Fourth down and 10?
Truth be told, it was fourth down and the season.
The Dallas Cowboys were perched on the proverbial ledge, staring into the abyss of another wasted season. In true Hollywood fashion, they were down to their last bullet, their last tango, their last snap.
A game-winning, season-saving touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal from the 10? With just 68 seconds left? Are you kidding me?
Even Owner Jones had begun to fear the worst.
“I had started thinking about the alternative,” Jones said, after his Cowboys’ rise-from-the-grave, 24-23 final-minute win over the lowly Washington Redskins.
Jerry didn’t elaborate, but that “alternative” was roundly assumed to include widespread community angst, barking media dogs and, perhaps, a coaching firing, or two or three.
Instead, quarterback Tony Romo trampolined from what likely was the worst quarter of his NFL career to one of his most memorable ones.
“It felt like an elimination game for us,” Romo assessed, after he had generaled the Cowboys 87 yards in nine plays for the winning touchdown.
Twice during come-from-behind, fourth-quarter scoring drives, Romo was able to dance away from the pass rush and extend plays long enough to find a secondary receiver.
It was clutch. It was desperately impressive. It was Romo, though his back was ailing him, being Romo.
For the third year in a row, the Cowboys have their playoff fate in their own hands as they head into the final weekend of the regular season. Beat the Philadelphia Eagles at home Sunday night, and the NFC East title is all theirs.
“That was a big win, as big a win as we’ve had,” said Romo, who threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
Across the hall from where Romo spoke, the Cowboys’ locker room at FedEx Field seemed to flow with equal amounts of Christmas joy and unconfessed relief. It was hard to ignore the fact that the Redskins have the worst record in the NFC and brought a six-game losing streak into Sunday’s contest.
It was even harder to overlook that the Cowboys found themselves trailing those same Redskins by nine points entering the fourth quarter. Romo himself had been roundly outplayed at that point by Washington stand-in quarterback Kirk Cousins.
One urgent drive, though, and the Cowboys felt they could be back in the football game.
“We work the same situation in practice every single week,” receiver Terrance Williams said. “We knew that if we got just one stop, we were going to come down and score.”
He was right. Midway in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys’ defense stopped the Redskins for the first time in the second half. Romo and the Cowboys, trailing by six points, took over at their own 13-yard line wth 3:39 left on the clock.
A 51-yard pass play to Williams, followed by a 17-yard catch by Dez Bryant, and the Cowboys were at the Washington 4-yard line.
The 51-yarder, as well as the game-winning pass to DeMarco Murray, were made possible by Romo escaping the pass rush.
“We have the type of quarterback who can keep plays alive like that,” said Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley. “He’s not the fastest guy in the world, but he’s really good in the pocket. He has good feet. He has a good feel for defenders and stuff.
“We know we’ve got to stay alive when he’s back there. If he doesn’t find anybody, we know he’s really good when the play breaks down.”
Romo’s first option on the final fourth-down play was tight end Jason Witten. Murray, as it turned out, was option No. 4 or 5.
“Tony did a good job of freelancing,” Beasley said.
The Cowboys’ reward is yet another playoffs-or-bust showdown on the NFL’s final Sunday. The previous two, as Romo admitted, have been busts.
“I know we’ve gotten hit with the fact that we’ve lost the last couple of years in that final game,” Romo said. “But I think we’re the only team who keeps getting themselves in the position to win the NFC East every year. That’s a credit.
“You just have to keep getting yourselves there. And when your team is good enough, you’ll knock down that door.”
The “alternatives” are all too familiar.