It's not a surprise, but it feels strange nonetheless: Tony Romo is no longer a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, he's no longer an NFL quarterback, having announced his retirement on Tuesday. This parting of ways has been a known inevitability for some time -- the confluence of Romo's injury history, his soaring salary and the emergence of Dak Prescott as a capable starter for the Cowboys have all led to team owner Jerry Jones finally accepting that it was time to end the working relationship for good. Now, Romo will serve as an NFL analyst for CBS Sports, joining Jim Nantz (and replacing Phil Simms).
Romo has been with the Cowboys since 2003 and their starter since 2006. His is an NFL Cinderella story of sorts, the type of player never expected to stick on a roster for long let alone get playing time. And he leaves the franchise as its leader in passing touchdowns and yards as well as the league's top fourth-quarter passer based on passer rating. He's 78-49 as a regular-season starter, but at nearly 37 years old and with a long and unfortunate injury history, the time has come to move on. The Houston Texans and Denver Broncos were at one time reportedly the frontrunners for his services for 2017, and it's while it's not inconceivable Romo will draw interest from quarterback-needy teams in the months to come -- Romo himself said Tuesday he expects it -- holding one's breath for a Romo return looks to be a fool's errand.
Romo never found the elusive Lombardi Trophy he's spent over a decade pursuing, but that does not change the fact that he will always be thought of as a Cowboy first. That's where his life in the NFL began and where he marked the major milestones in his playing career. Here are those moments, from his first chance in Dallas to how his Cowboys chapter came to an end, 14 years later.
April 28, 2003: Romo Signed by Dallas
Though Tony Romo was the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year for three straight seasons and the Walter Payton Award winner for the top Division I-AA player in the nation in 2002, the Eastern Illinois quarterback did not find any takers in the 2003 NFL Draft. That did not leave him without a team, though, with the Cowboys snagging him as an undrafted free agent. He began his NFL career on a two-year, $540,000 contract as Dallas' third-string quarterback. He spent his early years holding kicks and doing little else.
In 2005, when his initial rookie deal expired, the Cowboys gave him a two-year, $1.88 million deal. At the same time, he was promoted to No. 2 on the depth chart, behind Drew Bledsoe, signed in 2005 to replace Vinny Testaverde. Clearly, Dallas saw something appealing in Romo.
October 23, 2006: Romo's Big Chance
After three years as a backup, Romo finally saw his first significant regular-season action in Week 6 of the 2006 season in a home game against the New York Giants. Bledsoe had been struggling significantly in the first half, completing seven of 12 pass attempts for 111 yards, no touchdowns and an interceptions while taking four sacks. Then-Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells had seen enough and pulled Bledsoe at halftime, giving the rest of the game to Romo.
It wasn't a great performance -- Romo completed 14 of his 25 passes for 227 yards, throwing two touchdowns and three interceptions (one a pick-six) in the 36-22 loss -- but it wasn't terrible, either. Parcells decided to stick with the 26-year-old greenhorn from Week 7 on, and Romo's first career start led to a 35-14 win over the Carolina Panthers. Romo retained the job for the rest of the year; Bledsoe, meanwhile, was released after the end of the 2006 season and retired shortly thereafter.
January 6, 2007: First Playoff Appearance
Though the Cowboys finished the '06 season with a 9-7 record, it was enough to earn them a playoff berth. Their first task was to take on the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round, and Romo was in a brighter spotlight than any he had previously experienced. It showed.
The Seahawks led, 21-20, in the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys were in field goal range with just 1:19 left to play. Just one Martin Gramatica three-pointer from 19 yards out would likely lead to a Dallas win. Instead, it led to one of the most infamous moments in Romo's career.
Romo, still serving as the holder on kicks and field goals, botched the snap. He tried to run it in, but to no avail: He was tackled at Seattle's two-yard line, ending the Cowboys' playoff hopes and establishing Romo as a choker under pressure, an impression that has dogged his professional reputation ever since.
September, 2007: The NFL's Can't-Fail Quarterback
For the first four weeks of the '07 season, Romo was the league's golden quarterback. The Cowboys scored no fewer than 34 points in that span, with Romo throwing 11 passing touchdowns to three interceptions and rushing for two scores. But Week 5, against the Buffalo Bills, was a different story. Romo threw five interceptions in the game -- four of which came in the first half and two of which were pick-sixes -- and lost a fumble. It was as bad a performance as Romo's previous four were outstanding.
Yet, Dallas still defeated Buffalo, 25-24, and at the end of October, Romo was rewarded with a six-year, $67.5 million contract extension. Dallas also went on to post a 13-3 record, earning them a first-round playoff bye. Still, the Cowboys could not get their first postseason win of the Romo era, falling 21-17 to the New York Giants in the Divisional round.
Romo ended the season ranking third in passing yardage and second in passing touchdowns. That elusive postseason win seemed inevitable -- a matter of when and not if.
January 9, 2010: Romo's First Playoff Victory
Though Romo had a strong statistical season in '08, Dallas went 9-7 on the year and missed out on the playoffs for the first time since Romo became the team's starter. The Cowboys returned to the postseason the following year, with an 11-5 record and a first-place finish in the NFC East. And it was against an NFC East rival that Romo's Cowboys finally got a playoff win, Dallas' first in 13 years.
Dallas defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card round, 31-14. But the momentum wouldn't last; the Cowboys fell the following week in the Divisional round against the Minnesota Vikings. And Romo, again, looked human, with three fumbles (two lost), an interception and having taken six sacks. It would be Dallas' last playoff appearance until the 2014 season.
October 25, 2010: Romo Breaks His Collarbone for the First Time
It was already a bad start for Romo and the Cowboys before Romo suffered the first significant injury of his career in 2010. Romo had thrown 10 touchdowns to seven interceptions in his team's first five games and Dallas had a 1-4 record heading into Week 6. But then things got even worse.
On Monday Night Football against the Giants, Romo was sacked by linebacker Michael Boley in the second quarter. Romo did not return and was later diagnosed with a broken left collarbone. Though the Cowboys held out hope that Romo could eventually return, that was not the case, with Romo ultimately placed on injured reserve in December. John Kitna handled quarterback duties in Romo's absence and Dallas ended the year with a 6-10 record.
2011 Season: Romo's Return
Romo returned as the Cowboys' starter in 2011 seemingly no worse for wear. He had another strong season, throwing 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. But the team as a whole was not as competitive as in years past, finishing the regular season with an 8-8 record. The saving grace, though, was the overall weakness of the NFC East, such that Dallas' Week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles was a win-and-in playoff scenario for both teams.
Unfortunately for Romo and the Cowboys, Dallas fell in that contest, 31-14. The 2012 season didn't give the Cowboys a chance at playoff redemption, either. Their 8-8 record saw them yet again on the outside of the postseason.
March 29, 2013: The Big Payday
Though the Cowboys had finished 8-8 for two straight years, it wasn't for any lack of Romo's contributions. As such, Dallas chose to lock down its quarterback for what was expected to be permanently. In March 2013, the Cowboys gave Romo another extension, this time a six-year deal worth a maximum of $108 million, with $55 million guaranteed.
Romo had yet another good year, again throwing 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. But health questions peppered his year, beginning with back surgery to remove a cyst in April, then a rib injury suffered in Week 1 of the regular season, to the back surgery he required in late December that saw him land on injured reserve prior to Week 17. And it was another mediocre season for the Cowboys, with the team going 8-8 overall and 8-7 with Romo as the starter.
January 4, 2015: Romo's Second Playoff Victory
Romo had an exceptional season in 2014, leading the Cowboys to a 12-4 record that earned them the No. 1 spot in the NFC East. He completed 69.9 percent of his passes and threw 34 touchdowns to a mere nine interceptions. He also snagged his second career playoff victory, a 24-20 comeback win over the Detroit Lions; the Lions had a 17-7 halftime lead before Romo pulled off his signature move, the come-from-behind win.
Romo boasts 24 fourth-quarter comebacks and 30 game-winning drives as a Cowboy, but yet his legacy has been affected by the moments where he hasn't come through in the clutch. Though Dallas appeared in six playoff games with Romo as a starter, the team won only two of them. His final posteason foray with the Cowboys came in the Divisional Round in January, 2015, when Dallas fell to the Green Bay Packers, 26-21. It was a disappointing end to the season for Romo, who was the NFL's leader in completion percentage and passer rating on the year.
September 20, 2015: The Second Collarbone Fracture
The Cowboys had hoped to build upon the success they achieved in '14 the following season. It started out well enough, with a 27-26 win over the New York Giants in Week 1 with Romo throwing three touchdowns, but also two interceptions. But it was Week 2, against the Philadelphia Eagles, that changed the Cowboys' trajectory for the season and Romo's career in Dallas.
For the second time, Romo suffered a broken left collarbone. The hope was the injury would not cost him the entire season as it did in 2010. The Cowboys remained optimistic, not placing Romo on injured reserve and biding time with Matt Cassel as the starting QB until Romo could potentially return. Dallas, instead, lost seven straight games without Romo. When he did come back, in Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins, the Cowboys had the spark they lacked with Cassel under center and earned a 24-14 victory for their efforts.
November 26, 2015: Romo Re-Breaks His Collarbone
Romo's triumphant return was short-lived. In Week 11, on Thanksgiving night, the Cowboys were set to host the then-undefeated Carolina Panthers. The first half was a struggle for Romo and Dallas' offense. Romo threw three interceptions -- two returned for touchdowns -- and went into halftime down 23-3. But the worst was yet to come.
In the third quarter, Romo was taken down again on his left shoulder, breaking his collarbone for the third time and the Cowboys fell, 33-14. Romo was eventually placed on season-ending injured reserve and eventually underwent offseason surgery to reinforce the collarbone with a steel plate. The Cowboys were extremely careful with Romo during the subsequent training camp and preseason, while also bolstering their quarterback depth by selecting Dak Prescott in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Prescott worked almost exclusively with the first-team offense during camp, a move that would prove more than useful come the start of the regular season.
August 25, 2016: The Beginning of the End
For reasons both precautionary and practical, the Cowboys chose to keep Romo off of the preseason stage until Week 3, the so-called "dress rehearsal" game in which starters typically play at least three quarters. But Romo only got three plays into the game when he was tackled and crumpled by Seattle's Cliff Avril during a slide attempt. An MRI later revealed a compression fracture to the L1 vertebrae in his back, an injury that was expected to have him miss six to 10 weeks of action. Prescott then took over starting duties, which he never relinquished.
After a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in Week 1, the Cowboys went on to win 10 straight with Prescott as starting QB. By the time Romo was cleared to return in Week 11, the Cowboys were 9-1 and Prescott had made the position his own. Romo was then relegated to the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart while speculation grew that his time with the Cowboys could quickly be coming to a close.
Simply put, it no longer seemed financially prudent for the Cowboys to retain Romo, especially not with a $24.7 million salary cap hit ahead for him in 2017. That's a large sum of money for a starter in today's NFL and a virtually unheard of payday for a backup. With Prescott not just running, but commanding Dallas' offense, the post-Romo era seemed rapidly approaching.
January 1, 2017: Romo's Last Passes as a Cowboy
Romo did manage to get a little bit of regular-season work to close out the 2016 season. By Week 17, the Cowboys were already a 13-win team, NFC East champions and possessors of a first-round playoff bye -- all ingredients that lead to starters sitting out the season finale. This gave Romo a chance to take the field for his team one final time.
In the 27-13 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, Romo attempted four passes, completing three for 29 yards and a touchdown pass to receiver Terrence Williams. He was then again relegated to the sidelines for the Cowboys' Divisional Round playoff contest against the Green Bay Packers, in which Dallas nearly came from behind but lost, 34-31. Thus began the countdown until the time the Cowboys officially moved on from Romo, whether via trading him to another team or letting him leave as aa free agent able to negotiate where he would be playing next.
April 4, 2017: Romo Announces His Retirement and Shift to Broadcasting
Just a day before Romo decided to move on from playing professional football, the Cowboys' Jones finally permitted the (now-former) quarterback to work out and visit any team he so chooses, informing general managers around the league that Romo is officially available. But before any of that could come to fruition, Romo made the announcement the following day that his playing days are behind him and that his broadcast days as an NFL analyst for CBS Sports are ahead.
Of course, this won't stop the speculation that Romo could make his return to the league in the short- or long-term future, especially with Romo saying during Tuesday's conference call that "I wish I could tell you unequivocally, 100 percent, for the rest of my life, I'll never play any sports at all." But he followed that up with a more concrete, "I don't envision coming back," something that will have to be taken as face-value fact until or unless anything changes.
Rarely do NFL stories end this way; typically, players with Romo's injury history (and age) don't get to choose when their playing careers reach their close. But Romo was able to exit on his own terms for the most part (reports of acrimony between Romo and the Cowboys had surfaced in late March) and transition to a new career path that he sought out and welcomed. Though this won't mark the end of the discussion about Romo someday returning to a football field as a player, it does irreversibly mark the end of the Cowboys' Romo chapter.