GREEN BAY, Wis. – They huddled together late Sunday afternoon in a quiet Lambeau Field locker room, the man who owns the Dallas Cowboys and his most important investment, and talked about where they were and how insanely cool it was.
This was a big moment for Tony Romo – as big of a moment that a quarterback saddled with a can't-win-the-big-one stigma can experience in September – and Jerry Jones wanted to make sure the kid who hailed from Burlington reveled in its majesty.
"Tony, do me a favor," Jones told Romo. "Enjoy this. Forget about anything that's happened before, or all the things that we're looking to do in the future, and just be here and appreciate what it is.
"Is this a big deal for you? Because, Tony, this is a big deal for me. To get to be a part of this great crowd, against the Green Bay Packers, a contending team with a budding star in Aaron Rodgers, and to be able to come in here on a Sunday night with a team like this and a quarterback like you leading us – this is what football's all about. And I wouldn't want you to waste one minute thinking of anything except how tremendous it is to be right here, right now."
Romo seized the moment, throwing for 185 second-half yards to help the Cowboys finish off the Packers 27-16. With 71,113 fans looking on at Lambeau – about 100 of whom were friends or relatives from Burlington, including proud parents Ramiro and Joan – Romo was the passer who handled the constant defensive pressure like a seasoned pro.
On this night, he was more like vintage Brett Favre than Rodgers was, and that was the difference in this game.
"I'll say this – I thought this game was difficult," Romo said just before heading out to the Lambeau parking lot to greet his entourage of converted Packer backers from Burlington. "I think they're a good football team, and it showed tonight. It's tough to come in here and win, and their defensive line did a great job of not letting me get comfortable. And the test for me was how I was going to handle that."
The way Romo handled it convinced Jones, the man who last October signed him to a six-year, $69-million contract extension, that he has a big-game quarterback guiding his team. The owner knows that true deliverance can't come for Romo, he of the 0-2 career playoff record, until January at the earliest. But the way Romo stayed cool and in command during his Sunday night homecoming was a development Jones regarded as a very good sign.
Romo celebrates as he walks off of Lambeau Field.
What the owner didn't say to his quarterback before the game, but might have felt compelled to a year ago, was something along the lines of, "Don't feel like you have to do this all by yourself." If Romo, a sixth-year player who hasn't even celebrated his second anniversary as an NFL starter, has had a weakness during his unlikely rise to stardom, it has been a tendency to have too much faith in his own abilities.
Like Favre, the Packers legend he grew up watching, there's not a throw that Romo, deep inside, doesn't believe he can make.
And if ever there was a time when Romo, coming off a 41-point outburst against the Philadelphia Eagles, would be tempted to try to do too much, Sunday night figured to be it.
Back in Wisconsin – playing in the stadium he regarded as a virtual cathedral growing up, delighting a crew of Burlingtonites who believed in him even when the former Eastern Illinois passer went undrafted and clung to his Cowboys roster spot by the thinnest of margins – Romo had every right to want to be The Man.
Throw in Michaels and Madden, and the chance to make an early-season statement that the Cowboys may be worthy of their considerable hype, and Romo's need to flex seemed as conspicuous as his girlfriend, Jessica Simpson, flaunting her assets on a Hollywood red carpet.
And yet, as the first half played out in surprising smash-mouth fashion, Romo kept it cool. He yielded the spotlight to running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones, checked down to secondary receivers (Terrell Owens was limited to 2 catches for 17 yards) and even took some sacks when he couldn't outrun the Packers' pressure.
"Obviously there's not a throw Tony can't make, but he doesn't feel like he has to do that all the time," said Dallas tight end Jason Witten, Romo's close friend and favorite target. "I think that's really where he's grown the most – just kind of keeping us all in the game, to manage it like he does, even when things aren't wide open for him."
At halftime Romo was just 9 of 15 for 75 yards with an interception. ("That was on me," he said later of the first-quarter pass he tried to complete in the middle of the end zone to Witten, only to have it intercepted by Packers safety Nick Collins and returned 61 yards. "He was right, and I was thinking something else. They were in a defense we call Cover 4 – that means he was covered by four guys." Romo delivered that line with impeccable comic timing, too – you'll see it soon, whenever he gets that inevitable offer to host Saturday Night Live.) But the Cowboys led 13-6, and Romo wasn't sweating the numbers.
"It's not so much a testament to my maturity as it is a testament to my understanding of the game," Romo said later. "As soon as I started to get a sense of the game, I realized, 'I'm not gonna throw for 500 yards tonight. And that's OK.' So I approached it from that mindset."
Up in a luxury box high above the field, Jones might as well have been nodding his head in approval.
"What this game showed, and what I'm so proud of him for, is that he took what he got," Jones said afterward. "He played the game the way it was dealt to him. That's not the same Tony Romo that left this part of the country seven years earlier. He'd have been trying to make things happen that weren't there, instead of just doing what we needed to do to win this ballgame.
"That's not him anymore. He's got it in him, and he will make the play that others can't to keep the chains moving. But it's not a four-course meal for him anymore."
That said, a man must eat, and Romo had a few grab-the-turkey-leg-and-devour-it moments in a second half that was a testament to the Cowboys' might on both sides of the ball.
Three plays after the Packers closed to 13-9 with 5:58 left in the third quarter and facing first-and-10 from the Dallas 34-yard line, Romo hit wideout Miles Austin downfield in perfect stride – a pass so good that Collins got his legs tangled beneath him, barely recovering in time to catch the receiver at the 3 for a 63-yard gain. Two plays later Barber scored to give the Cowboys an 11-point lead.
In the fourth quarter, on third-and-7 from the Dallas 35, Romo zinged a pretty ball to Witten (seven catches, 67 yards) over the middle for an 11-yard gain.
Four plays later, on third-and-20 from his own 48, the pocket collapsed around Romo, who slid in the pocket and stepped forward to buy time. As he did, he managed to show Collins a look that compelled the safety to move to the middle of the field. Then, while being sandwiched by a pair of Packers, he released a gorgeous touch pass down the right sideline that Austin caught at the 10 in front of cornerback Tramon Williams and took to the end zone for the game-clinching score.
"It was third-and-20, wasn't it?" Romo asked rhetorically, laughing. "The safety was trying to read my eyes, and I tried to hold him and bring him across the other side as I was drifting right. Once he dipped in, I was able to let it go."
As Austin crossed the goal line, the Lambeau crowd grew so quiet, Romo could practically hear the people in his personal cheering section roaring their approval. Meanwhile, in NFL cities across the country, players and coaches watching on TV were thinking a uniform thought: Uh oh. The Cowboys ARE for real.
We won't really know if that's true until the kid from Burlington gets another chance to get it done in the postseason. But until then, the man who signs his paychecks is more certain than ever that Romo won't overextend when that challenge comes.
"If it all stopped tomorrow, and there never was another playoff game, tonight was still a great thing," Jones insisted. "Tony got to be a part of a big deal tonight, and it's something he should cherish. Even if someone slipped me a look into the future that said, 'Here, you're going to be a part of the NFC championship game,' I wouldn't even want to look ahead. I just want to enjoy this moment for what it was."
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Two of the qualities that make Gus Frerotte such a perpetually popular teammate (and the 37-year-old quarterback has been on a lot of teams) are a sly sense of humor and a resolute commitment never to take himself too seriously. Both personality traits were on display during the key stretch of the Vikings' 20-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, a game that potentially saved Minnesota's season. With the Vikings in the midst of an 11 minute, 34-second drive (the second longest in team history) that bridged the third and fourth quarters, one which ended with Ryan Longwell's 32-yard field goal that put Minnesota up by 10, Frerotte started goofing on his gassed offensive linemen. "I've never seen five linemen so tired," Frerotte recalled. "We had the ball for like 22 plays (19 official plays and three nullified by penalties), and I was trying to joke with them in the huddle: 'Come on, man, I'm 10 years older than you, and I'm not even tired.' But they just glared back at me. They couldn't even breathe, much less appreciate the joke." The Vikes' 0-2 start was no laughing matter, and coach Brad Childress is hoping the unflappable quarterback can help pull his team out of it. Frerotte, who had decided to retire last spring before the Vikings called seeking a backup, was elevated to the starting lineup ahead of the struggling Tarvaris Jackson – a move Childress said was for the rest of the season. "That really surprised me," Frerotte said Sunday night as he sat alone in the house he's renting in Minneapolis while his wife, Annie, and their three children stay in the family's suburban St. Louis residence. "When he made the move, I was kind of expecting one game. But when he said it was for the rest of the season, it kind of gives you some confidence. You know that not every mistake you make is going to get you yanked out, and that allows you to go out there and play a lot more freely."
• Joey Porter doesn't think of himself as a trash-talker; rather, he considers himself a realist, one of the few people in his profession who tells reporters what he's actually thinking, a philosophy he enunciated quite forcefully in a cover story I wrote on him for Sports Illustrated's NFL preview issue two years ago. So when the Dolphins linebacker known to his friends as "Peezy" proclaimed last week that playing against new Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel "shouldn't be that hard" and that "it'll be good to go out there and get our first victory," I figured it was a sign that he might be healthy enough to start recapturing his old Steelers form. True to his nature, Porter managed to get himself further psyched up during warmups by taking offense to what he said was an infringement of Miami's pregame territory by New England's kicker, punter and some coaches. No one does gratuitous rage like Peezy. Now, I'm not saying Porter was the main reason the Dolphins rolled to a 38-13 upset of the Pats at Gillette Stadium, Miami's second win in its last 22 games (and New England's second defeat in its last 22). But the man did have three sacks, and he was basically right about how Cassel stacks up next to the injured Tom Brady. I hope to hear him speaking the truth – and see him making a real impact on the field – in the weeks ahead.
• OK, Eagles fans – your heroes finally have my attention. On Friday I said I would be skeptical about Philly until it defeated a team I considered to be legitimate, which the Eagles did quite forcefully in a 15-6 victory over the Steelers on Sunday. This battle for Pennsylvania bragging rights was as rugged as the ongoing competition between the Democrats and Republicans for the state's 21 electoral votes, and the home team hit hardest. Pennsylvania is now officially a black-and-blue state: The Eagles had nine sacks, a total that could have been even higher against a quarterback less mobile and savvy than Ben Roethlisberger. After giving up 41 points in that Monday night defeat to Dallas, my sense is the Philly defenders got a little riled up while breaking down film of that game a couple of days later. Now all the Eagles have to do is keep it going and fight their way out of football's toughest division. Next up: Quarterback Donovan McNabb goes home to Chicago to face the Bears Sunday night in what should be another very physical game.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Charles (Peanut) Tillman is a very good football player. But on Sunday the Bears' cornerback acted like someone with a peanut-sized brain, and I have a feeling he'll spend the rest of the season trying desperately to make up for it. Chicago had just stopped Tampa Bay deep in its own territory in overtime, with the Bucs facing a fourth-and-7 from their own 10, when tackle Jeremy Trueblood began beating on a Bears player under the pile. Trueblood should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, but instead the official whistled the personal foul on Tillman, who dove onto the pile to retaliate. That gave the Bucs a first down at their 25, and nine plays later Matt Bryant was kicking a game-winning field goal that pushed Tampa Bay to 2-1 and dropped the Bears to 1-2. Chicago has now blown double-digit leads two weeks in a row, and this one was a crusher. Now, instead of trying to take extra-curricular shots at his opponents, I suspect Peanut will be beating up on himself.
• After Sunday, it's official: The two worst teams in the NFL play in Missouri. Given the decrepit condition of the Rams and Chiefs, most fans in the Show Me State are saying, "Show me a real football team." So, which 0-3 outfit is worse? You make the call. The Rams, after getting blown out by previously winless Seattle on Sunday, have lost 16 of their last 19 games and have been outscored 116-29 this season. They have the league's second-lowest-ranked offense (behind the Browns) and the worst statistical defense. It's a no-brainer, right? Not so fast: On Sunday the Chiefs lost their 12th consecutive game – it has been 11 months since their last victory. New quarterback Tyler Thigpen completed one of his first 10 passes for minus-1 yard with an interception, and Kansas City got rolled by the Falcons 38-14. Plus, the Chiefs' one supposed "good" loss, a seven-point setback at New England in the season opener, started looking a whole lot worse after the way the Dolphins destroyed the Pats in Foxborough. This intrastate showdown for supreme awfulness will play out over the next few months, but right now I'd have to give the crown to St. Louis. At least the Chiefs are blatantly rebuilding. The Rams have no idea what they're doing.
• Mike Tomlin is a very good coach who will continue to get better, but Sunday wasn't a banner afternoon for the Steelers' second-year mentor and his staff. Pittsburgh had no answer for the constant pressure on Roethlisberger – some screens, draws or quick drops on pass plays might have come in handy. Then there was the odd decision to go for it on fourth-and-10 at the Philly 22 with 37 seconds left and the Eagles up 15-6. A field goal and a successful onside kick seemed to be the more plausible scenario for victory, albeit an unlikely one, but Tomlin instead called for a pass play that fell incomplete. When asked afterward by reporters whether he regretted not having gone for the field goal, Tomlin answered, "Absolutely not. We did not move the ball consistently enough to say that had we kicked the field goal and got the onside kick we could get down there again. We were down there, we were going to take our shots." Speaking of taking shots, next Monday night the Ravens, who have a half-game lead over the Steelers in the AFC North, come to Heinz Field. Baltimore's defense is capable of applying similar pressure on the quarterback. It's on Tomlin and his staff to come up with some viable counter moves.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How 34 years after its release, some of my friends and I can still recall every single line from the movie "Blazing Saddles" – and laugh at those lines every single time.
2. Why the replay official didn't review Amani Toomer's terrific sideline catch that set up the Giants' winning field goal in a 26-23 overtime victory over the Bengals. I'm pretty sure that Toomer got his feet down inbounds on his 31-yard reception, but in the wake of the Ed Hochuli Fiasco at Invesco, why wouldn't the replay official, who has full responsibility for deciding which plays to review in overtime, at least stop the game and took a look? I give Giants quarterback Eli Manning credit for rushing his teammates up to the line and quickly snapping the ball to ensure that a review wouldn't be possible. But a vigilant replay official wouldn't have let Manning get away with such a maneuver.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
As fate would have it, Barack Obama will hold a campaign event in Green Bay on Monday, and I plan to be there at the Resch Center at noon to hear him speak. For a non-high-roller who lives in California, getting to see a presidential candidate in person is an exceptionally rare treat – and seeing Obama will serve as yet another reminder that the electoral college system is absolutely ridiculous. Before I begin the diatribe, let's get the partisan issues out of the way: Yes, I was crushed when Al Gore lost the 2000 election despite winning the popular vote, and no, I won't temper my celebration in the least if John McCain captures the popular vote in November but is defeated in the electoral college. But rest assured that I object to the system as a matter of principle.
First of all, I'm sick of hearing about how the founding fathers designed the system as a way of giving a voice to people outside of the main population centers and thus it is a better way to elect a president. Uh, no – it isn't. Under the current setup, unless you live in a battleground state, you are essentially ignored. It's true that if the winner were determined by the popular vote, the candidates would spend less time in mid-sized Ohio cities and more in major urban areas, but I also believe that a smart campaign would try to be inclusive of voters all over this great nation. And if some people in remote areas felt ignored? Well, so what. Everyone gets a vote! If you live on a farm in Alaska, your vote counts the same as if you live in a Manhattan high-rise – and that's beautiful. One person, one vote is the most pure and democratic system ever created; one that decides who rules every other democracy that I've ever heard of in modern times. But it's not good enough for us? How can that be? Any argument to the contrary strikes me as utterly illogical. Everyone gets a vote, the votes are all counted, and the person who gets the most votes, wins. Period. The only argument I can possibly make in favor of keeping the electoral college is that it makes my election night more entertaining. And that's just not good enough.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Are you effing kidding me? Picking Miami to beat New England? I realize, through reading your garbage in the past, that you clearly have a problem with New England, in general, and the Patriots, in particular; but after the Patriots soundly defeated the 'Super Bowl contender' Jets at home, now you seriously expect the Patriots to lose, AT HOME, to the Dolphins? Come on …"
– Email from Artie Fufkin from Nashua, N.H. (And whatever his real name is, he should be assuming the same position as that of Paul Shaffer's timeless 'Spinal Tap' record exec after what went down in Foxborough on Sunday.)