LANDOVER, Md. – The savior came skipping off FedEx Field, headed briskly for the tunnel that would lead him to the sanctity of the visitors' locker room and the iPod boom box that needed to be blared.
"I missed the game," Tony Romo said Sunday night as he ran toward the giddy Dallas Cowboys fans cheering in the section atop the tunnel, speaking of his month-long sabbatical that nearly destroyed a team. When one enthusiastic spectator handed him a Dallas cap and Sharpie, he managed to seize both objects, sign the hat and return them to the autograph-seeker while executing a 360-degree spin, never once breaking stride.
That's what a triumphant return – in the form of a season-saving, come-from-behind, 14-10 road victory over the archrival Washington Redskins – will do for a kid from Wisconsin with a bum finger. Romo missed the game, all right, almost as much as his team missed him during the month he spent on the sidelines.
"When you get your quarterback back, your whole mentality changes," tight end Jason Witten explained afterward. "Your confidence, your swagger – everything from the snap count to where you're supposed to be before the play. Tony does it all for us. Nothing against our backup, but he's the franchise."
As Witten spoke, AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" was blaring out of Romo's boombox at earsplitting volumes, a development that had been the cause of much tension a couple of minutes earlier. Romo, sporting that Bart Simpson smirk of his, at one point held up the speakers to Witten's ear as his good friend tried to answer some questions from TV reporters.
Dallas public relations director Rich Dalrymple, an old pro mindful of the tight Sunday night deadline, told Romo to turn down the music. Romo ignored him, placing the box back in his own locker, next to Witten's.
"Turn it down," Dalrymple insisted.
"You turn it down," Romo said, smiling.
"Tony, turn it down."
Romo paused for a couple of seconds to make his point, then slowly reached for the volume control.
"I'm turning it down," he moaned, resisting the temptation to finish the sentence with "Dad."
Romo could've gotten away with it. He knew that, at least on Sunday, all was well in the world of his real surrogate dad, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who stood about 15 feet away surrounded by an even larger group of cameras and notebook-wielding reporters.
Suddenly Dallas (6-4), the star-studded and trendy preseason Super Bowl favorite, had fought through a potentially calamitous stretch of three defeats in four games (two without Romo) and moved into a tie with Washington for second place in the NFC East. Perhaps more significant given the Giants' three-game lead in the division, the Cowboys and 'Skins are now tied with the Falcons for the conference's second wild-card spot with six games to play.
"When you've got a quarterback who has his unique skills, it makes a big difference," Jones said of his $69-million investment. "There's no doubt we're under tremendous pressure to win, from the outside expectations and from the inside as well, and Tony gives you so much. The defense knows that when we get the ball we've got a chance to make it happen, and that takes pressure off of them. If we're not in good field position, everybody (on the offense) has the confidence that he can make some plays and get us out of trouble."
Left unsaid is the fact that the Cowboys' backup quarterback, Brad Johnson, is no longer capable of instilling even a shred of confidence among his peers. Once a highly efficient and ultra-tough if immobile passer who helped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title six season ago, Johnson, at 40, performed like a human statue with an Electric Football quarterback's touch during his dubious three-game stint. Though Dallas managed to beat the Bucs 13-9 between lopsided defeats to the St. Louis Rams and New York Giants, it was clear that without Romo this team was going the way of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' political career.
Romo's pinkie still doesn't have enough strength for him to grip a football tightly, so doctors fitted him with a splint and the quarterback learned to throw with only four fingers, strengthening the appropriate hand muscles. It's not a perfect system, but it'll have to do for the time being.
"Every once in a while, with that thing on, you're just not gonna grab the ball in a way that allows you to throw it properly," Romo said. "There were about three or four times tonight where I couldn't do something I wanted to do, and I just had to let it fly and hope for the best."
The first time that happened Romo wasn't so fortunate. Trailing 7-0 after Jason Campbell led a 10-play, 49-yard touchdown drive on the Redskins' first possession, Romo drove Dallas to the Washington 27-yard line and tried to thread a pass over the middle to Terrell Owens on third-and-three. The splint let him down, and Romo immediately knew the pass was a disaster. The throw was intercepted by cornerback DeAngelo Hall, playing his first game for the 'Skins after a disastrous eight-game, $8 million flameout (OK, so maybe it wasn't so disastrous for Hall) with the Oakland Raiders.
Early in the second quarter from almost the same part of the field (second-and-four on Washington's 25), Romo simply made a bad decision, misfiring on a short throw to Owens that caromed off his hands and was snatched out of the air by linebacker Rocky McIntosh. While the two picks might have suggested the would-be messiah was trying to do too much in his return, Romo (19 of 27, 198 yards) deserves credit for resisting the urge to take more chances than necessary in a taut, defensive-driven game.
"You get in situations like this and it's easy to feel like you have to be the savior," Witten said. "But Tony did a great job of not trying to do too much, not forcing passes and keeping his composure."
With halfback Marion Barber (24 carries, 114 yards; six receptions, 39 yards) doing his best to impose his considerable will on the Washington defense, Romo put together three pivotal drives that were enough to win the game. The first one began at his own 20 with 4:41 left in the first half and ended with Barber's two-yard touchdown run, which immediately followed consecutive completions of 28 yards to Witten and 25 to Owens.
Later, trailing 10-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Romo led Dallas from its own 33 into Washington territory. On third-and-seven from the 'Skins' 33, he did that improv thing that he does so well, scooting away from pressure to deliver a Favre-like shovel pass to wideout Miles Austin for an eight-yard gain.
"Everybody analyzes Romo and tries to figure him out, but the bottom line is he finds a way to make plays," Redskins defensive end Andre Carter said afterward, shaking his head. "You think you have him, and he does something unorthodox and he somehow gets away with it. You say, 'How the hell did he do that?' He's out there freestyling. I give him credit, though. He makes it happen."
On the play after the shovel pass, Romo gave the Cowboys their winning points, looking off the safety and finding rookie tight end Martellus Bennettt in the left side of the end zone with a sweet floater for a 14-10 lead.
When Dallas stopped the 'Skins on fourth down and got the ball back at its own 37 with 6:40 remaining, Barber and the team's big offensive line got physical and killed the rest of the clock. Romo threw just one more pass, and it was a beautiful one: On third-and-eight from the Washington 26 with 2:49 to go, Romo zipped a short bullet to Barber in traffic that the bruising back converted for a 10-yard gain.
Four Barber runs (the last on fourth-and-one) and two Romo kneel-downs later and the Cowboys were back in the playoff hunt, swagger intact. You might say, as AC/DC's Brian Johnson loudly suggested afterward, that they were once again thunderstruck.
"You never know how you're going to come back," Romo said as the boombox blasted Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" while the locker room began to empty. "Tonight was about passion. That's a darn good football team we played, and to beat them up here in this (cold, windy) weather, that's huge. Whatever happens to this team, regardless of what everyone says, it'll all be played out on the field."
And it'll play out with Romo running the show, which is music to the Cowboys' ears.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• The Colts built on last Sunday's enormous victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field by outscoring the Texans in Indy, 33-27, improving to 6-4 and rediscovering a bit of their identity in the process. For Peyton Manning and friends it was No Huddle, No Problem: Indy had five consecutive scoring drives in a game in which halfback Joseph Addai (22 carries, 105 yards, one TD) and wideout Marvin Harrison (nine catches, 77 yards, one TD) looked far more comfortable than they have much of the season. When this team is in rhythm, it's still dangerous, and it's becoming highly possible that some unlucky division winner is going to have to get past a revived Manning in its first playoff game. Meanwhile, with reigning defensive player of the year Bob Sanders out with a knee injury, safety Melvin Bullitt made a game-clinching interception for the second-consecutive week. Next Sunday in San Diego, Bullitt will likely have to defend the Chargers' Chris Chambers. If only Charlton Heston could've lived to see that matchup made in NRA heaven.
• Look who's back in charge of the AFC West race: The 6-4 Broncos, who on Sunday pulled off their second consecutive road comeback victory thanks to the excellence of quarterback Jay Cutler and some team-wide resourcefulness we never saw coming. Typifying Sunday's 24-20 triumph over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome was the play of rookie Spencer Larsen, who started at middle linebacker (he had seven tackles) and fullback, becoming the first NFL player to start the same game on offense and defense since the Ravens' Orlando (Zeus) Brown in 2003. Larsen was needed on offense so that the team's usual starter at fullback, rookie Peyton Hillis, could move over to halfback in the wake of injuries to several Denver runners. Who would've thought that Hillis, in the 10th game of the season, would be outshining former Arkansas backfield mates Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, at least for one Sunday? If cornerback Champ Bailey makes a successful return from his torn groin muscle and Cutler keeps ascending, this team might just be a factor in the playoffs after all.
• As I was reminded this summer while covering the final days of Brett Favre in Green Bay, Packers fans are intensely emotional creatures – and they certainly experienced a hellacious high on Sunday in the Pack's 37-3 thrashing of the rival Bears at Lambeau Field. The signature moment came when defensive end Jason Hunter picked up a Kyle Orton fumble in the fourth quarter, raced 54 yards for a score and embarked upon an inspired Lambeau Leap that completely engulfed him for more than 10 seconds. But stripping away the visceral reaction to a victory over a team that beat the Packers twice in their 13-3 regular season of '07, there are plenty of logical reasons to believe that things are looking up in Titletown. As in '07, it has taken awhile for the running game to get on track, but on Sunday halfback Ryan Grant (25 carries, 145 yards, one TD) finally looked like the young, aggressive standout he did down the stretch last year. Aaron Rodgers (23-of-30, 227 yards, two TDs, one interception) was sharp and in command, and the Pack's defense thrived in its first game since star middle linebacker Nick Barnett went down with a season-ending knee injury. Hunter's return was the team's seventh defensive touchdown in 10 games, a remarkable stat. Most important the Packers (5-5) are now tied with the Bears and Vikings atop the NFC North with six games to play – and if it comes down to the final weekend, imagine how excited they'll be at Lambeau to see the currently winless Lions charge through that visitors tunnel.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• If any alleged NFL contender was going to be involved in the league's first tie since 2002, the Eagles were the perfect team – good enough to convince people they're on the verge of something special but flawed enough to mess it up without fail, and caught in that frustrating netherworld in between. On Sunday, Philly (5-4-1) went to Cincinnati and secured a 13-13 stalemate with the Bengals (1-8-1), and the sight of a few players celebrating on the sidelines as Cincy's Shayne Graham missed a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left in overtime was flat-out funny. Even sillier was the subsequent revelation that veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb thought an indefinite amount of sudden-death overtime periods would be played until a winner was determined. "I've never been part of a tie," McNabb explained to reporters afterward. "I never even knew it was in the rule book. I was looking forward to getting the opportunity to get out there and try to drive to win the game." Donovan, consider it the NFL's version of euthanasia. Unless Graham's miss somehow ends up being the break that gets you into the playoffs, I'll forever remember this outcome as the one that messed up the symmetry on the Y! Sports picks page, among other places.
• Watch out, Norv Turner – the Chargers (4-6 after Sunday's 11-10 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field) are fading into oblivion, and general manager A.J. Smith, having already instigated the firing of defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell three weeks ago, will have to find another scapegoat. We know it won't be Smith, even though it's fair at this point to question some of the contract extensions he has given to underperforming players like linebacker Matt Wilhelm, linebacker Jyles Tucker and defensive end Luis Castillo, among others. This is a subject too big to tackle here, given that San Diego reached the 2007 AFC championship game and now would be on a four-game losing streak were it not for a repelled two-point conversation at home against the Chiefs last weekend. But, for now, the key thing to remember is that in the world of A.J. Smith, he is the genius – and anyone who fails to convert that genius into success is by definition expendable.
• Last weekend Ravens fullback Lorenzo Neal convinced me that Baltimore was two plays away from being 8-1. After watching Baltimore get dismantled by the Giants on Sunday by a 30-10 score, I'm now feeling like they're six fluky victories away from being 0-10. OK, it's not that bad, and the defending champs make a lot of teams look far worse than they really are. Still, it was scary to see a Ravens defense that hadn't given up more than 76 rushing yards to an opponent this season surrender 207 on the ground to the Giants, including 96 to Ahmad Bradshaw and 73 to Brandon Jacobs, who basically shut it down after tweaking a knee in the first half. Given that Baltimore eventually faces a three-game stretch against the Redskins, Steelers and Cowboys as opponents, it could be in for a long December, as my friend Adam Duritz (who was born in that splendid Maryland city) is fond of singing.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. Modern technology or, as my man Ali G. would say, techmology … and where I would be without it. During my youngest son's team soccer party last Thursday night, his elder siblings kept tabs on the Jets' victory over the Patriots on my Sprint cell phone, which carried the NFL Network's telecast of the game via NFL Mobile Live. On Sunday I supplemented my viewing experience at a Dupont Circle sports bar by watching a feed from my TV at home in California (and DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket) on my MacBook – thanks to the magic of Slingbox, brought to you by a genius from Cal and some other benevolent souls. And there was no sight I welcomed more than the SMS message I received on my BlackBerry from my buddy Jeff while driving into the FedEx Field parking lot showing a brief video of my daughter's U-14 soccer team getting psyched up in a pregame huddle before playing for a regional championship.
2. Why a smart, experienced and successful ex-coach like Jim Fassel would write a letter to Al Davis expressing his desire to coach the Raiders (as reported Sunday by ESPN's Chris Mortensen and confirmed by a source close to Fassel) – and why Davis wouldn't immediately take him up on the offer. With all due respect to Tom Cable, aka The Cable Guy, Fassel, who took the Giants to the Super Bowl eight years ago, would give the dysfunctional franchise a much better chance of becoming competitive than any of the neophytes (Cable, Lane Kiffin) or the easily manipulated softy (Norv Turner) the owner has turned to in recent years. Fassel worked for the Raiders in the mid-'90s and has a good relationship with Davis, and his son, John, is a quality control/special teams assistant on interim coach Cable's current staff. Jim Fassel is a shrewd play-caller who could be inclusive of Davis while remaining his own man. As with Denny Green, who is frequently mentioned as a possible Raiders coach, Davis would be lucky to get him.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
So Matt Cassel throws for 400 yards in a Thursday night defeat to the Jets, and all of a sudden he's definitely going to be someone's highly paid starter in 2009? Really? I know we live in an NFL world of instant and constant overreaction, but this is a little much. My friend Marshall Faulk, the intelligent NFL Network analyst with whom I like to argue on occasion, went so far as to suggest that Cassel could remain the Patriots' starting quarterback at injured star Tom Brady's expense. Uh, yeah, that'd be a great move. I have two words to say to all of this: Rob Johnson. Remember the start of the '97 season, when Johnson replaced injured Jaguars starter Mark Brunell and had one good game before returning to the bench? That effort compelled the Bills to send first- and fourth-round picks to Jacksonville (the first-rounder became halfback Fred Taylor) for Johnson and to give him a fat contract, all of which turned out to be a colossal waste.
Now Cassel, who certainly had his choppy moments earlier in the season (remember the ugly game in San Diego?), is being ordained as the Next Big Thing just as prematurely. Meanwhile, Kansas City's second-year quarterback, Tyler Thigpen, has been far more impressive than Cassel (his streak of 161 consecutive passes without an interception ended in desperation time late in Sunday's 30-20 defeat to the Saints) with very little fanfare. The Chiefs will almost certainly give Thigpen, rather than the injured Brodie Croyle, the chance to be their quarterback of the future. Cassel, meanwhile, figures to be the hot free agent (or, if the Patriots strategically franchise him, the guy generating trade interest) – hotter than the Cardinals' Matt Leinart, a No. 10 overall draft pick whom Cassel couldn't beat out in college. Brilliant, and only in the NFL.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Being back in KC reminded me how great their venue is, how great their fans are, and how happy I am not to be there anymore."
– Text Sunday night from Saints linebacker Scott Fujita
– Text Sunday from my wife, conveying the happiest word combination a soccer mom can bestow upon a traveling dad (and especially during a tight tournament final)
- Tony Romo