Dak and Tony:
A Millennial’s Guide to The Dallas Cowboys, The Bigger Picture, and Learning to Let Go
For those of you who don’t know, I’m 23 years old. I was born in 1993, just as the Cowboys were winding up for a 1990s dynasty. We were three years in to Emmitt Smith’s legendary career, Jimmy Johnson was at the helm, and Darren Woodson was probably still house-shopping in Dallas after just joining America’s Team.
It was the beginning of a legendary time. But a lot of people forget that from ‘88-’90, Dallas spent nearly two seasons win-less at home. After beating the Chargers at home week one of the 1990 season, everything was looking up a bit.
They finished that season 7–9.
It didn’t get magical until 1992. A full year before I was born. This is how different the football world was: the Washington Redskins were defending Super Bowl Champions, the Patriots and the Seahawks ended their season at 2–14, and the Detroit Lions did not win a single game.
It looked good. Troy Aikman at the helm (302/473, 3,445 yds, 23 TD, 14 int on the season), Emmitt Smith ran for over 1,700 yards, and Michael Irvin had 7 touchdowns on 78 catches. The city was electrified. There were no good sports teams in town. The Dallas Mavericks were 11–71 through the regular season, while the Rangers were 77–85. The Stars didn’t even exist in Dallas yet.
But here came the Cowboys. They could hurt you in every aspect of the game. Rarely did a team come along like this. Beating the Super Bowl Champion Redskins week 1 certainly helped build a foundation on a 13–3 season (the all-time franchise record for single season wins), they secured a first round bye, after which they stomped the Philadelphia Eagles, and went on to defeat the Buffalo Bills 52–17 in Super Bowl XXVII.
About 13 hours before I was born.
While I was learning to walk, talk, read, and write; the Cowboys trudged along. Two days before my first birthday, they won it all again, beating the Bills 30–13 for back-to-back Super Bowl Championships. In ’94 they made the playoffs, ’95 they won it all again, and by ’96, with success in the NFL as fleeting as the headlights of the team bus, it was starting to trend downhill.
Yes, they made the playoffs. Yes, they even won a playoff game. But there was a dark cloud over the flat land just outside of Dallas starting to roll in.
It would be another 12 seasons until the Dallas Cowboys won another playoff game. So I would spend the next 12 years or so lamenting quarterbacks like Quincy Carter, Drew Bledsoe, Brad Johnson, and Drew Henson and watching my Cowboys take beating after beating, saddled with a mediocre defense and coaching staff.
But enough about the Cowboys past. “The Future is NOW,” right?
I had never known a consistently-winning Cowboys team. I was too young to remember Troy and Emmitt and I was getting impatient in my young age. I watched for other players around the league I could get behind. I believe that in any sports fan’s first few years of watching, they need to experience wins and excitement within the game to form a lifelong relationship with whatever sport they will one day love, so I spent my formative years a Donovan McNabb fan (NOT an Eagles fan) and later on was enraptured by LaDanian Tomlinson.
It was hard to be a Cowboys fan.
Here was this guy, waiting in the wings, one play away from what was once the most coveted job in sports. And here he came.
It’s 2006. After several years of abysmal Cowboys performances, Tony Romo took over mid-season and lead us to a Wild Card game (we need not talk about what happened there). After that, we were at least a team that was difficult to beat for a few years. 2009 saw the end the drought of playoff wins when we defeated the hated Eagles.
I remember watching Tony over the years. He would improve week-to-week, and just when all was looking good, it always seemed he’d throw the ball to a team in a different uniform. Of course, that’s not exactly accurate, as Romo is one of the most accurate passers in NFL history. There are only 4 QBs that have ever had a higher completion percentage: Drew Brees, Chad Pennington, Kurt Warner, and Peyton Manning.
In fact, Tony has thrown less interceptions in his career than Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Phillip Rivers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning.
As Cowboys fans, we watched Tony put his body on the line week after week, month after month, season after season. He was a warrior. This was before the days of that unstoppable offensive line and long before the days of another 1,500-yard rusher stepping into the backfield.
It was all Tony. We loved him. We hated him. We loved to hate him. We missed him when was on the bench and nursing his latest injury, all while begging Jerry to draft the #1 quarterback every off-season behind his back (and on AM radio).
Tony is 20–3 in November. 20–3. The November record in the Super Bowl era. He lived three to five steps behind an offense that sputtered at the start of the season, jumped on his back through November, and got tired and went home in December. Through it all though, Romo stuck it out, becoming the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history (133.7 QBR) in December games.
But just like the Cowboys of the Romo era that seems so long ago — we were always right there and couldn’t finish the job. We squeaked into the playoffs, rallied at the ends of seasons, and spent 3 years at 8–8.
Then Dez caught it (obviously).
And even though that season ended, there was hope.
Romo had an offensive line that didn’t force him to run for his life every down. Dez was playing at the top of his game, while Demarco Murray took a lot of pressure off Romo’s shoulders with a phenomenal season.
Until, again, an inevitability occurred. Romo went down. Almost for an entire season. This team lost its shine and sense of direction. The Cowboys finished 2015 4–12, basically just vying for a high draft pick, which they got (Thank God for that, huh?).
This team lacked two things: consistency and chemistry. Neither were ever Tony’s fault. But asking around, you would hear the opposite all over the metroplex. Tony got all the blame for Cowboys’ failures, but none of the credit for the success.
Some people will tell you that chemistry (and other intangibles like it: momentum, heart, and desire) don’t bear out on the stat sheet and don’t translate to the gridiron. Those are the same people that think the Browns are good, if only they could just trade and replace every player on their team.
So here we are: 2016. As I sit here, the Cowboys are 11–1, with no real end in sight. They have a few challenges coming but they are #1 in the NFL power rankings and have a comfortable shot at home-field advantage, a 1st round bye, and the NFC championship.
Why? Well… now I’m going to get a little controversial.
The stars have aligned over Dallas. You can see them through the hole in the roof at JerryWorld. There are so many reasons this team is where it is at, but only one that matters.
This guy. This 4th-round pick from Mississippi State with a propensity for throwing his trash away when he misses the trashcan. This man who texts his mother every Sunday, though she was lost to cancer 3 years ago.
He has his flaws. He spends most of the first half of games throwing the ball behind receivers. He makes short throws and hesitates to go for the deep ball. He’s conservative. He’s a game manager.
But let’s make no mistake: football is a battle. So like any good battle-commander, Dak just figures it out. He improvises. He looks for weaknesses and exploits them. He warms up and finds his groove.
As you know by now, I’ve been a Cowboys fan a long time. My whole life. This team has always been right there. One game away, one play away, one botched hold on a kick away (damn it, I said I wasn’t going to mention it), and it’s slipped through our fingers over and over again. I’ve spent almost 15 years of watching every game of every season white-knuckling through 4th quarters and last-minute touchdown efforts, only to be let down.
Everything this team has accomplished since I became a cognizant sports fan came from a come-from-behind victory and all of their failures came on stupid mistakes. They never played ahead. They were almost never 1 or 2 games up on the division. It was never comfortable being a Cowboys fan.
And, through it all, I’ve learned one thing:
This team is either absolutely terrible or they are at the top. There is no in between. If they look good, they are. If they look bad, they are.
Now they look good. You’ve heard the story already a hundred times. That Dak is having a historic rookie season: best rookie completion percentage ever, best interception rate by a rookie ever, highest QB rating, and only Ben Roethlisberger averaged more yards per attempt his rookie year, blah, blah, blah.
That’s not what I’m here to talk about. That has nothing to do with my take on this quarterback situation.
Dak should have gotten the start over Tony. I just proved to you: Tony Romo is arguably the best quarterback in Cowboys history (statistically) and I argue that no one has ever put their body on the line for this team like him. That doesn’t mean it’s not time to move on.
Emmitt’s last season in Dallas was only 25 yards short of 1,000. Before that he ran for 1,021. Does anyone argue that it was to early for Emmitt to leave?
Michael Irvin’s last full season with the Cowboys netted 1,057 yards on 74 receptions. Does anyone argue Michael left too soon?
Tony has played at the top of the NFL when he’s been on the field these last few seasons. That’s what elite quarterbacks do. Rain or shine, they play their hearts out and light up the stat sheet. That doesn’t mean that we have to force the continuation of the Tony Romo era. Ask Peyton Manning and Brett Favre how those last, beyond-your-prime seasons play out.
Tony will be looked on as a great quarterback in the years to come. Maybe even the best quarterback to ever lead this team. Even without the playoff victories or the Super Bowls. Football is a team sport, it’s not Tony’s fault that he couldn’t carry a roster of 53 men all the way.
But it is time to let our hero go. He’s earned it. He’s earned that aforementioned legacy. And to exit this franchise with dignity, if that’s how this all plays out.
I know he wants to play and compete at the highest level. He deserves that as well. And right now, you’re expecting me to make the argument that you ride the “hot hand” and you don’t mess with the “magic” that’s happening in Dallas. But that’s not where I’m going.
I love Tony Romo. He was my first Cowboys legend. That’s why I want to see him walk up to the podium to give his Hall of Fame induction speech. That’s why I want to watch him stand on The Star at midfield and get inducted into the Ring of Honor. I don’t want to look back at Tony like so many do Muhammed Ali or Sean Taylor.
I’m ready to let him go. And in his absence, I’m ready to give this team’s odds over to the Football Gods and hope that Dak, Zeke, and Dez can learn from the veterans of my childhood and find a new way for this team to win championships.
I’ve learned that something constructive comes from every defeat.