The play seemed to move in slow motion, like one of those movie scenes when you can sense the outcome and long to jump up to implore the actor not to go down that dark hallway or try to start his car. Before Danny Trevathan had even completed his dive with the ball cradled to his chest, you had a bad feeling about how this would end.
That foreboding is omnipresent when Tony Romo is playing. For almost the duration of his career, you could ask opposing defensive players what the private scouting report on Romo was and you would get the same variation on a theme: Immensely talented, they would all say; capable of making big plays; and susceptible to making terrible mistakes at critical moments.
Romo ticked off all those boxes during the Dallas Cowboys’ 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, in addition to the 506 yards and five touchdowns. But of course the narrative was edited down to that interception, thrown into triple coverage no less, with less than two minutes to play. This is Romo’s fate, to be one of the most maddening, polarizing figures in sports. On Sunday, he was all that.
But really, he is a more complex figure, not fully a hero and certainly not wholly a goat. He is the only quarterback who has gone pass-for-pass with Peyton Manning this season — outplaying Manning, in fact — only to be unable to get out of his own way again, to trip up on the legacy he just can’t seem to bury. He has the NFL’s second-best passer rating, behind only Manning, and Romo’s overall statistics are stellar: a 71.8 completion percentage, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions.
Manning himself likes to say that every interception has its own story, mostly ones that nobody wants to hear. He says that, usually, to absolve quarterbacks from all the blame they get and it might be useful to remember that when considering Romo now. Judging Romo through the prism of his entire career — one playoff victory, many more bad plays in bad moments, the kind of contract extensions reserved for the game’s greatest players — invites frustration. Judging him by looking only at Sunday spawns something else: an invitation to leniency.
Luckily for Romo, that’s the way Dallas owner Jerry Jones wanted to look at things. He is presiding over a mediocre team in a putrid division and he chose to find moral victory in a 51-48 defeat. Jones also helpfully said that he cut defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin some slack, even though the defense has given up 1,023 in the last two weeks.
But back to Manning’s admonition. This interception had a story, too. Romo admitted he wanted to toss it further outside, that he didn’t place the throw where he had hoped. Of course, he should never have been throwing to a terribly inexperienced target, rookie Gavin Escobar, who was surrounded by a trio of defenders. Romo clearly was pressing there, desperate to make a play, the same way he was desperate in last year’s regular-season finale, when the Cowboys trailed the Washington Redskins in the fourth quarter and Romo threw an interception that essentially decided the division.
But Romo also should never have been in the position of having to drive the Cowboys to victory Sunday night. He had unleashed the creative derring-do that makes him a delight to watch, flinging long passes downfield over and over, dazzling with his accuracy and chutzpah. That is the quarterback the Cowboys want, not the conservative one content to take the safe, underneath throws. They need someone who can create, who can take advantage of Dez Bryant. Romo gave his defense 48 points. What proved his undoing — his belief that he could create another play, that he could join the battle with Manning again — is what gave the Cowboys the chance to win in the first place.
Looking for the real scapegoat? There are so many options. Why didn’t Jason Garrett tell his defense to play matador and let the Broncos score late in the game so that Romo would have another chance. Go find Kiffin, whose defense gave up an early 14-0 lead, then a 17-7 lead, and finally the nine-play, 73-yard gut punch by the Broncos that tied the game late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos faced just one third down on that drive, and it came on the touchdown, a third-and-goal from the one. Yes, the Cowboys were facing Manning playing at a level that perhaps no other quarterback has ever attained, but they did not have a sack in 42 pass attempts. They have yielded 30 points in three of their five games. They still have Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers on the schedule.
“The fact that we weren’t able to win when the offense scored 48 points is absolutely unacceptable,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “We have to find a way to be a better defense. Right now, we’re not a good defense. Two weeks in a row, we’ve given up way too many points and way too many yards.”
And there is Romo, too. Great quarterbacks, of course, rise to such critical occasions. They conduct the winning drives, they lead the nine-play, 73-yarders to come from behind. They are smart enough to tell their running back to get the one yard for the first down but not to score, as Manning warned Knowshon Moreno, so that the clock would run down before the Broncos kicked the game-winning field goal. They also sometimes make terrible mistakes, because they press their luck. Manning has had a few of those, too, none more gruesome than the pick-six he threw to Tracy Porter that sealed the Super Bowl XLIV victory for the New Orleans Saints over the Indianapolis Colts.
If there is any comfort for Romo, aside from Jones’ support, it should come from a quick glance across his football-crazed state. There he will see the diminished visage of Matt Schaub, a quarterback so broken that he is now setting records for scoring touchdowns for the other team. For the fourth straight game, Schaub threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown, and he did it on the Texans’ first passing play. Houston never recovered, losing 34-3 to the San Francisco 49ers, and it is safe to start wondering how much longer Schaub and the Texans can go on like this.
Houston has the misfortune of playing in a much tougher division than Dallas currently does, which is why the Texans’ season is already in trouble while the Cowboys are — eureka! — still in first place and probably still best situated to win the NFC East. But Schaub has one thing going for him that Romo does not: He is not the quarterback of “America’s Team,” and so his foibles play out in smaller type and under fewer klieg lights, casting fewer harsh shadows. Schaub and Romo might be the twin villains of Texas football right now, but Romo’s hat is darker. Just like the blots on his résumé.
Sides are being chosen in the renewed debate over Romo, apologist or hater. Manning would warn also that quarterbacks get too much of the credit and too much of the blame. The Cowboys have never embraced subtlety, not with the glitziest stadium and the flashiest cheerleaders and the most captivating owner. But while the Cowboys sift through the wreckage of Sunday’s loss — or maybe adopt Jones’ up-with-people attitude and think of it as a learning experience — maybe we should listen to the wisdom that Manning has acquired and dispensed over his career of making other quarterbacks look ordinary. Every interception has its own story. And aren’t those blemishes sometimes outshone by the sparkle of brilliance?