By Mike Piellucci
No one is surprised anymore when Tony Romo screws up. Not really, not seven seasons into the accumulation of a lowlight reel that is spectacular, in the word's most literal sense.
Some over-caffeinated announcer usually has the courtesy to bellow his way through a call of feigned bemusement whenever it does happen, but he's seen the fumble in Seattle and the interception in Washington, and the other snippets of Romo's inadvertent ingenuity in these situations; he doesn't shock easily. The announcer knows what we all know, which is that crushing, often reckless failures occasionally arrive in concert with the frenzied, hopscotched mania that has made Romo into one of the league's premier statistical quarterbacks, while doubling as one of its least protected.
In a more charitable world, that would be classified as taking the good with the bad. Cowboys fans could be -- and, for a half-decade after Troy Aikman's retirement, were -- at the mercy of far sloppier hands. But that's not how things work in our inflamed news cycle, and so instead, the same hackneyed conversations cycle back to the forefront, with talking heads yammering on about Romo's clutch gene, while radio shock jocks splice his golf scores and playoff record together, as a supposed barometer of work ethic. The ledger of his celebrity dalliances, so meticulously kept and curated, will be dusted off and recited for added measure. It is exhausting to listen to; it is also the only vein of thought anyone has about Romo anymore. And none of that is likely to change, not for a 33-year-old who's freshly dead-bolted to a mediocre roster with a shiny new contract.
That isn't to say that Romo doesn't still have pockets of support within the Cowboys fan base; he does, particularly among numbers-savvy fans who can contextualize and appreciate his considerable production. But those corners pale in comparison to the almost universal acclaim he held in those halcyon early days, after taking over the starting job, when he was just an undrafted rookie from a no-name school who made good. Part of that was inevitable, once anything concrete was drudged up to weigh against that spotless Cinderella narrative, but to disrupt things to their current extent -- one in which his failures are pilloried as loudly as Jerry Jones' on the public's list of scapegoats -- takes something considerably larger.
Tony Romo's problem lies in who he is and, more importantly, where he plays.
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Whenever a prominent athlete relocates to Dallas, his arrival is always accompanied by buzz but hardly ever any subtext. There is no speculation about how the player will take to the city -- the way we question a player's capacity to assimilate to New York's relentless uber-wattage, or Boston's pressurized hemotoxins, or Philadelphia's pathologically want-driven climate -- because Dallas is so busy attempting to be something else that it's yet to figure out what it actually is.
Having lived there for most of my life, I know what it fancies itself as: an evolving amalgam of Texas traditionalism and Los Angeles refinement.
But among those looking from afar (and sometimes from within, too), it succeeds at neither, its authenticity gradually whittled away by the Faustian bargain it made to import chic modernization. That view sustains itself not only throughout other parts of Texas, but also among neighboring parts of the Metroplex, with Fort Worth and Arlington -- site of the Jerry Dome -- ascribing parts of their own identities to retaining the humble practicality that Dallas relinquished long ago.
Dallas willingly and proudly aspires to be something more than just Texan. An exponentially larger part of the Cowboys fan base lives in places outside Dallas' haughty exclusivity -- in Fort Worth, Arlington, Longview and Terrell, plus some parts of Dallas itself. And it's indisputable that their favorite team's quarterback becomes decreasingly like them, the longer he lives among the city's privileged sons.
To be fair to Romo, this doesn't entail much beyond burrowing behind velvet ropes and a phalanx of public relations lemmings, the way star athletes usually do. It's hardly the most prurient behavior, and even if it were, it has become ubiquitous to the point of mundane in high society.
The only reason it is exceptional in Romo's case is because he once was the exception, someone who took homeless guys to the movies and fixed pedestrians' flat tires, with the expressed desire that it not be reported at all. A friend taking in a Friday night movie several years ago arrived to find Romo sitting in the middle of the theater, Jessica Simpson to his left, casually exchanging pleasantries with whoever felt like saying hello; for a while, everyone knew someone with a story like that. Those tales didn't make Romo accessible, per se, but they certainly helped him achieve an air of relatability, a window into how the other side lives that anyone could peer into, if they were in the right place at the right time.
Those stories are sparse now, replaced with mass-broadcasted accounts of his jet-setting to Mexico, and enough leaked, salacious details to propel his wedding into the hottest social event in the city last summer. Once ably identified by his backwards hat, Romo more often now is spotted in designer suits, the everyman-cum-pseudo-celebrity. And there is nothing wrong with this, no mandate that he continue to tithe a portion of himself to the outside world, certainly not when he cuts million-dollar checks to charity and, by most accounts, comports himself with the same congeniality as ever in the now-infrequent moments when he is spotted. Nevertheless, it creates a perception that there is now a barrier to entry to Tony Romo the person, the way there is with Dallas the city, as more money and glitz wash over them both -- and, juxtaposed against the team's playoff record with him under center, that such flash is woefully bereft of substance.
That last bit is key. Tom Brady's ho-hum metamorphosis into an Ugg-encrusted supermodel sidepiece is proof enough that fandom is a bottom-line business -- hardly anyone would care about Romo being relatable if he delivered a fistful of Super Bowl rings. But he hasn't, and so they do. It isn't even a matter of his being outright disliked, so much as, with fewer commonalities between them, the average Cowboy fan no longer finds it worth the frustration to wade into the bloviating muck to defend Romo. It's much easier to side with the torches and pitchforks when you have little invested in the person they're marching against. Even Latino fans don't rally around him the way one might expect for a player named Antonio Ramiro Romo -- grandson of Mexican immigrants who settled in the heart of Tejano country -- not to the degree that they have for Orange County-bred Mark Sanchez. Some people, by virtue of his looks and abbreviated first name, still don't know that Romo is Hispanic at all, and Romo never really bothers to correct anyone, nor publicly extend an olive branch to the Latino community as Sanchez has on numerous occasions. When ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer caught up with him during Hispanic Heritage Month, Romo deftly conveyed his appreciation for the Cowboys' Latino fans without internalizing it, detachment swallowing up whatever message he may have had.
"The Cowboys have such a strong Hispanic fan base, you can't help but see the number of fans that support us at training camp and through the year," Romo said. "It's awesome to be part of a team that gets that support, and I just really appreciate the support they give us."
Questions about Romo's earnestness have always dogged him, but his image used to be marred only by his results on the football field. Now, it's mangled by the distance he keeps away from it.
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In his latest attempt to absolve himself of blame for the Cowboys' bloated underachievement, Jerry Jones has resorted to trolling his quarterback.
He does so by imploring Romo to put in "Peyton Manning-type time on the job," ostensibly to shine a light on Manning's inhuman prep work, but with the obvious implication of stoking flames that never lack for kindling. Yet the strange thing about painting Romo as a poor man's Manning is that he's a more convincing, similarly lacking portrait of Manning's arch-rival Brady, sans the titles and with a less famous wife. Each comparison fits, though surely not in the way Romo would like; he'd much rather be seen as having Manning's wits and Brady's charisma than the former's yips and the latter's peccadillos.
But then, a lot of this probably hasn't played out the way Romo thought it would. In good ways, certainly, what with such a pedestrian advent to his career after a nondescript life before that; thousands of athletes dispense the tripe of never imagining they'd be here but, in his case, you'd forgive him for believing exactly that. Yet it's hard to imagine Tony Romo -- jovial native of small-town Wisconsin, anonymous doer of good deeds, decent enough guy -- ever conceiving of so many people taking pleasure in watching him fail, as much for the sheer magnitude as the ferocity.
There are ways to amend that, although it's difficult to envision the most all-encompassing -- winning a Super Bowl -- happening in the autumn of his career. Most of the others involve a peeling back of the curtains he's drawn, to reconnect with the parts of Dallas that adored him not too long ago. Doing so would attract attention, though, and given that Romo was low key then and is almost furtive now, I doubt that's what he wants.
And so all that's left, both for Romo and for the city in which he plays, is more forward progress, more repaving into something smoother and grander and bolder. But like all development, that growth comes at a cost.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeLikesSports.