The hounds are barking now at Tony Romo. Woof and woof and woof. There can be debate about the how and why of each of those five interceptions on Monday night that handed the Chicago Bears a 34-18 victory over the Dallas Cowboys -- routes that might have been run differently, blocks that might have been held longer, blah and blah, all true -- but in the end the number sits next to the quarterback's name. He threw the balls that went the wrong way.
CSI-Dallas doesn't have to dust for fingerprints.
"Well, I have to do my job," the contrite Mr. Romo said after his performance. "That's your first objective when you play in the National Football League."
He is 32 years old now, 10th year in the league and nights like this aren't supposed to happen anymore. He should be playing the game in a business suit and wingtips by his 10th year. He should be running the show as an executive more than an entertainer. An abacus should be at work inside that football helmet with the star on the side, not some adrenaline soundtrack. He should be playing percentages, cutting corners and (all together now) taking what the defense gives him.
Maturity should have set in by now.
Terry Bradshaw had won his four Super Bowls before he was 32. Tom Brady and Troy Aikman had won their three. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have each won two and neither has reached 32. The average age of the winning Super Bowl quarterback was 29.8 before Eli won again this year just after he turned 31.
Tony Romo -- please slide the graphics in right here -- has won exactly one (1) playoff game before his 32nd birthday. If he is going to do something in this NFL, he is going to have to do it on the backside of his career. The oldest Super Bowl quarterback winner, John Elway might have been 37 and 38 in his two championship seasons, but he also had been to the game and lost three times before he was 32. Time has started to move the wrong way in a hurry for Tony Romo.
Woof and woof and woof.
"[He] continues to do things to hurt his football team," analyst Joe Theismann, who was 33 when he won his one Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins, said last week BEFORE the Bears game on an NFL.com podcast. "He doesn't understand how to play the quarterback position. Somebody has to say it and I just said it. Tony, you just have to start proving to everyone you understand football. You're doing things that Pop Warner kids would get benched for."
Flamboyance has been part of Romo's appeal since he landed in the Cowboys' training camp in 2003, undrafted and unknown, fresh from the Eastern Illinois University campus with a strong right arm and the Walter Payton Award as the Division I-AA player of the year. He sat for three regular seasons, barely played a down, rose from third emergency quarterback to second-string backup to full-blown, instant star when he came off the bench to replace starter Drew Bledsoe midway through the 2006 season and led the Cowboys in a grand run to the playoffs.
Tony Romo. He engineered a 21-14 win over the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts that breakout year on a Sunday, came back four days later on Thanksgiving and led a 38-10 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in front of that national holiday television audience. Tony Romo. Where had he been? America wanted to know. He had that great name, sounded like a character in an Al Pacino gangster movie. He had those good looks, wore that baseball cap backward, had that attitude, that magic, that rock star panache. If he was a stock, you would have broken the bank for him.
Except, well …
There was that strange playoff finish to that 2006 season. The Cowboys tried that 19-yard field goal with 1:19 left for the win over the Seattle Seahawks and our man, as the holder, dropped the snap and botched the play and the Cowboys lost, 21-20. And then the next year, great season, star power magnified when he started dating actress Jessica Simpson, a photo came back from Cabo San Lucas during the bye week, start of the playoffs, our man and Jessica, smiles and sun, and the next week the Cowboys lost to the New York Giants, 21-17. And then the next season, 2008, final game at Texas Stadium, winner goes playoffs, loser stays home, there was a 44-6 thrashing by the Philadelphia Eagles.
And the next year. And the next and next.
"You have to get over it," Romo said after his five-interception night. "It's just going to suck now for a few days, obviously. It's going to sit there in your stomach and just eat at you."
He is married to a former Miss Missouri these days, and they have a baby boy. His personal life would seem to be in order. His professional life has to follow. The cerebral game has to replace the pure physical game. The flamboyance has to be hung in a closet, brought out only for special occasions. Can he do that? Can he calm down, play under control? Can he make the adjustment he never has made?
The schedule is not kind. The Cowboys and their quarterback have a bye week layoff to fret about all this stuff and then they have to play at the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 14 to start a stretch of four road games in five weeks. The record is 2-2, the season only four weeks old, but time has started to move that wrong way.
Only last week the team announced that discussions with Romo about an extension on his contract were being placed on hold. He has two more years left on his last six-year, $67.4 million extension. The news did not seem important. The next extension seemed only a formality.
The hounds are barking. Woof and woof and woof. Tony Romo looks more vulnerable than he ever has as a Cowboy.
Five interceptions will do that.