Expectations were high for the Dallas Cowboys going into the season.
Super Bowl or bust, in some fans’ minds, and the team didn’t balk at that with an all-in approach during the off-season.
But they weren’t prepared for the loss of Tony Romo. No team, in fairness, should be expected to do much without its starting quarterback.
Romo missed seven games earlier this season with a fractured left collarbone, and will miss the remainder of the season after reinjuring the same collarbone in Thursday’s 33-14 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Owner Jerry Jones said a CT scan Friday morning confirmed that Romo sustained a hairline fracture in the vicinity of his previous injury, and would not play the rest of 2015.
The silver lining, as Jones said during a radio interview on KRLD/105.3 FM, is that Romo will not require surgery.
Still, it’s the knockout blow to the Cowboys’ season that started with such high expectations. The Cowboys were 0-7 without Romo, but there had been some hope the season could be saved with his return and a weak NFC East.
Now it’s a team that will be forced to play out the string with draft position more on the line than a playoff berth. But the leaders in the locker room weren’t ready to throw in the towel after being whipped by the perfect Panthers.
“If you’re not motivated to find a way to win, then you need to get off the team,” linebacker Sean Lee said afterward. “We need to make a move now. There’s no more room for error, we have to find a way to win games and get on a run if we want to save the season. We can’t have performances like this — there’s no excuses. We haven’t played winning football and we have to start doing it now.”
Added tight end Jason Witten: “The one thing about our team is that we’re a relentless group. We continue to fight. That doesn’t overcome where we’re at. We’ve lost eight games. … We know our backs are against the wall. We just need to play our best football when that happens. Tonight was disappointing.”
The Cowboys spent the off-season building a team they thought could end a 20-year championship drought.
They gambled on Greg Hardy. They beamed with joy when three first-round talents fell to them over draft weekend (Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and La’el Collins). They felt so good about the offensive line that they let DeMarco Murray, who had set the franchise’s single-season rushing record in 2014, bolt in free agency.
But the Cowboys have proven to be inept at winning games without Romo, who was having one of the worst games of his career when he went down on the final play of the third quarter against the Panthers.
The season has the feeling of 2010, when the Cowboys were riding high after an 11-5 campaign in 2009 and believing they could become the first team to play a Super Bowl at their home stadium.
The 2010 season fell apart, though, when Romo fractured his … yes, left collarbone. Talk about cruel irony for Cowboys Nation.
The Cowboys went 6-10 in 2010, and it would be a borderline miracle if they were able to get to the six-win mark this season by going 3-2 with Matt Cassel or Kellen Moore quarterbacking the team.
At least Dallas received a top-10 pick after the 2010 season, and used it to draft Tyron Smith, who has become one of the top left tackles in the game. Most would expect the Cowboys to get an even higher pick in 2016, possibly getting in the top five for the first time since 2003.
The question now becomes how the Cowboys handle Romo. Romo has had multiple back surgeries and has broken his left collarbone three times in the past six years.
Romo will be 36 next season. How dependable is Romo to stay on the field?
The Cowboys will certainly be looking to upgrade the backup quarterback position. But it could be a problem.
Romo is signed through the 2019 season, and the Cowboys have deferred his cap hit seemingly every off-season. That is about to catch up with them, considering Romo’s salary-cap hit the next four years: $20.835 million in 2016, $24.7 million in 2017, $25.2 million in 2018 and $23.7 million in 2019.
So do the Cowboys spend a high draft pick on a quarterback who will spend a few years developing under Romo? Or would that pick be better used to fill an immediate need, and roll the dice that Romo will be healthy enough to make a Super Bowl run in the next couple of seasons?
Those are all questions that will be answered in time. For now, the Cowboys are stuck playing out what has become a meaningless season.
Cowboys at Redskins
7:30 p.m. Dec. 7, ESPN