliver Dallas back to the promised land. He's also fond of the guy, which is why, he admits, this hurts to continue to see.
"Because of the personal relationship," Jones said, "and as self-serving as this may sound, I want him to win a Super Bowl. That's what I want him to do."
Dallas is 2-3 this year. In Romo's eight seasons as the starter, Dallas has won a single playoff game, and that was after the 2009 season. It's not like anyone thinks he's on the verge of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Still, Jones admirably jumped to his defense. Yeah, the talk will burn all week. The old storylines will be repeated. But look over to Denver's owner's box, Jones said, look over to the Bronco's own legend who now runs the team.
"John Elway had those things said about him his entire career," Jones said. "He was a great player and we all know that. And he ultimately got his Super Bowls and they really don't say that about him anymore.
"I'm not trying to be trite," Jones continued. "[It's] the only way [Romo will] ever have his recognition. You talk about that position and you talk about a player at that position who gives you the best chance to win big, there aren't many better than him.
"He's played the best game that he's ever played for us … I'm proud, I mean so proud of him."
Jones knows, however, some of this is pointless. Screw-ups happen, interceptions happen, but they can't determine the result.
"Don't do it right at the end of the ballgame," he said.
Especially, with the whole country watching, here late on a Sunday afternoon, with Manning and his Broncos on the ropes.
"A big stage," Jones conceded. "It's unfortunate."
The whole thing is unfortunate. You're hard-pressed to find a negative word said about Romo. He's a competitor. He's tough. He's loyal. He's a great teammate. There is never a lack of effort. He never fails to stand up and take the blame.
And that's why this wasn't just another game. Romo has a tendency to play very well against other star quarterbacks only to fall short. No one has ever played the position better than Manning this season, yet there was Romo making it a game, keeping Dallas in an epic free-for-all, 48-48, 'Boys with the ball, a forever Sunday hanging in the balance.
"Tony was awesome today," Manning said.
And then … "We kind of have a play we call with some seam routes that go up the field," Romo said. "We had seen some things on tape that we felt we could use. You know, they did a good job. The kid [Trevathan] made a good play, I just didn't get as much on it … I didn't put it exactly where I need to …
"I was baiting him," Trevathan said and that as much as anything is what people expect.
Romo just shrugged off what he knows will be Cowboy fans railing about the same collapse, the same mistakes, the same game-losing plays coming no matter how much he delivers. "I don't think that matters," he said.
Of course, what could he say? Back in the locker room Jones was pointing out that there was no game to blow at the end if Romo hadn't gotten them there in the first place.
"He had a game for the ages today," Jones said.
And yet it wasn't enough. Yet again, the final critical moments arrived. Yet again.
"It's funny," Romo said, "you can get over the wins pretty quick and get ready for the next one. But you lose and it just eats at you, just grinds away at you thinking what could we have done?
"What should I have done?"
The grind was already visible across his face. The sun was setting outside, the end of one of the greatest Sunday afternoons of Tony Romo's career and yet destined to be just another Sunday night of regret.