LANDOVER, Md. — There was a time when a game like Sunday would not have weighed so heavily on Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, when this 28-18 loss to the Redskins that ended the Cowboys’ season and sent Washington the playoffs would have been explained away. This is the guy who, somewhat infamously, declared that “if this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I will have lived a good life” after a season-ending loss to Philly a couple of year ago.
There is a cumulative effect to failure, though, and Romo has been on the losing end of so many of these win-or-go-home games now that the scars have added up; have taken their toll. At least it looked that way as he slowly and gingerly walked to his locker late Sunday. This seemed like a quarterback finally broken by coming up short.
“I feel as though I let our team down,” Romo said, referring to his late-game interception with the Cowboys down 21-18 and deep in their own territory. “We’ve done such a good job in those last 5-10 minutes, like I said, to win a lot of games and we were back in that position again. And that’s on me. And that is a very frustrating and very hard thing to think about because you want to be in that position. It’s just very hard to think about.”
There are no curses in football. There is only a minimal amount of luck involved in final outcomes. It is the beauty and savagery of the game, it always strips you down to what you are.
And what Sunday’s game revealed about Romo is he is what we thought he was, and that is not good enough. He certainly was not as good as his Redskins counterpart Robert Griffin III, a rookie who with one good leg has his team in the playoffs.
There are reasons. There are always reasons — injuries, wrong routes run by receivers, wrong coach, wrong play calls, defensive failures, or just bad luck in Seattle. As former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells loved to say about other things but it is apropos here: He may not be the trouble but he is always there.
We have seen some version of this schadenfreude dating back to the 2006 season, when Romo bobbled the snap for what would have been the game-winning field goal in a wild-card game in Seattle. Since then, the Cowboys and their QB have been chasing that moment when Romo goes from good to legendary, when he makes the play, when they win the game, when he reveals himself to be special.
That is what the Redskins have finally happened upon in RG3. He is special, with special being determined in December and January, when the stakes are win or go home.
The best teams in the league, the teams with legit playoff chances all have special quarterbacks — Denver with Manning, New England with Brady, Green Bay with Rodgers.
And now Seattle and Washington with Wilson and RG3.
It is always about the quarterback, and the Redskins have the better one.
There was no moment of genius for RG3. If we are being honest, he struggled in parts. He was slowed by a balky knee and his game looked off. What he did not do was make mistakes. He gave his running back a chance, and Alfred Morris delivered in such a huge way, 200 yards on 33 carries and three touchdowns.
Romo, in contrast, had three interceptions. He did this despite having more big-game experience. And, maybe, it was the cumulative impact of that experience and the scars they carry. There was a meme that started circulated before the game was even done of Romo just staring into nothingness on the bench as the Redskins ice the game. It looked very much like a guy wondering if he was ever going to do it.
He said he does not. Does he worry about his legacy?
“Your legacy will be written when you are done playing the game. When it’s over with, you will look back and talk about those things,” Romo said. “It’s disappointing not being able to get it done. . . . That is a tough pill to swallow especially when I throw that interception at the end.”
When you are Robert Griffin III’s age, you have no idea how hard this is going to be. What we forget is Romo was once RG3, not as highly touted or drafted nearly as early (in fact, Romo went undrafted), but teeming with that much promise at one point. The Cowboys thought they had found their link to Staubach and Aikman.
The Cowboys absolutely needed Romo to be special in this game. Their defense was broken, being held together by duct tape and a bunch of no-names. Their receiving corps lacked Dez Bryant and Miles Austin by the time the game was being decided.
And yet there the Cowboys were with 3-1/2 minutes remaining and the ball at the 15-yard line. They trailed by only a field goal. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer had delivered a sack, forcing a punt that had set them up. This was Romo’s chance to rewrite his story, to shake his “chokes in big games, big moments” label. It is what he has been doing all season, coming back, finding a way, leading this team to victory. He found Cowboys tight end Jason Witten for 14 yards. This was finally going to be the time.
Then it happened.
The Redskins were blitzing. Of course, they were blitzing. Romo saw the rusher break inside. He remembers thinking the safe throw was to running back DeMarco Murray on the sideline. Yes, the Redskins defender had peeled off. All Romo had to do was float the ball over his head. Instead Rob Jackson made an exceptional play.
“I wish I had made a different decision,” Romo said, the regret thick on his tongue.
This is not a curse. This is not luck. This is the difference in every game. Witten was right when he said “It does feel close but at the same time you have to be real about it. It’s a close league. It comes down to one or two or three plays in a game, in a season.” It is in those moments that the game strips a player down and reveals what they are.
He is what he is. And that is not enough to win in this league.