When Tony Romo threw what is likely his final pass in Cowboys Stadium this season, and when it was intercepted to seal a horrible home loss to Green Bay in Week 15, there were surely many fans in Texas and elsewhere who were tired of watching him turn probable wins into train-wreck losses.
A week and a day later, with the surprising news that Romo has an injured back and might be unable to suit up for a division-deciding Week 17 home game against Philadelphia, many of those same fans are surely dreading a game in which he doesn't play.
This is always the story with Romo, who is perhaps the single athlete in sports who causes the most conflicting emotions. Can't live with him; can't live without him.
Romo's injury, whether it keeps him out of Sunday's game or not, is the NFL's warped version of "It's A Wonderful Life," where a community's blessings are realized by facing the possibility of losing them. As difficult as life with Romo can be, the alternative – life with him on the sideline – is much more difficult to consider. While Romo has always been the one assigned blame for crushing defeats in Dallas, and while the Jerry Jones era of mediocrity is pegged as much to the quarterback as to the owner, it has always been Romo who made the Cowboys watchable and made them viable. Without him, the Cowboys might be neither of those things.
This was underscored once again on Sunday, in which Romo led a game-winning fourth-quarter drive that ended up saving the Cowboys season. To watch the drive was to see Romo at his finest, throwing passes like few others can and punching in the game-clincher with little time left. But to watch the entire game is to wonder why it always has to be like this: Romo and the Cowboys shuffling along against an inferior opponent, wringing angst-inducing excitement out of what should be the boredom of domination.
There is another kind of boredom, though, and it's much worse. It's the boredom of a non-competitive team. It's the boredom of a quarterback such as backup Kyle Orton, struggling to make up for a porous Cowboys' defense the way Romo has in the past. That's something Cowboys fans might well be facing this weekend, as a Philadelphia team with a streaking offense comes into Dallas with a playoff appearance on the line. The Romo narrative usually hinges on whether the quarterback will blow it for the third straight year in late December. Now it appears the playoffs may have already been blown.
Quarterbacks get injured all the time in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers has been hurt for seven weeks. Jay Cutler has been out sporadically. Tom Brady missed an entire season. Peyton Manning's career still seems precarious after multiple neck surgeries. This, however, is still somehow different. It feels like Tony Romo is always the Cowboys' quarterback. It feels like he is the Cowboys. That's to his credit: He's extremely durable even though some of the hits he's taken over the years have made us all cringe and wonder if he'd be all right. He keeps getting back up and rarely misses a game, and that, too, is something too many fans have taken for granted. It is to Romo's credit that it's hard to imagine him not playing in an important Cowboys game.
To look at Romo's career, full of glorious wins and dubious losses, is to wonder what could have been. What if he held the snap in Seattle that cost a playoff run? What if he beat Robert Griffin III and the Redskins in Week 17 last season? What if he went with a run play against the Packers a week ago Sunday?
Those are all one sort of What If question: What if, after doing so many things right, he did just one more thing right when it counted?
Not many ask, "What if Romo hadn't been there at all?"
That's a question that will be asked this week. And the answer is not a pleasant one. The sum of all fears in Dallas was always about Tony Romo ruining Christmas again. Turns out the true sum of all fears could be something much worse.