For Tony Romo, Criticism & Pressure Will End Only With A Super Bowl

In all my time as a Dallas Cowboys fan I don't think I can ever recall such a polarizing player as Tony Romo has become. It's amazing to me when I talk to Cowboys fans around Dallas, around Texas and around the United States that when the subject of Romo comes up, the majority seem to get frustrated and state how they don't feel the Cowboys will ever do anything significant with him as the quarterback of the team. Generally, it's the first thing that is mentioned after a mutual love of the Cowboys is discovered.

When I ask this person why they feel this way, the answer is usually non-committal. "I don't know, it's just a feeling I have," is a good way to sum up the responses. "I just don't think he takes the game seriously," is another.

These are the most prevalent thoughts in the heads of the everyday Dallas Cowboys fans, the ones who don't obsess over the team on a day in and day out basis and who sit in the stands during games and wonder why Terrell Owens doesn't get another shot in Dallas (these people exist, believe me). These are the people who buy the jerseys, who spend money on merchandise and tickets to games and the ones that make this team the most popular organization in the NFL.

Above all, these are the people that want nothing more than to win and for most of them, time is running out on the life of Tony Romo as the quarterback of this team. What's incredible to learn is that the everyday fan is not the only one with this opinion; in fact, there are several national media types who are starting to beat the "is this the final shot for Romo" drum.

This is when my blood begins to boil and I start to wonder two things, "Do people really think Tony Romo is the only thing holding this team back? Do they even remember the time before 2006?"

Last week, as it normally happens around the Cowboys as a new season approaches, articles were written about Tony Romo and his shortcomings as a quarterback and whether he could finally lead the Dallas Cowboys to glory. Troy Aikman chimed in as well, with Rich Gannon and Babe Laufenberg joining the party. Here's a rundown of the festivities:

Last week, Jon Sacaceno of USA Today penned a piece entitled "Cowboys' Romo seeks career moment", which brought up all of the shortcomings of Romo's career -- including the Cowboys record of 1-3 in the postseason since he became the starting quarterback in 2006. There were two very interesting quotes in the article, including Rich Gannon saying that Romo needs to be more demanding of his teammates and Babe Laufenberg stating that Romo does not project himself properly as a competitive quarterback.

The article, of course, mentions how Romo has been labeled throughout his career as a quarterback incapable of taking "that next step" -- winning in the postseason and leading his team to the Super Bowl. It also mentions the perception that Romo doesn't care about winning, based on the fact that he dated a celebrity and plays golf. 

Around the same time, Troy Aikman went on the air on the radio around Dallas and amidst some very interesting comments about Skip Bayless laid down this gauntlet about this season for the Dallas Cowboys:

"It's a group that's been together for a while and I just don't think you can plan on keeping this core together, which they've been able to do. If they don't do it this year, I think it's going to be hard for them to move forward."

Those comments led the ESPN First Take team -- not the most respectable show, I know -- to start debating the points that Aikman made. This, of course, led to the debate as to whether this all boiled down to Tony Romo and whether this season was his one final shot.

Since then, debates have started anew as to whether Tony Romo is on the hot seat. Apparently, Jason Garrett is as well, and this season has suddenly turned into a "make it or break it" season where unless this team makes it at least to the NFC Championship Game, then obviously all hope is lost and Jerry Jones needs to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Obviously, the Dallas Cowboys have no breathing room whatsoever and who cares what the plan for the future might be, they must win and win now and if not then why not just blow the whole thing up?

I'll leave the debate about Jason Garrett and his plans for this team to another debate. That's an entirely separate discussion but I think there are some very salient connections to how fans and the media feel about Tony Romo, and his legacy as a Dallas Cowboys quarterback and the pressures that rest on his shoulders.

All of this starts with the perception of the NFL quarterback in general. Other than starting pitchers in baseball and goaltenders in hockey, no other position in sports has a team's win-loss record tied directly to a player's performance. When talking about quarterbacks, the media and fans will refer to how many wins and losses a player might have as a starter and how their teams have fared in the regular season and the playoffs. 

What's interesting, however, is that this is not an official statistic for the position. If you go to Tony Romo's NFL.com profile page, you're not going to find his win-loss record as a starter. Nor with any other position in football. This is because the quarterback, while inherently vital to a team's success, is not the lone factor in whether a team wins or loses -- just like any linebacker, kicker, offensive lineman or safety. 

Yet a quarterback's win-loss record is cited endlessly during games and by the media and fans. This is something that's held against Tony Romo as well, noting that his teams are just 1-3 in the postseason. This record, apparently, is what is holding Romo back from being "truly great" and from adding his name to the list of all-time great quarterbacks who have ever taken the field in the NFL. This rationalization is insanely flawed, however.

Think back to those three losses in the playoffs. A loss in Seattle that had fumbles by receivers, a conservative offensive game plan and a defense that failed to stop the Seahawks after the botched field goal when there was still plenty of time on the clock. The loss to the Giants was due to a leaky defense and horrendously bad special teams, as well as an offensive line incapable of staying onsides or being able to stop a ferocious pass rush. Against Minnesota, an overly-confident football team failed in every single area of the football game -- I don't care if Tony Romo played a perfect game, there was no way the Cowboys were going to win.

Those three losses in the postseason hurt, especially the loss in 2007 to the Giants. Yet that 1-3 record will never be attached to DeMarcus Ware -- who is apparently untouchable and can never do any wrong, despite playing on the same defenses that fell apart in those three games. That 1-3 record will never go against Jason Witten, who is arguably just as integral to the success of this team as anyone else.

Perhaps an elite, Peyton-Manning-level quarterback would have been able to win those games. I don't doubt that Manning, who is likely to go down as the best quarterback to ever play the game, would have been able to do a bit more than Tony Romo. This is an argument that is actually made in some circles, that if only the Cowboys had a quarterback like Manning or Brady or Rodgers then things would be different.

There are about 25 teams across the NFL that feel the exact same way. There should be absolutely no shame in having a quarterback that isn't on the same level as two of the best players to ever play the game. What that rationalization is, however, is a lazy excuse to ignore the rest of the team and the rest of the shortcomings of these Dallas Cowboys over the years and lay it all on Tony Romo's shoulders.

The fact is that quarterbacks always have been and always will be judged based on the success of the teams they play for. With the exception of a few, teams generally will never find their way to the Super Bowl with a bad quarterback under center. There's just no way a team can be that successful with a bad player at that position. Of course, the same could be said for many other positions on the field as well and if you look at the championship teams over the past two decades I bet you'll find teams that are full of great players who all came together with one goal and played tremendously -- as a team.

Is Tony Romo a perfect quarterback? No, he isn't. There's never going to be any argument from me that Romo isn't frustrating as hell at times. What I do know, however, is that Romo has put this team in a position to win more consistently than any other quarterback that played for this team from about 1997 to 2006. During that time, the Cowboys employed Quincy Carter, Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Drew Henson, Clint Stoerner, and many others at quarterback. Troy Aikman was under center for a number of those bad years as well.

In fact, Aikman is a perfect example of how it takes more than just a great quarterback to be successful. By the time 1996 rolled around, the Cowboys were falling apart and Aikman's numbers fell off precipitously. His completion percentage fell below 60% and the Cowboys struggled overall as a team. There was plenty of criticism going around, some of it pointed at Aikman, but the fact remains that he received a bit of a free pass then and now because of the successes of the team in the early '90's.

Imagine how different Romo's legacy would be if the Cowboys defense and special teams hadn't imploded against the Giants in 2007? How different things might be if Patrick Crayton didn't mentally self destruct during two crucial plays. Factors out of Romo's control, yet still held against him for the rest of his career.

For all the importance of the NFL quarterback, the fact remains that it's the success of the team as a whole that determines the wins and the losses. Peyton Manning (9-10 record in postseason, by the way) never would have won that Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears if the Colts defense didn't suddenly decide to play stout against the run. Eli Manning has a miraculous catch by David Tyree to thank, otherwise he's known as the Quarterback Who Made The Most Boneheaded Throw Ever In Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers had an incredible defense and a suddenly potent offensive line. Ben Roethlisberger has the incredible finger tip catches of Santonio Holmes and some poor officiating to thank for the rings on his fingers.

All of these quarterbacks are tremendous and some are the best in the NFL right now. Yet they all were able to win based not just on their own great play, but on the great play of the rest of their team as well. This all circles back to the pressure that now rests on Tony Romo's shoulders -- apparently -- for this specific season, how if the Cowboys don't find deep postseason success then perhaps it's time to start thinking about moving on.

Now, no team will ever be successful without great quarterback play. Tony Romo does need to play the best football of his career this season for the Cowboys to exceed expectations of what some feel will be a mediocre season for this team. At the same time, however, it's not all on Romo's shoulders. This defense needs to find a way to stop teams from scoring points -- something that didn't happen last season -- and the kicking game needs to find some sort of solution. 

To put forth the notion that it's all on Tony Romo, however, is absurd. What is interesting about the argument is that everyone turns to non-quantifiable evidence that he just doesn't have what it takes to get it done. That he isn't vocal enough for the team to really be successful, that he doesn't grab a face mask enough and give a teammate a stern talking to. That he wears his hat backwards, which obviously means he doesn't care and therefore won't ever be good enough. You know who else wears his hat backwards?

81155_nfl_super_bowl_football_medium_medium

Yeah, that guy. The Super Bowl MVP.

Other than the argument that he commits too many turnovers, there is no real evidence that Romo can't get it done if he too has a great team around him. Even that argument is outdated, as over the past three years Romo has vigorously worked to improve his turnover numbers. Unknown to many, I'm certain, is the fact that despite fumbling the ball a staggering 32 times in his first 39 games Romo has fumbled just six times in the past 22 games -- including none in 2010. 

There's an argument about his emotions, about his ability to get fired up on the sideline like every other great "field general". The fact that this just isn't Romo's personality will never matter, because people want to see visual evidence of leadership; just witness the reaction to Jon Kitna last season when people came to the conclusion that he was a better quarterback than Romo because he leapt around and yelled a lot more.

Never mind the fact that Romo was once that guy as well, the smiling and fun-loving quarterback that inspired his teammates with his enthusiasm and love of the game. After that didn't work however, suddenly what made Romo so likable and great is what makes him so frustrating -- and you could see this pressure to no longer have fun affect his play on the field. Fortunately, as Romo has grown older and matured as a person so has his approach to football.

If anyone ever questions his desire to win and his leadership on the field, just direct them to a couple of videos of Romo mic'd up during a game -- like last year's loss to the New York Giants.

The truth remains that no matter what is argued, fair or unfair, Tony Romo is going to be judged based on the success of the Dallas Cowboys as a whole. Even though it is clear the team is entering into a bit of an uncertain year with the team keeping a close on building for the future, the pressure is going to be squarely on his shoulders to produce some postseason success.

For many people, this means that Romo will have to find a way to do it all by himself -- for him to pick this team up and carry it on his shoulders, despite evidence to the contrary that even the best quarterbacks in the game need a great team around them. Cowboys fans, forever locked into an all-or-nothing mentality, will settle for nothing less than absolute glory and if that glory is not found soon -- then it will all be Tony Romo's fault.

What's unfortunate is that this Dallas Cowboys team, undergoing some significant change by head coach Jason Garrett, is likely a year or two out from likely being able to really compete for a serious playoff run. Too much fat had to be trimmed from the disappointments of the Wade Phillips years and Garrett is going to need some time to mold this team to his liking. During that time, Romo will be getting older and the pressure on him to bring glory back to Dallas will be ever-present.

He knows this, however, and he accepts it. So do his teammates:

"There is a chip (on his shoulder) - absolutely," Witten says. "He wants to play at a high level, not just (be remembered) for a hot streak for a couple of years. He does not welcome criticism. But he accepts it. At the end of the day, it is all about whether he can win a championship. Until that happens, he will be criticized across the board."

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