The last time Tony Romo faced the Washington Redskins, he walked off in the most excruciating pain he’s ever known after arguably the greatest performance of his career.
It was Week 15 of last year and Romo led the Dallas Cowboys to a 24-23 comeback victory to keep them in playoff contention while playing through severe pain in his legs and back.
“Sometimes I cringe thinking about it, playing that game,” Romo said. “It’s just part of playing professional sports. You’re playing in a game and you’re hurt or banged up or whatever and you just kind of play through it.
“As a competitor you kind of feel like, ‘I’ll worry about it after the game,’ and you do everything you can. It felt like the season was on the line at the time, so you kind of lay it on the line and you let the chips fall after the game.”
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Romo had to be helped on the plane and to his car afterward. He underwent season-ending surgery a few days later to repair a herniated disk.
It would be the second consecutive year in which Romo had undergone back surgery, raising questions about whether he would ever be the same again.
But 10 months later, Romo is ready to face the Redskins again on Monday night.
Not only has he recovered from the back surgery but the 34-year old Romo also is playing the best football of his career, just as he predicted in the off-season.
Romo, who has completed 148 of 214 passes for 1,789 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, is not on pace for any career numbers.
But he is as efficient and accurate as he’s even been.
And with the Cowboys (6-1) tied for the best record in the league and riding a six-game winning streak, they are considered legitimate Super Bowl contenders for the first time since 2007.
Romo has his best chance to complete his legacy and change his career narrative of all hat and no cattle by finally walking off as a winner.
“I don’t know that I can say that I’ve ever seen him play better,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “We’ve seen him certainly do what Romo does. That is, instinctively make plays. I would agree with what Romo said in camp. Certainly over the last four or five games, he has ratified that statement.”
Romo, who already owns many of the major Cowboys passing records, leads the NFL in completion percentage (69.2). He is fourth in passer rating (104.7), fourth in yards per attempt (8.4) and fifth in touchdowns (14).
Four times this season he has had a passer rating over 100.0, including the past five games of 98.0 or better. Three times he has completed 70 percent of his passes or better.
It all has made Romo’s words in July, and what seemed like such folly then, turn prophetic.
“I think over the course of the next four or five years, you’ll see the best version of me that I’ve had throughout my career,” Romo said at the outset of training camp in Oxnard, Calif..
It didn’t help that Romo followed that statement with a training camp filled with bubble wrap. He never practiced more than two days in a row, and when he did work out, his throws were limited.
Then he was intercepted three times and appeared immobile in the pocket in a season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
But Romo’s play has improved as he’s become healthier. The shift in offensive philosophy from a pass-happy scheme in which Romo had to do everything, to a run-based attack led by NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray and the league’s best offensive line, also has taken hold over the last six weeks.
“I think he like everybody else is just working hard,” coach Jason Garrett said. “That’s an expression we use a lot: be your best, be the best version of yourself. That’s what we try to do. We come to work every day. And Tony worked hard to come back from his injury. I think he’s gotten better and better physically as the season has worn on and certainly he’s an experienced quarterback that’s played at a very high level for a long time.
“The better the team is around you; typically the better you’re going to play at the quarterback position. So being able to run the ball as effectively as we have certainly will help the quarterback, will help the entire football team.”
Certainly, the running game has led the way for the Cowboys, but Romo is the one putting it all together. The Cowboys lead the league in third-down conversions largely because Romo is making plays when it counts the most, keeping drives alive so they can get back to running the ball.
He also has the highest passer rating in the league in the second half of games, coming off a sterling performance against the New York Giants last week when he completed 9 of 9 passes in the third and fourth quarters to complete what Jones called the best performance of his career. He completed 17 of 23 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns for a passer rating of 135.7.
“Tony is outstanding,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “He just comes in and does what Tony does. He’s very smart. Like I said, [No.] 9 has been 9, making plays and very confident in doing it. It just goes to show you that he knows who he is. He’s a tough person. From the looks of it, the back doesn’t matter.”
The back apparently hasn’t mattered, just as Romo predicted.
The difference for Romo has been a better understanding of playing the game physically and technically from an experience standpoint.
Romo has always worked on his craft in the off-season to improve. It has all crystallized, again as he predicted it would in 2014.
“There is a sensation of understanding as you get older, perfecting your craft and getting to a point where you feel really good about something you may have found,” Romo said. “When the technical side meets with the physical side you’re able to go out and be at your best.
“I knew those things were coming into play with the throwing technique, and then add in some of the knowledge and experience and some of the things you think about in the mental part and that gives you a chance to succeed. I think I just recognized I was getting better in certain areas, some things that I changed. That’s been a positive.”