Six years ago the Dallas Cowboys were heading into the third season under head coach Bill Parcells, with Super Bowl aspirations building pressure for the team before the ball was ever snapped that season. Jerry Jones made a tremendous splash that offseason by signing high-profile and volatile receiver Terrell Owens just four days after his release by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys defense had high hopes as well and it was thought that if the offense could take that proverbial "next step," then this was a team that could become a legitimate contender.
That preseason was an interesting experience, however, as incumbent starter Drew Bledsoe faced serious questions over his mobility and decision-making in key situations. Parcells was supportive of his quarterback publicly and with the media, yet his actions during preseason and training camp raised some eyebrows about just how strong that support truly was in private.
A young quarterback by the name of Tony Romo received extensive playing time that August, showing an arm strength, mobility and youthful energy that many felt were missing from the team with Bledsoe under center. The pressure was building for the idea of Romo to take over as starter at some point, with Peter King saying at the time that Romo could be "the next Tom Brady."
Six years later and Tony Romo has the chance to become the greatest quarterback in Dallas Cowboys history -- at least statistically. The hopes and dreams of this football team rest on his shoulders alone, a pressure felt by many quarterbacks across the NFL but perhaps none more than the pressures that belong to Romo and him alone.
The fall of 2006 was a watershed moment in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. The extensive playing time Romo received in the preseason was a sign of what was to come, as Drew Bledsoe and the Cowboys stumbled their way to a 3-2 record in the first six weeks of the season. Terrell Owens had just one touchdown reception before a big game against Houston and had yet to break the 100-yard mark; it was only a matter of time before his emotions got the better of him.
With the Giants in town, Bledsoe struggled once again. With the Cowboys trailing 12-7 and threatening at the Giants goal-line, Bledsoe threw an interception that killed a possible touchdown drive at the worst possible time. It was a mistake Bledsoe had made several times before and it was one that Bill Parcells could no longer let slide.
It was the last pass of Drew Bledsoe's career.
The emergence of Tony Romo from the locker room after half time was met with an incredible roar from the home crowd, an energy that was instantly killed when Romo was intercepted on the first past of his new career. The game was still within reach when Romo took over as quarterback yet the Cowboys would lose 22-36, with Romo throwing three interceptions and just one touchdown.
Despite the struggles after he was thrown into the lion's den, Romo was named the starting quarterback later that week and the Cowboys never looked back. We all know what has happened since then, with Romo's career being defined by mistakes and near-misses instead of the all of the incredible plays he's managed to make over the years. We forget just how lost this team has been when Romo was missing, how his presence alone gives the Cowboys the chance to beat any team in the NFL on any given night -- if they lose, however, then the blame inevitably falls on Romo's shoulders.
This is the burden of the NFL quarterback, the only position in the sport where wins and losses matter and how many Super Bowl rings you have on your fingers defines your worth as a gunslinging ace behind center. The quarterback is a player who receives too much blame for failure yet too much praise for success, where the accomplishments of the team around him seem to be overshadowed by the most visible and important player on the field.
As we head into tonight's game against the New York Giants, a team that beat the Dallas Cowboys twice last season on their way to winning the Super Bowl, we are once again inundated with comparisons between the teams and the players. With this being the start of the season, national media has also begun their annual team-by-team predictions and as has happened the last few years -- questions about the Cowboys ability to win are being raised.
The rhetoric in these cases is always the same when it comes to Romo; whether he can overcome his costly and timely mistakes so the Cowboys can actually win, whether he'll ever be a "clutch" quarterback and whether the Cowboys will ever win anything meaningful with him at quarterback.
Because of the fact that Eli Manning has won two Super Bowl rings it has become taboo to even suggest that Romo is the better of the two. While it is perhaps unfair to compare the two quarterbacks against one another, the fact remains that the two will always be linked in their careers -- after all, it is the success of one that typically comes at the expense of the other.
In 2007 the Dallas Cowboys were 13-3 and riding the best regular season for the franchise since the glory days of the Aikman, Irvin and Emmitt, and Super Bowl thoughts danced in all our heads. The New York Giants marched into town and destroyed it all on their way to perhaps the most amazing Super Bowl victory in NFL history; Romo struggled mightily that game, completing just half his passes for 200 yards and a season-ending interception on the final play of the game.
What is remembered is his interception at the end of the game. What is forgotten is the incredible play he made in the final minutes to escape pressure and make a perfect pass to Patrick Crayton -- who dropped the ball.
In 2011, the Cowboys controlled their destiny. They needed just one win against the New York Giants to seal their postseason berth and in each game the defense failed the Cowboys miserably. Tony Romo was masterful at times, especially in the first of the two games, yet a costly mis-communication with Miles Austin is all that anyone seems to remember.
Romo's career as a whole can be whittled down to his career against the New York Giants, where perception has become reality. The national pundits love to talk about how Romo has not won a game against the Giants since 2008 and how that, somehow, reflects on his ability as a quarterback for the future. In reality, Romo has played absolutely sensationally against the Giants in all but two games: the first true appearance of his NFL career and the dud of a game that was the first home appearance at Cowboys Stadium.
Here are Romo's regular season stats against the Giants dating back to 2007.
What you don't see in these stats is how many times Romo was sacked (nine times in 2011) or how porous the Cowboys defense was against the Giants or how many leads the Cowboys blew. In 2009 the Cowboys played in one of the most remarkably bad games I've ever seen against one team, yet Romo somehow found a way to put up one of the more incredible performances of his career.
What we don't see is how, after the defense had blown a 12 point lead in the final four minutes of the biggest game of the season, Romo was able to get his team within field goal range with 40 seconds on the clock and no timeouts.
It's the interception in the playoffs that we remember. It's that one missed wide open shot to Miles Austin that sticks in our minds. It's not all of the times that Romo did so much with so little against a superior team only to have the blame fall squarely on his shoulders. He is constantly hounded for his mistakes late in games when the numbers tell us he is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history in the 4th quarter -- better than Manning, Brady, Rodgers and Favre.
Such is the career of Tony Romo and that of a Dallas Cowboys quarterback.
Going back and watching those games from early in Romo's career and you'll see a quarterback that is merely a small percentage of what he has become. While Romo's ability to move in the pocket and create plays on the fly are his trademark, he's become an incredibly successful pocket passer who learns from his mistakes. The problem, of course, is that with his reputation any mistakes at all are magnified while the successes are glossed over.
It's a shame that such a gifted quarterback has not had more around him than he's had in his career. The constant turnover and struggles on the offensive line is something that will haunt the Cowboys for years, especially when it becomes clear just how deadly Romo can be with a clean pocket. The incessant failures of the defense have led to more losses than Romo could ever accumulate on his own, yet it is the quarterback's shortcomings that are mentioned first and above all else.
The Tony Romo of 2012 is now a grizzled and hardened veteran, a far cry from the grinning kid we fell in love with on the sidelines in Carolina just six years ago. The youthful energy that fed life into the team that year is now gone, replaced with a quarterback who demands success from those around him and acknowledges the pressures that rest on his shoulders. A quarterback who plays through pain and injury because he can't stand to sit by while his team is losing.
There were times over the past few years where the internal struggles between the pressures of his position and his natural care-free ways began to show through the cracks; a frustration with the scrutiny that comes with his job over the constant desire for success and the pain of defeat.
There were times over the past few years where we all wondered where the guy that loved football more than anything else had gone, tho guy who inspired creativity and enthusiasm and hope and optimism in a team and fanbase that has had cause for neither in far too long.
What we have now is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, a proven leader who is the absolute key to this team's success yet is still learning how to reign in his mistakes for fear of abject failure. In 2011, Romo seemed to have passed through a test in his life and his career and come out on the other side a changed man -- both on the field and off.
The one hope is that the Cowboys have finally found the right balance in their support of their star quarterback. A defense with a revamped secondary that can hold a fourth quarter lead. An offensive line that no longer puts its quarterback in danger. A running game that, for the first time in Romo's career, gives the Cowboys the balanced offensive attack needed to take some of the pressure off the quarterback.
The Super Bowl is the only place that Tony Romo's career will finally find justification and credibility and yet he has done as much as can be expected to get his team into that coveted game. The Cowboys have made a priority of building a team around him and yet we still don't know if it will ever be enough.
All of these questions we'll begin to get answers to tonight in the rematch against the New York Giants. Tony Romo took an incredible step in his career in 2011 and now all we have left to wonder is: Will the rest of the Dallas Cowboys catch up?