Romo, the team’s all-time leading passer, officially handed over the keys to the car to then-rookie sensation Dak Prescott, who was in the midst of the finest first season of any quarterback in NFL history.
Coach Jason Garrett had already made the decision to stick with the hot hand in Prescott, who took over for an injured Romo in training camp.
But now that Romo was healthy and seemingly ready to assume the job again before being rebuffed by the coaching staff, it was important to him to make a public concession to avoid creating a distraction and bringing controversy to the Cowboys locker room.
“I remember a lot of news,” Prescott said Wednesday. “I remember a lot of @’s on Twitter for the most part. I didn’t know he was doing it on that day until after it was done. But just going back and watching it. It was great by him. I felt his speech was more public. Me and him had already known our place between each other and our relationship.”
It would prove to be the right thing to do as Prescott has gone from rookie phenom to sophomore sensation with 16 touchdowns passing, four running and four interceptions through nine games, while the seminal moment of a year ago was Romo’s true departure from the game.
Instead of returning to the Cowboys as a backup or joining another team a free agent, Romo joined CBS as its lead NFL analyst where he puts the talent that crafted the poignant departure speech to work every Sunday to overwhelming success.
But as far as the Cowboys are concerned, they remain an organization forever in the midst of controversy – thanks to owner Jerry Jones’ latest fight with the NFL and running back Ezekiel Elliott’s federal court battle over a six-game suspension – and seemingly stuck in neutral.
The team appears to be headed for another step-back season, which proved to be the norm during Romo’s roller coaster era.
From 2006-2015, the Cowboys never posted back-to-back, double-digit win seasons and only made the playoffs in back-to-back years once.
Injuries, controversies and limited depth were to blame then just as now for a team that is trending down in 2017 after last year’s 13-3 season.
The Cowboys are 5-4 and desperately hoping to stay in the playoff chase with Elliott suspended for another five games, left tackle Tyron Smith likely to miss a second consecutive game with a groin injury, and linebacker Sean Lee possibly out another 2-3 games with a hamstring injury.
The absence of those three was a prominent factor in Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Atlanta Falcons and why many give them little hope of success Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles and their NFL-best 8-1 record.
If there is any optimism, it lies with Prescott, the man who sent Romo into retirement, because his competitiveness and leadership is second to none, according to coach Jason Garrett.
“He is an outstanding leader,” Garrett said of Prescott. “He has such a great spirit about him. He sets a great example for his teammates. He has a real even keel through success and through adversity. Those guys can look at him as a consistent figure.
“It’s not only the guys on offense but certainly everybody on the football team. It starts with the example he sets and what he is all about a person. He is a physically tough guy. He is a mentally tough guy. That gets great respect from your teammates and from your coaches. More than that he has a way to connect with guys and bring out the best in the guys around him.”
Those are traits Garrett saw in Prescott even as a rookie when he chose to stick with him over Romo in a watershed decision that wasn’t just about sticking with the hot hand.
It was also about choosing a new franchise quarterback and new leader for the present and the future.
Romo knew as much which is why he felt he needed to make a public statement with a speech that no one will soon forget.
A disappointed, but resolute Romo said Prescott “earned the right to be our quarterback. As hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right.
“I’m not going to allow this situation to negatively affect Dak or this football team by becoming a constant distraction. I think Dak knows that I have his back.
“It’s a dark place, probably the darkest it’s ever been. You’re sad and down and out and you ask yourself why did this have to happen? It’s in this moment that you find out who you really are and what you’re really about.”
The Cowboys learned a lot about Romo that day – some they already knew, some that needed reassuring. No one knew it was happening, not even Garrett. But the players heard the buzz in the locker room and many watched it over and over on their phones.
“It was an incredible speech. I think our team really rallied behind,” linebacker Lee recalled. “For him to step up like that was a big impact for our team and reflected the type of personality he has, the type of leadership he showed, the type of great football player he was and how much he cared about this team.”
They have also been reassured about the choice they made in Prescott. The transition has been so smooth and so comfortable that the anniversary of the concession speech slipped the mind of center Travis Frederick, who has never missed a game as a snapper for Romo or Prescott since coming to the Cowboys in 2013.
“You bring that up. That’s the first I heard of it,” Frederick said. “I think now that you say that, that it’s been a year, it’s amazing, amazing the progress that Dak has made in a year. The way that he grew throughout last year and continued to learn from things that went well and didn’t go well for him and the progress that he’s made to where he is today is amazing. I think that’s a tribute to the way that he works and continues to keep his head to the grindstone trying to continuing to improve.”
Cowboys vs. Eagles
7:30 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/5