LANDOVER, Md. – Into another stadium tunnel Tony Romo walked Sunday night, a loser again in the season's final game. This stroll must be so tiring for him now. He limped along the floor of the concourse that leads to the visitors' locker room at FedEx Field. His legs ached. Nobody walked near him. Once more he would endure his suffering alone.
There are the Dallas Cowboys and then there is Tony Romo. As much as they all talked about team and togetherness, Romo will forever be an entity bigger than all of them. It is on his shoulders that they rise or fall. He understood this as he hobbled away from more imploded expectations, this time a 28-18 loss that gave the NFC East title to the Washington Redskins. It was the third time in five years he has handed away the division on the final day. All of Sunday night's wretched scenarios danced in his mind: The three interceptions. The receivers missed. Another season so close and yet once more empty.
"Shake it off," a FedEx Field security woman said as he headed for the locker room.
If only that was so easy to do.
Never in our recent time has there been a player so much like a Shakespearean character. He pulls the Cowboys, dysfunction and all, through the final weeks of seasons, building anticipation until it seems certain they are on the verge of THE year, the one that will end in a hail of confetti only to let everyone down in the game that matters most. His fatal flaws are always the same: bad passes, missed chances, balls that should never have been thrown.
"I feel as though I let my team down," he said later, standing on a stage in a small interview room. "We did such a great job in those last five or 10 minutes to win a lot of games. We were back in that position again, and it's on me. It's a very frustrating thing to think about."
He did not want to discuss his legacy on Sunday night, saying that such a conversation could come only after his career was over, and the records and statistics were tabulated. But at age 32 and with just one more year on his contract, the window is closing on his chance to win playoff games. That elusive Super Bowl seems far, far away.
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Down another tunnel beneath the stadium walked a new quarterback with rising acclaim. Robert Griffin III wore a dark suit and a cap that said the Redskins were NFC East champions. There's something almost magical about Griffin, who never makes the fatal mistakes that Romo does. In November, RG3's Redskins were 3-6 and looked as if they were through. Their coach, Mike Shanahan, said as much after a loss to the Carolina Panthers. But Griffin challenged his teammates to be something better. He drove them to seven straight wins. And in the din of Sunday night's win he looked much like a man who will take Washington to several more division titles.
Romo, on the other hand, looked old. He still spoke thoughtfully of a bright future. He realized the Cowboys have changed in the last two years, getting younger and faster. He kept saying again and again the team has to get better.
"It will take me a little while," he said when asked if he will think about the future. "I put everything I had into this. It consumes all of your thoughts and actions. It's a hard thing when it ends like this. I don't know how else to explain it, but it is going to be a rough time for me because I know how much effort and time it took to get in this position."
He was asked how he handles these defeats, and he started to talk about caring too much about winning, then stopped.
"I'm lucky to have a great wife and a great kid," he said. "You have to hang on those things and your faith when you feel like you're down. When you work so hard at something it's hard when you don't accomplish it. It's even more difficult when you have a chance. It is right there and you aren't able to produce."
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The most damning thing was that Romo did have a great chance to take the Cowboys to the playoffs on Sunday night. Maybe a final chance. This had not been a good game for them. They had lost receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant to injuries. Romo was intercepted twice in the early part of the game and should have been again with a pass that smacked Redskins linebacker London Fletcher so hard in the chest it bounded off Fletcher's shoulder pads. Had Fletcher intercepted the ball he would have returned it for a touchdown.
Yet all that was forgotten with 3:33 left in the game as the Cowboys stood on their own 15-yard line, down just three points. A fraying Redskins defense stretched before him. A quick pass to Jason Witten went for 14 yards. Dallas was moving. A spoiled legacy could be rewritten.
Then came the linebacker Romo didn't see. This was Rob Jackson, standing close to his defensive end. Washington's pass rush was closing in. Romo thought he could lob a pass over it and into the hands of running back DeMarco Murray. What he never counted on was Jackson splitting away from his defensive end. He never imagined Jackson leaping high into the air. He never anticipated Jackson pulling the ball down against his chest for the third and final interception.
Later, after the old classroom-style clock in the visitor's locker room said Sunday had turned into Monday, Romo thought about that moment and he said he wished he could reverse everything about that pass. He said he wished he could have run from the rush. He said he wished he could have thrown the ball away. He said he wished he could have seen Jackson breaking from the defensive end.
And that forever is the story of Romo: On his way to greatness he never sees that Rob Jackson hanging on the fringe. He spends so much time catching up, driving the Cowboys back that he keeps missing the gaping pothole in front of him until he tumbles inside.
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One person close to the Cowboys, with an understanding of its locker room, said the team's problem is internal leadership. That is not team owner Jerry Jones or coach Jason Garrett. That is not the carnival that annualy plays in a place called Valley Ranch, but rather something that lives among the players. Indirectly it is a finger, pointed like many, at the quarterback among others. Somehow he is unable to pull everything together in the way that Griffin or Eli Manning or any of the others who have beaten him in the division have.
Late Sunday night, long after most of the Cowboys had left the locker room, Romo lingered in the shower. He finally limped to a stool that sat under a piece of tape with his No. 9 scrawled across it. He winced as he pulled on a pair of gray suit pants. Even the act of putting on his socks caused him to close his eyes with pain. As he stood up to leave, he asked a reporter standing nearby to help him pull his throwing arm through his jacket sleeve. That, as well, hurt too much.
Then the steel door closed behind him.
Perhaps it was fitting that the sound it made was a slam.
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