IRVING -- Has it come to this point already?
It seemed like it was just yesterday that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo embarked on his Cinderella-like path from undrafted and on-the-street unknown to quarterback of America’s Team.
He had replaced Drew Bledsoe giving the Cowboys Romo-mentum en route to a playoff run, sparking a craze called Romo-mania and a Pro Bowl selection after just eight starts and building a following of diehard Romo-sapiens.
But that was two and half long years ago.
Romo is officially under fire now.
According to a source, the Cowboys receivers -- namely Terrell Owens, Roy Williams, and Patrick Crayton -- called a meeting with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett to discuss the distribution of the football and what was termed "a buddy system."
At issue is the perception that Romo relies too heavily on tight end and best friend Jason Witten, and doesn’t always throw to the open man. The breaking point was Sunday’s 20-13 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which the Cowboys blew a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead in the final 7 minutes, 15 seconds.
Romo committed four turnovers, a fumble and had three passes intercepted. The final interception was returned 25 yards for the game-winning score.
Romo was throwing to Witten on the final interception. Owens openly acknowledges he was open on the play and complained vociferously on the sideline during the game. Romo also missed a wide-open Crayton down the seam on the final drive of the game, and then threw incomplete to Witten on the final play when Crayton was also open.
Crayton said it was a good meeting, a needed meeting, in the interest of trying to win games and have a better offense.
He said they weren’t complaining because they went in with a positive tone and had a frank and honest discussion.
Romo, who talks on Wednesday, was not available for comment.
Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said he doesn’t know anything about the receivers complaining about not getting the ball.
When asked about the discussion, receivers coach Ray Sherman said his guys are competitors who want what’s best for the team. He said it would be wrong to characterize any discussion they might have had as complaining.
But the bottom line is that it was the latest salvo fired at Romo during what has been a tumultuous week. His poor fourth quarter against the Steelers has rekindled a perception that he can’t win the big game and fails in crucial times, pointing to his failures in December and January the past two seasons.
Since taking over as the starter, Romo has rewritten the Cowboys record books as a passer, he has been to two Pro Bowls and he has earned a $67 million contract.
But, seemingly, the only numbers people care about right now are 4-8 and 12-13, his won-loss record and touchdown-interception ratio in December and January.
It’s the main reason former NFL quarterback-turned-analyst Joe Theismann said Sunday’s game against the New York Giants is the biggest game of Romo’s career.
Win and prove to the world you can lead the Cowboys to victory in a big game, and possibly spark a playoff run. Lose, and possibly be labeled as a quarterback who can’t win the big one forever.
"This game becomes a career-maker for Tony," Theismann said. "That’s how important it has become.”
Although he enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top, he is still only in his second full season as a starter. He has just 33 starts to his credit and remains a relatively young quarterback.
"Well, I’ve only had two Decembers," Romo said. "I only played a half last year in one game that didn’t matter. The first year you’re just running around out there and you don’t know what’s going on. I think once I’ve played five, six years and that’s still the case you probably can talk about it. When you’ve played two years and the third year one game you’re going against maybe the best team over there, I think it’s a little premature."
Of course it wasn’t so premature when Romo asked for, and received, a six-year, $67.5 million contract last year.
His fame as Cowboys quarterback has allowed him to judge a Miss Universe pageant and put him in regular company with Hollywood and pop star celebrities, including former gal pal Carrie Underwood and current girlfriend Jessica Simpson.
And so it is with the expectations of playing quarterback in the footsteps of Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach and leading a team that is built to win now.
Theismann understands that he’s placing a lot of pressure on one guy, but he said the facts the facts.
"He will be the difference in their success," Theismann said. "They have a good defense. They have a good running attack. It’s Tony’s world to take them to the next level. That’s why this game is so important for him. If the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, it won’t be as monumental to his career as this game. He has to convince the owner. He has to convince his teammates. He has to convince the fans. How many times can you go through critical games and not deliver."
To his credit Romo is trying to take it all in stride. He wants to rebound from the Pittsburgh loss with a good game against the Giants as bad as anyone.
He also says the story of the season will be defined in due time.
"This season’s been interesting just because we’ve had the ups and downs of a 13-game schedule, 14 games, whatever we’ve had, 13 games now," Romo said. "It really won’t matter if you go on and win the whole thing. All this stuff, that’s why it’s interesting. Football is like a reality show each week. You get to talk about it and come up with new things. This is the new storyline. You can’t play 16 great weeks of football. You’ve got to be able to come back from a bad game. That’s part of what I have to do this week, come back from a performance that wasn’t up to what I’d hoped for. That’s part of being a quarterback and playing at the level you want to."