Tony Romo isn’t entering unfamiliar ground when he meets Robert Griffin III’s Redskins in a decisive 16th game for the NFC East crown and a playoff berth Sunday. Throughout his seven-year career, Romo’s been mired in a postseason muck of bad luck, crucial mishaps and facing juggernaut squads who, along their dominating conquests of the Lombardi Trophy, have diminished Romo’s promising Dallas teams to inconsequential footnotes.
Romo’s failures are well documented and stand out on his career resume like a 72 oz. Texas steak in a vegetarian buffet. The stakes are high for all the players involved in this game. Mike Shanahan’s trying to get the 'Skins to the playoffs for the first time in his rocky three-year tenure. RG3 is trying to make history. Jason Garrett needs a playoff win, almost as bad as Jerry Jones needs to take a chill pill. Romo, however, stands to benefit or suffer the most. Romo racked up a career-high 4,685 yards this season, and he’s running out of Cowboys’ records to break. It’s do-or-die time for the baby-faced assassin to break bread on a Super Bowl.
Romo stormed the scene as an undrafted diamond-in-the-rough, drawing comparisons to Joe Montana. One win and three ugly playoff losses later, Romo’s back is against the wall. A win on Sunday could be the difference between Romo being likened to Super Bowl-winning bosses like Montana or being labeled as the next ringless stats king, Dan Fouts.
The similarities between Romo and Fouts are evident. Both earned multiple Pro Bowl selections and are among the top five statistical QBs of their respective eras. Both are fearless gunslingers that have also battled injuries and media criticism.
If you compare the peak years of both QBs (peak being the strongest four-year statistical period of their careers, combined with their team’s overall chances of winning a Super Bowl during that period) it’s clear both QBs share immense talent and leadership ability. They also share ill-timed lapses in judgment and played for teams that were gifted, but lacking in mental toughness and certain vital skill areas.
From 1979-82 Fouts was at the apex of his Hall of Fame career. The Bearded Bomber averaged 4,121 yards passing, a 60.7 completion percentage, 26 TDs and 19 picks. These stats include the '82 strike-shortened season where he only played nine games, but still led the NFL in most statistical passing categories.
With Fouts steering the Chargers' super-dope “Air Coryell” offense, San Diego led the league in total passing yards and total offense from 1979 to 1983, and again in 1985. Fouts, wide receiver Charlie Joiner and revolutionary tight end Kellen Winslow would all be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Romo’s stats favor Fouts’, and when taking eras into consideration, (Romo plays in a modern passing NFL that emphasizes deception, quick routes, precision and ball protection) the two were twin-hype. Romo averaged 3,945 passing yards in the ‘06, ‘07, ‘09, and ’11 seasons. His completion percentage was 64.8% and he averaged 28 TDs and 13 picks over that period.
Romo also had explosive receivers in Miles Austin, Terrell Owens and Dez Bryant, as well as one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends in history, Jason Witten. Like Fouts, who only had stellar running back Chuck Muncie for a few seasons, Romo’s ground game has never been lethal. Romo hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Julius Jones’ rookie season in '06. The lack of ball-out rushers was one of the main differences between Fouts’ Chargers, Romo’s Cowboys and the playoff squads they lost to.
Another glaring similarity is the playoff failures of both talented teams. The Chargers peak as a team coincided with the dominance of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” Super Bowl teams. In 1979, the Chargers were nasty on both sides of the ball. In 1980, ‘81 and ‘82, the breaks didn’t go their way.
It was San Diego’s horrid turnover differential of 19-4 in their playoff losses that impeded them. If they protected the ball, they may have had a couple of chances at the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game for Super bowls XIII and XIV. Fouts had two playoffs games where he threw five interceptions and threw an interception in six of his seven-playoff appearances.
In 1981, bad luck struck the high-powered Charger attack as they were forced to play in the -9 degree weather of the “Freezer Bowl” AFC Championship game. They lost the turnover battle 4-1, and the game 27-7, to the Cincinnati Bengals. Seven more turnovers against Miami’s “Killer B’s” defense in 1982 ended Fouts’ hopes for a chip.
Tony Romo and Dallas can relate to the heartache. They’ve also been good, but unlucky. Dallas has played second- fiddle to elite squads like the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Romo, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, must be wondering, “ What in the LeBron James do I have to do to get some love?”
He has to win it all, not just a couple of playoff rounds. The legends find a way to get it done. In Romo’s case, he’s constantly reminded of this and has been raked over the coals for his late-game funks and turnover follies.
His most infamous fourth-quarter ass-out occurred during Dallas’ ’06-season NFC wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks. Romo botched the hold on a 19-yard field goal attempt that would have clinched the game. In the 2007 divisional playoffs, Dallas had the ball with less than 30 seconds left and trailing the eventual Super Bowl champ Giants 21-17, but Romo threw an end zone pick to lose it. Romo’s most recent playoff failure was in 2009 season when he fumbled three times in a 34-3 playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. It further cemented growing questions about how he performed in the clutch.
So here, Romo sits – once again – with a chance to be more than just Dandy Don Meredith or Dan Fouts. Dallas hasn’t made the playoffs in two seasons. In pursuing his insatiable thirst for glory, Jerry Jones spares no coin and treats his players with the delicacy of newborn babies. The Cowboys’ community clearly thinks playtime is over. Romo’s records are cool. The models and actresses he smashes are a definite plus. The historical brilliance and glamour of the Silver Star keeps his street cred in tact, despite late season slumps. But, if Romo wants to avoid being the brunt of “close but no cigar” jokes, then he needs to win this game on Sunday and go on a playoff run that will allow him to breathe, stop and finally show the world what he got.