It’s time for the final epitaph on the Dallas Cowboys’ season and possibly the career of quarterback Tony Romo.
A team that seemingly died during a seven-game losing streak, only to regain a spark of life with Romo’s return a week ago, was finally buried in a 33-14 loss to the undefeated Carolina Panthers in front of 90,909 fans at AT&T Stadium on Thursday.
While the Cowboys (3-8) are still not mathematically eliminated, any hopes of a miraculous finish vanished when Romo went down in the third quarter, possibly re-breaking the same collarbone that caused him to miss seven of the previous eight games.
Coach Jason Garrett said X-rays were inconclusive and more tests will be done Friday. But the Cowboys and Romo are already bracing for the worst. The collarbone is fractured again, a source said.
Romo acknowledged that he heard the same sound and feels the same pain as he did when he fractured the collarbone against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 20.
“We’ll see tomorrow after the CT scan,” Romo said. “Obviously, it doesn’t feel good. It had a similar-type feeling [as the previous break in Week 2]. It was tough. I worked hard to come back and get acclimated to the game.
“It’s a sack. You can hear something happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re always chancing it when you come back. Collarbones happen all the time like that.”
The Cowboys had lost seven consecutive games with Romo out with the initial fracture. He returned for last week’s 24-14 victory against the Miami Dolphins, offering hope that the Cowboys could salvage their playoff hopes with a closing run.
Maybe it was simply too much to ask of Romo, who had been called the savior of the season and a potential MVP candidate by owner Jerry Jones.
“It goes without saying that’s difficult,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “It just goes back to it’s a hard game. I know Tony wanted it so bad and sometimes you push. Whether you like it not, when you don’t play for eight weeks it’s tough to come back and be the guy you want to be.
“He’s a warrior. He’s a fighter. He’s obviously the leader of this team. I know no one wanted it more than him. To have that happen to him again, whatever it happens to be, it will be unfortunate. We’ll just have to move forward, and I know he will, too.”
The Panthers, 11-0, proved to be too much, taking a dominating 30-6 lead thanks largely to 17 points off three Romo interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns by safety Kurt Coleman and linebacker Luke Kuechly.
That was before Romo was hit by blitzing linebacker Thomas Davis and stayed on the ground. Romo felt the injury immediately, pounding his right fist to the turf.
“It’s really difficult to watch it happen,” safety Barry Church said. “He fought his butt to get back and help our team to get into playoff position. To see him go down. I don’t know what happened, but it looked like the same type of injury as it was before. It’s heartbreaking.”
Romo completed just 11 of 21 passes for 106 yards with three interceptions. His quarterback rating of 27.2 was the second worst of his career, surpassed only by a 22.2 rating in a three-interception meltdown against the Eagles in 2007.
It was the second consecutive year Romo has had a poor performance on Thanksgiving Day. Last year, he was intercepted twice with no touchdowns in a 33-10 loss to Eagles that was largely blamed on the short week as he was still adjusting from off-season back surgery.
Romo blamed his poor play Thursday on bad reads, poor decisions and rust after the seven-game layoff with the previous fracture.
“I didn’t give us a chance. It will eat at me,” Romo said. “I’m disappointed I let my teammates down and the fan base down. Some of the poor decisions that were made were just uncharacteristic and very frustrating. It cost our team. That was the difference in the game.”
The Cowboys’ playoff chances are likely over if Romo doesn’t return.
The question now turns to Romo’s future after likely breaking his collarbone for the third time in his career. He also broke his left collarbone in 2010.
Once it’s been broken, it’s susceptible to be broken again, which has been the case for the second time in 2015.
This comes after Romo endured back surgeries in 2013 and 2014.
Romo, a 13-year veteran who will be 36 in 2016, remains under contract. But it’s a conversation and a decision that must be contemplated.
“You’re obviously devastated,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “This guy is the leader of our team. He’s a great teammate, great friend, and to see that is extremely tough. Just hoping he’s going to be all right.”
The Cowboys are in last place in the NFC East and a candidate for the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, one year after going 12-4, winning the NFC East and stoking Super Bowl hopes this season.
Matt Cassel replaced Romo and threw a 2-yard touchdown to Cole Beasley and a 2-point conversion to Darren McFadden. The other points came on field goals of 21 and 48 yards by Dan Bailey.
Romo was intercepted by Coleman on the third play of the game. Coleman stepped in front of pass intended for Terrance Williams, returning it 36 yards for a touchdown.
Kuechly returned an interception 32 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter to make the score 20-3.
He was intercepted a third time on the very next pass to set up a 25-yard field goal, making the score 23-3 halftime.
The offense had no punch even before Romo was injured. It was limited to 31 rushing yards on the game, the fewest of the season and fewest since 2012. Dez Bryant was held to two catches for 26 yards going against Panthers star cornerback Josh Norman.
The defense was ultimately victimized by quarterback Cam Newton, who was efficient, timely and got to dance after a 4-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Newton completed 16 of 27 passes for 183 yards. He added 12 carries for 45 yards rushing.
The Cowboys have 11 days off before they return to face the Washington Redskins on Dec. 7.
“It’s a collective responsibility. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror,” Garrett said of the rest of the season. “We have to decide in the next few days on what we want to be.”