Tony Romo: The Cowboys Quarterback Tackles His Biggest Failure

photography by Dave Shafer

On October 23, 2006, at halftime of the New York Giants game on Monday Night Football, Bill Parcells replaced Drew Bledsoe with backup quarterback Tony Romo, the holder for extra points and field goal attempts. On his first play Romo threw an interception, and the Cowboys went on to lose, but at times he looked good. He scrambled, made things happen. Cowboys fans had to be relieved. At least he wasn’t Drew Bledsoe, the Ajax of professional football—big, strong, talented, and bumbling, always coming in second to anybody with fire and intelligence.

Fast forward 11 games to January 6, 2007. Here’s the same Tony Romo, now nationally famous and rumored to be dating Carrie Underwood (if not Jessica Simpson). Like Tom Brady in New England, he has almost done what Bledsoe could not do, in this case take the Cowboys to their first playoff win since 1996. It’s the last minute of the wildcard game against Seattle, the Cowboys are down, 21–20, and Martin Gramatica’s field goal from the 2-yard line will win it and send them to the next round. Romo takes the snap—and fumbles it! Good God! He grabs up the ball and tries to run it in, but he gets tackled 18 inches short of the goal line. The Cowboys’ season ends, and Romo sits on the field, head bowed, clutching his facemask in agony, despair, disbelief.

That was it. Suddenly over. But nobody expected it to end like this. For a few weeks, to “do a Romo”—to mess up a sure thing—became the caustic football equivalent of the muffed slow-rolling grounder in game six of the 1986 World Series that ruined Bill Buckner’s life. The disaster even had a black bookend irony: what everything came down to wasn’t how he played quarterback, but how he performed his leftover job as a holder.

How could I talk to the man? Since November, I had been following Romo to prepare for an interview just after the season ended. It would be a long time, as it turned out, before I interviewed Tony Romo—almost as long as the season itself, plenty of time to mull over what had happened last year, both the very good and the very bad.

How long did he have in the light? From October 29, the day that this small-town boy from Wisconsin started the game as a quarterback in the NFL, through the night of the fumble—70 days. Three score and 10, the allotted biblical human life, compressed and intensified. In that short span, rising from obscurity (even here in Dallas) to national prominence, he had acted out the emotional highs and lows of heroes from Shakespeare’s Prince Hal to Homer’s Hector, and he had done it against the backdrop of the vast host of nameless nobodies among whom he could easily have remained.

You could almost use Romo’s quarterbacking statistics to graph what it must have felt like. In his first game as a starter, the Cowboys beat the Carolina Panthers in an away game. Romo played pretty well—270 yards, a TD, and one interception. The next week, they lost to the Washington Redskins, but it wasn’t Romo’s fault: 24 of 36 passes, 284 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. He kept it up the next week, and the tide began to turn for the Cowboys. On November 12, he completed 20 of 29 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns in beating the Arizona Cardinals. Sure, the Cardinals were just 1-7, but Romo’s quarterback rating (more accurately, passer rating)—a number derived from a complex formula weighing completions, touchdowns, interceptions, and yards against the number of attempts—was 126.8 for the game. Perfect is 158.3.

The next week was the real test: Peyton Manning and unbeaten Indianapolis. Despite throwing an interception and no touchdowns, Romo completed 19 of 23 passes, and the Cowboys won 21-14 against the eventual Super Bowl champions. Jerry Jones said it was the most important win for the past eight or 10 years, which meant, well, the most important since the Super Bowl seasons back under Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer. Since the Troy Aikman era. With the Indianapolis game, Tony Romo began to remind people of the old days. What got you was his attitude. Look at him out there—joking in the huddle, hopping around as gleefully as a kid after he threw a touchdown pass, and patting a ref affectionately on the back as he ran off the field grinning. Nobody had thought about having fun playing professional football—at least not in Dallas—in a long time.

And why was that?

When Romo threw a touchdown pass, the TV cameras would turn and focus on Bill Parcells walking the sidelines like a medieval illustration of bile, yellow or black, slightly less peevish now that the Cowboys were winning, but obviously uneasy about his quarterback’s guileless smile out there in front of the jealous gods of football. Because who was it? Just Tony Romo, the kid who held the ball for placekicks. But somehow, God knows why, the name already sounded famous. Easy to say, easy to remember. Good vowels, like Joe Montana. Tony Romo.

Before a national audience on Thanksgiving Day, Romo worked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like a problem in calculus. Five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 306 yards, an astounding passer rating of 148.9, which put him on top of the NFL. And the obvious pleasure he felt—well, repressed emotions began to surface in Cowboys fans, like what had happened the previous spring with the Mavericks in their run to the NBA finals. You could see this name, Tony Romo, getting away from Parcells, spinning off from that boyish grin into widespread irrational exuberance, like the stock market back in the dot-com boom.

Parcells did his best Alan Greenspan and downplayed the Romo phenomenon. He knew it would be trouble if fans engaged with the team and expected them to make the playoffs, maybe even to win in the playoffs. The next week, the Cowboys won again, this time avenging that October 23 loss to the Giants, though Romo threw two interceptions and no touchdowns (passer rating: 58.1). Somehow you felt that, for Parcells, if a team didn’t really deserve it, then winning, expecting to win, hoping to win, was something that characterized people with no complexity, no sense of tragedy, people who had no appreciation for the deeper places you could enter only by losing deservedly at a high enough level. You never associated Parcells with losing per se. Unlike other Cowboys coaches (Chan Gailey comes to mind), he never seemed too small for the job. Good Lord, the man overawed sportswriters, who dreaded the lacerating things he might say to them in front of their peers. I saw their fear in person after the Cowboys’ ugly loss to Philadelphia on Christmas Day, the way he eyed people.

Parcells brought with him something different—a rare savor of despair, like a hint of smoke deep inside a single-malt Scotch. From him radiated a dark, intimidating force that exacted performance from players and simultaneously took away their joy, a powerfully negative and soul-stunting power that rose, not from his failure, but from his own former success and his inability not to see the glaring defects in what was in front of him. Whatever the transformative power is that some people have to make others exceed their usual limits, Parcells had it in reverse. He was like the cold philosopher in a Keats poem who reduces the rainbow to “the dull catalogue of common things.” His interior landscape? Stark, dopamine-deprived neurons, like the burned forests in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road. Only Bill Belichick habitually looked unhappier.

FIELD DAY: To help avoid future sideline sadness, Romo likes to work alone on his footwork and throwing mechanics.
photography by Dave Shafer

Parcells wanted structural efficiency, and he built the team accordingly. He had long ago given up appealing to what the ancient Greeks and Romans, whose cities lived and died by the success of their warriors, thought of as the crucial “breast-soul” in a man, the presence of which you feel in your chest. The heart? Partly. Latin cor, heart, root of courage. But also the spirit in the rib cage, spiritus, breath. When you say that a player or a team plays with heart or has spirit, you’re talking about the breast-soul, thumos. Players didn’t play with thumos for Bill Parcells the way they did for Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith. He was the grim father they couldn’t make happy. The best they could do was not displease him.

That’s what made you sure he wanted to wipe that smile off Tony Romo’s face. It wasn’t so much the other team, but Romo’s pleasure and its discombobulating effect on the Dallas Cowboys and their fans. Only somebody who had won a Super Bowl could use his authority to such intense effect that his team played with dispirited purposelessness in the games that counted most down the stretch. Any fool could inspire a team to play beyond itself. It took Parcells to get them to be just as bad as they actually were and to feel worse and worse about it.

The first clear sign came on December 10 when the New Orleans Saints dismantled the Dallas Cowboys. The loss was particularly painful for Romo. New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, an assistant coach under Parcells for years, was an Eastern Illinois alum who had followed Romo’s college career with interest, and he had assured Romo at the 2003 NFL Combine that the Cowboys were interested in him even if they didn’t draft him. Nobody drafted him, as it turned out, but Payton signed him as a free agent, and at training camp that year, Romo made the team. He and Payton stayed close until Payton took the head coaching job at New Orleans. That meant, of course, that even if other teams still didn’t really know Romo, Sean Payton knew his game intimately—and Parcells’, too, for that matter. Romo couldn’t handle the New Orleans defense. His quarterback rating sagged again (58.8), whereas Saints quarterback Drew Brees (140.8, five touchdowns) made the Cowboys secondary look like second-stringers at SMU. That loss erased Romo’s smile, and somehow you felt Parcells’—what? Not satisfaction. Maybe knowledge. His grim awareness that winning, that thing we want, is ultimately an illusion. Vanity, vanity, saith the Preacher.

The next week, the cowboys won in Atlanta, and then came home for the Christmas Day game. Philadelphia had lost Donovan McNabb to a season-ending injury several weeks before. If the Cowboys won this game, they’d own the division championship for the first time since 1998. That’s the game I attended—much to my wife’s outrage. She even worried about the players: “It’s Christmas Day! They should be at home with their families!”

A secret pariah, not only out of favor with my family but maybe even with baby Jesus, I sat in the press box between somebody from ESPN and a wisecracking crew of sportswriters from the Philadelphia Inquirer. When the Cowboys captains trotted off the field after the toss, somebody said, “One of the few wins this year for Bledsoe.” I didn’t know much about press box etiquette. It turned out that you could indulge that sardonic gallows humor, but never a fan’s enthusiasm. When Anthony Henry intercepted a Jeff Garcia pass and returned it for 37 yards, I whooped the way I would at home in front of the TV. Just came right out.

ESPN turned slowly and gave me a contemptuous glance.

As that Christmas game wore drearily on (the Cowboys lost it 23-7), Terrell Owens dropped several key passes, Philadelphia dominated the time of possession, 37:06 to 22:54, and Romo never established a rhythm. His quarterback rating plummeted to 45.5. But it wasn’t just that. This team as a whole looked pitiful, ripe for euthanasia. It was unimaginable that these men could advance to the playoffs. The Romo high was long gone, and what remained, palpably and unmistakably, was what Parcells had seen weeks before: a scorched, soulless landscape where everybody wandered without direction or sense of purpose. Romo had just distracted this team from its true nature. This game had revealed what it really was.

The question, of course, was whether the team could have behaved differently if Parcells had not seen the players that way. Down in the locker room, Jerry Jones spoke very softly to a group of reporters tightly huddled around him. I leaned in just in time to hear Jones say in a tight voice, “A loss like this indicts us at the top.” What did he mean “indicts us at the top”? He’s at the top, so—what, he’s taking the blame? Jerry Jones? No, by “us” he meant the Cowboys organization, and by “at the top” he meant Bill Parcells. He was announcing the end of Parcells’ career in Dallas, though it would take two more games for that reality to unfold. I think Jones wanted someone less dour, somebody more emotionally consonant with the happy player who had given the franchise the face of that victory over Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the press conference unfolded in three acts: Parcells, Tony Romo, and Terrell Owens. Parcells didn’t pretend things were what they weren’t. He admitted that he hadn’t gotten the team ready for the game. “There’s not anything good to say.” He averred that he was “not talking about the personality of the team,” but something in him glowed with defiance, as though it ought to be evident to anybody why it wouldn’t have been worth the effort to get this lousy bunch ready. You felt an indifference that he could not rouse himself to overcome. To be fair, he was 45 when he won the Super Bowl with the New York Giants in 1986, and he had superb players like Lawrence Taylor. In Dallas, at 65, he had young, inexperienced Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, the high-salaried troublemaker who made himself the focus of attention by any means at his disposal—including partying with his former Philadelphia teammates the night before he played against them.

During this critical game, Owens dropped passes thrown directly into his expensive hands, but after the loss, as he was being booed and taunted off the field, he waved to the stands. Now, wearing a Santa Claus hat into the press conference—one black reporter turned away with an expletive of disgust—Owens stood sullenly answering questions. The hat wasn’t just out of place after his major contribution to the Cowboys loss, but somehow metaphysically disquieting. Was the man truly mad? What he said, not meeting anyone’s eyes, was lucid enough. He was “embarrassed by the way we played.” But he put the blame elsewhere. “It’s hard to get in the flow when it’s a ball here, a ball there.”

Tony Romo, by contrast, was courteous. He acknowledged Philadelphia’s good coverage. “I had to throw the ball away a lot tonight.” Was that a criticism of his receivers for not getting open? That’s not how it sounded. In fact, he refused to be baited when somebody asked him about all the passes that Owens dropped. “All receivers drop balls,” he said. He emphasized that the Cowboys had to win the next week.

They didn’t, though. Detroit won 39-31 in another dismal game. The Cowboys stumbled backward, off-balance, into the playoffs, having lost three of their last four games. Then came Seattle. The fourth quarter. The last hopeful drive. The fumble.

Professional football trades in the commodity of hope, player by player, game by game, season after season, and fans buy into that hope. You let your guard down and allow a team to stand for you deep in your psyche. You make a kind of bet when you do that, even if you never literally wager a penny. However irrationally, you’re convinced that their accomplishment will be yours, as though you were back in the days when the duels of individual warriors—Hector against Achilles, David against Goliath—decided your fate and the destiny of your people. You drop your reserve, you invest your attention in these athletes, especially if you let yourself be convinced that they’re going to win. To win, that thing we want, the blessing of Fortuna. For the first time in many years, I bought into the Mavericks in 2006, and during that fourth game of the finals (the second of the four straight times that Dwyane Wade humiliated them), I became so venomous and foul that everybody in my family, one by one, left the room with averted eyes, unwilling to be drawn into that black hole with me. That was when I knew the Mavericks would lose the whole thing, and they did.

Never again. I did not watch a single game of the Mavs’ 2006–2007 season, and when they lost in the first round of the playoffs, I had the equanimity of a Zen master gently spreading his hands. Things come into being and pass away again. Nothing is lasting. Let misfortune not disturb you. But stupidly, lured into it by my assignment, I let the Cowboys get to me. Tony Romo and the successes of November led straight back to the abyss that opens in the raw split-second it takes to realize what just happened, when you howl like an animal. You hate Tony Romo and pity him at the same time: that smile that seemed so innocent and guileless now gone irretrievably, whatever else might happen in time to come. What Bill Parcells foresaw had come to pass. Tony Romo reduced to abjection. The Cowboys back in the emptiness, like the devils in Paradise Lost who think they are biting apples and instead find themselves with a mouthful of bitter ashes. A couple of weeks later, Parcells himself was gone.

The plan was, I’d interview Romo shortly after the end of the season, whenever it came. Maybe I’d hang around with him a little and see what he was like in the company of his friends. On the night of January 6, though, I could not imagine ever doing that. It seemed unlikely that he would ever speak again. That’s because, like almost everybody else, I had no idea who he was.

For a month or two, he stayed out of sight. For example, he played in the Pro Bowl, which no one has watched since about 1971. Attempts to get in touch with him through the Cowboys front office didn’t go anywhere. February came and went. The memory of the fumble gradually faded. March and the tulips and azaleas, April and the new baseball season. With Parcells’ departure and the hiring of Wade Phillips, the thinking on Romo also changed, maybe because you sensed that Phillips would not have a constitutional objection to his smile. It was impossible to hold that January 6 wound open, and it started to heal. Then came the Cowboys mini-camps in May, and word came that I would be able to talk to Romo, but only in the context of the team and his life as a player. By this time, he had been spotted with Carrie Underwood in various places, including the Country Music Association’s big awards ceremony. The Internet gossips, always more interested in celebrity than in football, had forgotten all about the Seattle game, and the blogs were full of commentary on the fact that he had been one of the judges at the Miss Universe contest in Mexico City.

Finally, on the last day of May, I met Tony Romo out at Valley Ranch, after the morning drills. The PR people had me wait in the team meeting room—a big classroom, just like in college, with a big screen in front, a podium, papers scattered around, empty water bottles. Just across the hall was the equipment room full of stacked t-shirts, piles of socks, jock straps. Nobody was there. The TV played to an empty room.

When Romo came in, he was very much what he had seemed to be at the press conference after the Philadelphia game back in December—present to my questions, genial, intelligent, honest. We sat at one of the long classroom tables talking. He was thoughtful, never merely glib. Twice, I got small flares of spiritedness from him, once when I asked about how he maintained the balance between humility and confidence, and again when I wanted to know if being from a small town was important to him. He let me know that humility, at least in the ordinary sense of modest self-deprecation, cannot be part of the mental equipment of an NFL quarterback. I suspect that he thought I was asking about the humiliating fumble, but that’s not what I meant. 

“You have to be confident,” he says with a trace of humor. He also says that being from a small town isn’t “important” to him (he repeats the word with a shading of scorn) so much as it is simply the case. That’s where he’s from. It’s part of how hard he has had to work. He isn’t about to undervalue himself.

Basically, I want to know what sudden fame has done to him. But, in a minute or two, it begins to dawn on me that I’m working from a bad assumption. How to put it? I’m thinking that before the fumble, he was the happy-go-lucky guy he looked like patting the ref on the back, that he’s talented but somehow found himself as shocked as anybody else to be the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. When I ask him about the full-blown NFL stardom he found thrust upon him last year, he subtly turns the question away from that interpretation and puts the emphasis on something else altogether.

“I never thought of it in the third person,” he says. “I never sat back and said, ‘Wow, look what’s going on with me.’ I mean, you work so hard at something, and when it comes to a point where you’re finally getting to play, it’s a neat feeling,” he says. “Not too much has really changed in my life other than people’s perspective of me. I still lead the same life with the exception of one or two things that might be a little different.”

“Miss Universe?”

“Right, heh. I said there are one or two things that are very different.”

Well, he said “a little,” but let’s not quibble. The more he talks, the more it becomes evident that he wants to stress one thing: the intensely hard work it took him to get here. By the way, guess why he didn’t want me to hang around him on a normal day? He thought it would be boring.

“My life isn’t too exotic. People suspect I do these crazy things, but the reality is that if you saw me I might do two fun, crazy things out of 150 days. There might be a movie or dinner during the day, and then there’s football every day. And then once in a while, I’ll get out of town and let football go for a day or two. I don’t go on vacations a lot just because it’s not that much fun for me,” he says. “I’m very realistic about myself and my talents. I have a long way to go to get to where I want to be. What it took to get here is probably going to be what it takes to get to the next level, too.”

So wait, wait. Here’s Tony Romo, and what he’s talking about isn’t the light that suddenly came down on him from the big guy in the sky who looks like John Madden. He’s not talking about his clothes or partying or dating Carrie Underwood. There’s nothing here of the old swaggering Renaissance sprezzatura. In fact, he sounds just like my brother. When I was in ninth grade or so and full of impatience when I wasn’t good at something the first time I tried, Hugh, who’s a few years older than I am, used to give me his definition of talent. You know you have talent at something, he would say, if you get better when you work at it. Somebody must have told Romo the same thing.

“If you look at me at each level, you go, ‘Ah, he’s pretty good at this level, but we don’t know if he can go to the next level.’” Scouts tended to assume that he had already reached his full potential. Otherwise, why did no one draft him? He was the only one who knew he hadn’t peaked. At each new level, he says, “I gain an understanding of what it takes to be good at that level. I figure it out, and then I try to work at it until I can get to this type of player.”

His whole capacity to see himself has to do with a detachment from immediate ego. He identifies himself, not with what he’s doing wrong, but with what he’s becoming, what he’s going to be. Romo has to see himself now as though he were watching somebody else (which will make him a great coach someday), and then he has to become the player slightly better than the one he has been so far. Talking about it, his voice quickens and takes on a detailed texture, a palpable grain of knowledge that comes from being very deeply into a subject and excited about it.

“It’s like this: if I’m dropping back and I’m gonna try something new in my footwork,” he says, “I’ll try to open my foot to throw to the right. Instead of concentrating on other things, I’ll just be thinking about my foot. Sometimes it will look bad, but one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that you have to be willing to sacrifice not always looking so pretty. That’s the only way to get better.” Somewhere Parcells comes into this, but how? The relentlessly critical Parcells? “It’s better for me to come out and throw the football by myself on the field than it is to come out here and have coaches all around me, because then no one wants to look bad. They’re just looking for completions. But that’s not going to get you any better.”

Okay, so there’s Parcells, the most unforgiving of those coaches just looking for completions. But thinking about Parcells, let’s surmise, used to drive Romo into more intense self-scrutiny, a realistic and non-judgmental self-examination like Buddhist mindfulness. He practiced alone so he could work through the problem before self-consciousness forced him back into the default footwork, say. That’s not so remarkable in itself, except when you reflect that this kind of work has constituted much of his life. He’s like the Irish airman that W.B. Yeats celebrates, not moved by “public men” or “cheering crowds” to do what he does. “A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds.” I strongly suspect, by the way, that when Romo practices alone, he never practices being the holder.

“I’m gonna go out there and try and throw as hard as I can and do something different—to throw dead into the wind, so I can make this throw in the rain. Then you feel like you have an edge. No one else needs to know that.”

So last season, Parcells just saw that Romo was better than Bledsoe and made him the starter. But he also saw that Romo was not yet stable enough to withstand the mammoth self-consciousness that comes from having the whole country looking at him and the press commenting on him, often acerbically, almost every day, especially when he had bad games.

“I probably started to let it be a problem toward the end of last season,” Romo says, “just because I’ve always been a pretty positive person and I’m not a big fan of negativity. But once again, I looked back, and I saw that I’m very realistic with myself and my talents and what’s around me and how to get better at those things. So I try to be realistic about the press, and they are going to say what they want whether you’re really good or not. But at the end of the day, I get to control the outcome with the way I play.”

Yes he does. So I have to ask him.

“If the Cowboys go on to win the Super Bowl, what perspective will that put on the fumble last year? Is there a point where you are going to see that as a blessing in disguise?”

“I have a hard time with that question because, for me, the worst part about that was the people you let down—the organization, your fans, your teammates. That was what hurt me the most. It wasn’t the fact that I didn’t come through or anything because that part of it I understand. In sports, you’re not always going to win. Maybe I needed to go through that to have a little chip on my shoulder. I understand how important that play was, but if we look back on it and hopefully we go on to win the Super Bowl, we’ll understand that maybe we needed to go through that.”

Hmm. Tony Romo needed a chip on his shoulder? That brings me to the explicit question of Bill Parcells and the new regime. He smiles.

“With the new staff, there is a great feeling every day when you come in. Bill coached more out of fear sometimes.” But that’s not his point. Not at all. “I learned a lot from Parcells. He’s probably the best thing that happened to me those first four years. He taught me how to get myself in the position to play and be successful by doing the steps along the way. That’s what I learned more than anything else. It was a way of life.”

What’s strange, listening to him, is that the hypothetical Super Bowl doesn’t sound so remote any more. He’s already imagining what it takes to be a Super Bowl quarterback, and I’m sensing it again, like some deadly, addictive intoxicant. Hope.

Glenn Arbery is a senior editor at People Newspapers and writes regularly about theater for D Magazine. [email protected].


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