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Tony Romo's retirement puts Cowboys coach Jason Garrett in nearly impossible spot

·NFL columnist
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For the Dallas Cowboys, the worst-case scenario of cutting Tony Romo ended with the best possible outcome.

Romo is off the Cowboys’ roster and the salary-cap adjustment is under way. And to the delight of team owner Jerry Jones and many others inside the walls of the franchise, he’s not shacking up with the Houston Texans or grabbing the keys to the Denver Broncos’ offense. The anxiety attack that could have been – Romo falling into the lap of another Super Bowl contender – has been averted.

But this isn’t over. Not by a long shot. Not with a player of Romo’s stature. Not inside segments of a deeply loyal fan base. And certainly not for coach Jason Garrett, who probably needs this whole thing to pan out more than anyone in the franchise.

Jason Garrett on Tony Romo:
Jason Garrett on Tony Romo: “It has been one of the great privileges of my life to work with Tony Romo, one of the greatest players in Dallas Cowboys history.” (AP)

Lost in the will-he-or-won’t-he talk of this week’s soft retirement is this: Romo’s benching ultimately triggered the series of events that culminated in all of this. Garrett could have given Romo an opportunity to regain the Dallas starting job last season. He could have appealed to Jones for one final run with the veteran. But he didn’t. Now Romo is “99 percent” retired and Dallas is completely and undeniably Dak Prescott’s team.

That alone puts immense pressure on Garrett next season.

Of course, none of this is meant to suggest Garrett and Dallas made the wrong decision in moving toward Prescott. As a rookie, Prescott’s growth and demeanor was nothing short of amazing. He earned the right to be the Dallas starter. Even Romo grudgingly had to admit that. But Garrett played a sizable role in all this – the Romo-to-Prescott transition. And with Romo officially out of the picture, there is a subtext that remains. That subtext is this: Garrett and the Cowboys had better not slip in 2017.

Not after this fairly awkward and somewhat disjointed end with Romo. Not with the ability to second-guess all of this being so easy. Fair or not, that’s the storm cloud that will either vanish or get exponentially bigger next season, all predicated on whether Dallas and Prescott take a step forward.

That’s the deal Dallas has embraced with this outcome – the pressure of having chosen. One year from now, nobody will care that the Cowboys were 13-3 in Prescott’s rookie year or that the future seemed to have been secured at the quarterback position. Instead, the focus will be very singular: Have the Cowboys gotten better or worse?

If the franchise thrives in 2017, the last chapter of Romo will fade. Everyone will move on, secure in the belief that the right choice was made and there is nothing left to second-guess. Ultimately, the end of the Romo era will be seen as something that unfolded the only way it ever could have – a little painfully, a bit awkwardly, but very necessary.

But there is still a flip side of that coin sure to endure for at least one season. One that promises some pressing questions if Prescott doesn’t take a stride forward. Creeping doubts about whether Romo got the hook as starter too early. Continued speculation about the former Dallas star’s future after he declined to absolutely rule himself out of the NFL. And, of course, questions about Garrett’s culpability for success, failure and player development as head coach. Frankly, there is an argument that some of those questions already exist, particularly after the disappointing playoff loss.

And while he has done nothing but take the high road, I refuse to believe Romo hasn’t already wondered some of those things himself. Regardless of how it all played out publicly, there’s little doubt that this ending came with bruises. It’s a huge credit to Romo that his pain and disappointment at how it ended hasn’t been more evident. If it weren’t for the extremely generous news conference when he stepped aside as the starter – and the months of silence that followed – this whole thing could have been a lot uglier.

Don’t believe that the mostly calm, silent transition of power was uneventful. To do so would be to assume Romo leaves with no regrets or second-guessing. To do so would be to believe that Romo never expressed his desire to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback again. Those are poor assumptions.

Jason Garrett put his chips on Dak Prescott. (AP)
Jason Garrett put his chips on Dak Prescott. (AP)

The reality is that the Cowboys left Romo behind. That’s the cold, hard truth of being an NFL quarterback. A decision like that still lingers, especially if the path forward veers away from what most expect. Right now, the Cowboys and Garrett are expected to take a step forward. If Dallas goes the wrong way, all of this is going to be revisited – if only because Romo’s benching will appear to have led to it.

When asked Tuesday if his “retirement” would still be happening if he was the Dallas starter, Romo suggested it likely wouldn’t.

“I’m guessing, because obviously that didn’t happen,” Romo said. “I thought going into last year that I was going to play for a few years, for sure. But you know, life has a way of changing directions. I think sometimes stuff happens. And you’ve got to get up and go. … You figure it out and you get back to who you are and what your core values are and you go attack whatever that is. You figure it out, you know.”

“I was lucky and fortunate enough to play for a great organization,” Romo continued. “I have no ill will in any capacity. Like I said, stuff happens in life … you gotta go [on]. That’s just kind of what happened last year.”

So Romo goes into a coveted television job. Maybe he never really looks back with regret or disdain. And the Cowboys go on, too. But with far more pressure to make this transition worth the awkwardness. Make no mistake, it’s up to Garrett and the Cowboys to make the awkward end fade, along with the tiny storm cloud it leaves behind.