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Freeze Frame: The Man In The Arena Pt. 2

“His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The date is December 23rd, 2012. The Dallas Cowboys are playing for what they believe to be (but will later find out is not) their playoff lives. Tony Romo has led a scoring drive, starting with 4:45 left to play, down 14 points, to bring Dallas to within one score (see part 1 here). The defense holds up well enough and Dallas gets the ball back, having used all of its timeouts on the defensive stand. 1:29 to go, 1st and 10 on their own 36-yard line, seven points down.

Could Tony Romo lead a rough group of guys 64 yards to a score? A tall order.

A Huge Start

In the preceding post, I described a play as "a nicely designed pass in the flats to Demarco Murray". They opened this drive with the same basic play. As the three WRs and Jason Witten all threaten deep, all but Kevin Ogletree drawing some variation of double coverage, Demarco Murray leaks through the middle of the field and Romo hits him near the sideline with very little in his way.

You can see here the giant space cleared out for Murray, Romo holds the ball to let the DBs get deeper and allow Murray to get closer to the sideline.

Unfortunately Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree do little to get in the way of their respective DBs and Murray is only able to gain 22 yards before going out of bounds.

The Senator Has The Floor

No Romo retrospective would be complete without featuring the gentleman from Tennessee, the Honorable Jason Witten. The Saints deploy a Cover Two and Dez Bryant and Miles Austin occupy both safeties with deep in-breaking routes. Ogletree, meanwhile, runs a short crossing route as a safety valve. But Romo knows he has Witten on a LB in man and this is duck soup. Witten is basically running a pivot route here.

You can see Witten alone in the middle of the field, the LB close at hand as he moves to the outside.

And then stops and floats back inside. It’s like Maverick in Top Gun: "I’ll hit the brakes and he’ll fly right by." The circle now emphasizes the amount of space Witten has created with his (supposedly non-existent) change of direction skills. It’s worth noting that the ball is out here, and that is a good thing as you can see the blob of players in the offensive backfield, Romo somewhere in the middle.

From the end zone view you can get a true feeling for the room Witten gives Romo to throw into here. The gain is 19 yards.

But here the drive bogs down. With no time outs, Romo has to spike the ball. Then he misses Dwayne Harris on the right sideline and overthrows a tight window to Witten in the end zone. There are 21 seconds left in the game. It’s 4th and 10 on the New Orleans 19. The season hangs, for the moment, on this play.

The Final Countdown

Dez, of course, draws the mandated double coverage in the red zone. No way in this key situation will the Saints allow Witten to run without brackets either. Dwayne Harris is running a short crossing route but it is not really an option with 10 yards needed for the first. Miles Austin has a deep corner.

Did you read it like Romo? Dez has drawn the double. Witten is bracketed on the seam. Harris is out leveraged and moves toward the end zone. Demarco Murray is all alone in the blue circle and waving frantically but Romo and the Saints both know that he is unlikely to get the first from there and even if he does he’s only bought Dallas one more play. But Miles Austin has his man alone and has leverage to the outside. As you can see from the picture, Romo is letting the ball go at this point in time.

And once again his anticipation and accuracy are top notch. He’s thrown Austin open to the leverage side. Austin would go to the ground making the catch but no one really had a chance to stop this play. Bailey splits the uprights and the score is tied.

Romo had brought the team back from a bigger deficit in less time than Staubach’s famous master piece of 1979. An incredible performance under immense late-season pressure, with Dallas, the Giants, and the Redskins all tied coming in to this game at 8-6. It was a moment where the team and its fans for a moment knew "the triumph of high achievement". It was a comeback for the ages.

But, as with so much of Romo’s career, the glory was meant to be pushed aside and forgotten. This game would become just another point in the confirmation bias-laced narrative of "Romo in December." After leading one of the greatest comebacks the team would ever have, Romo would also taste of shortcoming and feel the backhanded, little discussed but often experienced outcome of "daring greatly".

The Finale

Romo's comeback got the game to overtime. Dallas would get the ball first and open well enough with an 11-yard pass to Jason Witten. Demarco Murray then got stopped at the line for no gain and Witten made a short catch for fiveyards. It was 3rd and 5, at the Dallas 36. New Orleans plays a robber style coverage as the safety comes up to jump Witten’s route. The other safety must rotate over to cover that end of the field. Romo sees all of this and knows he has Dez in man coverage, with inside leverage, running a slant.

This is easy pickings. Candy from a baby. Look at the nice window Dez has. An easy first down and maybe a whole bunch more if he can turn upfield quickly enough.

Romo is throwing the ball to the circled spot but notice Dez here. For some reason he has stopped his route. He’s not quitting on it, but rather seems to expect Romo to throw the ball outside here, and he sits down, leaving the slant unfinished.

My guess is that he misread the coverage and thought the safety on his side would be in support. Maybe he was supposed to do that and Romo’s throw was errant, but it looked to me like Dez stopped his route short. Dez lunges at the ball, but with his momentum stopped, is unable to get there. The ball falls incomplete. 4th down.

Dallas would never get the ball again. As has happened so many times, Romo would sit on the sideline, possibly guiltless and certainly having played near perfection, and watch the other team put the game away. This should have been a great moment in Cowboys history. It ended up being another forgotten game, generally only brought up as part of a list of Romo losses in December or 8-8 Cowboys mediocrity. The next game, the Jim Haslett defense of the Redskins would play lots of A-gap blitzes and robber coverages, wreaking havoc on the weak Dallas interior line (and leading directly to the drafting of Travis Frederick in the first round of 2013) and on Romo’s throwing. It also affected his reputation, causing some kid... a freshman QB with just 29 attempts to his name... to tweet "I'm DONE taking up for Romo #hadenough". Needless to say, he was not done at all, as he has done so as recently as this week.

And there it is. Romo was never the critic, but always had to listen to them. Romo was never afraid to fall short, because he knew all effort comes with error and shortcoming. He dared greatly, so that his place will never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Or, as Kipling put it (with credit to the genius of Rhodri2112)

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise

... If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And- -which is more- -you'll be a Man, my son!

Thank you, #9, for showing how it’s supposed to be done.

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