Is it the end of the road for Tony Romo at the Dallas Cowboys?
It may have been the greatest clutch performance of Tony Romo's career, and it didn't come on the field.
In the space of six minutes in a press conference, Romo rewrote what was supposed to be the week's biggest story. The Dallas Cowboys' quarterback had been activated to the roster after suffering a back injury in pre-season, and the word from the media herd was the brewing of what they call a 'quarterback controversy'. There are few stories the knights of the keyboards love more.
Dallas boasts the best record in the NFL, and they've done it with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott at the controls. But Romo, who's 36 and hasn't played a full season since 2012, is the team's 'starter', and 'the book' says 'starters' don't lose their jobs to injury.
Romo's injury last season provided much of the impetus for a disastrous 4-12 finish. But the Cowboys had a strong offensive nucleus, and grabbed running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick overall in the college draft; rumour had it owner Jerry Jones had to be persuaded not to trade up in the draft to take one of the two top-rated college passers.
Still, they decided to hedge their bets by grabbing Prescott in round four. It was a considered a 'developmental' pick; though some of us thought it was a steal. I had Prescott rated no worse than third on my draft board, but I was in a distinct minority.
Then Romo got hurt; veteran bench-warmer Kellen Moore looked bad, and Prescott got his chance. He had reminded me of Seattle's Russell Wilson coming out of college, and he showed the same kind of poise and accuracy - he's thrown 14 touchdown passes with only two interceptions so far. It helps, of course, that the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the league, and running behind them, Elliott has looked like the best runner in the league.
They've been without receiver Dez Bryant, who came back last week, but Prescott has thrived with veteran tight end Jason Witten and slot receiver Cole Beasley helping to fill the gap. And with Prescott leading a remarkable comeback in the final 40 seconds against Pittsburgh last Sunday, the Cowboys moved to 8-1, the best mark in football.
For weeks the story had been building. Would Romo reclaim his job when he was healthy, or would the team stick with the 'hot hand'? Cameras focused on Romo on the sidelines in street clothes every time Prescott threw a touchdown pass, and it was obvious Romo was enjoying it.
Talking heads on TV screaming matches and talk radio bull-fests would quote NFL tradition: when your starter returns from injury he returns to his job. But actually, that's not what traditionally always happened. It has more to do with how well you've played, how well your replacement played, and how much capital - both financial and emotional - the team has invested in you.
Think about Tom Brady, who moved into Drew Bledsoe's job in 2001 when Bledsoe suffered a ruptured spleen after a tackle. Brady took over and the team's offense improved. Coach Bill Belichick didn't give Bledsoe the job when he returned (though Beldsoe's play in relief of a hurt Brady helped win a playoff game) and the 2001 Super Bowl and 15 years of success was the result.
Romo was activated, and the airwaves and cyberspace filled immediately with squawking babble. Dallas has a lot invested in Romo, both financially and emotionally. But it took Romo only six minutes to silence all the noise.
Reading from prepared notes, Romo spoke about the difficulty of missing ten weeks of the season, feeling like an outsider, not being there to lead his teammates. He reminded us that "seasons are fleeting, games become more precious," and said he found himself in a "dark place". Then he got to the point:
“You see football is a meritocracy. You aren’t handed anything. You earn everything every single day, over and over again. You have to prove it. That’s the way that the NFL, that’s the way that football works.
"A great example of this is Dak Prescott and what he’s done. He’s earned the right to be our quarterback. As hard as that is for me to say, he’s earned that right. He’s guided our team to an 8-1 record, and that’s hard to do. If you think for a second that I don’t want to be out there, then you’ve probably never felt the pure ecstasy of competing and winning. That hasn’t left me. In fact it may burn more now than ever."
Tony Romo knows better than most how hard it is to earn that spot. He came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent and had to work his way up from the bottom.
“I was that kid once," he said, "stepping in, having to prove yourself. I remember the feeling like it was yesterday.”
Noting that people had helped him, he added that he would help Prescott. They had each other's backs.
"We all know something magical is happening to our team. I'm not going to allow this situation to negatively affect Dak or this football team by becoming a constant distraction [...] Ultimately, it's about the team. It's what we've preached our entire lives."
When I was asked whether Romo should have his job back, I said my instinct was no, and part of it was for the reasons Romo himself cited. If Prescott continues to play well, the team benefits. If he falters, Romo is there to step in, and there won't be second-guessing.
If Romo marched back in and didn't play well, or even worse played adequately but perhaps lost a game or two, the back-biting would be deafening. What I was thinking of was what Romo was thinking of, and it's something we learn when we are kids, playing team sports, especially those like football which require great commitment and sacrifice.
Again, here's what he said:
"I remember when I was a kid just starting out wanting to be part of something bigger than myself. For every high school kid out there or college player, there is greatness in being the kind of teammate who truly wants to be part of a team. Everyone wants to be the reason they are winning or losing. Every single one of us wants to be that person.
"But there are special moments that come from a shared commitment to play a role, while doing it together. That's what you will remember. Not your stats, or your prestige, but the relationships and the achievement that you created through a group.
"It's hard to do, but there's great joy in that. And all the while your desire burns to be the best you’ve ever been. You can be both. I have figured that out in this process. It's what separates sports from everything else. It's why we love it."
Prescott was asked his reaction to the speech, and he said simply, "this is our team".
Some people still don't get it. The ESPN gasbag Steven A. Smith said: "What the hell do you need to read a speech for?" It will draw five minutes of fame on the internet and then be forgotten.
What Tony Romo said he needed to think out clearly, and state clearly, just so it would not be misinterpreted by the Smiths of this world. It was the clearest explanation I have ever heard of not just why a player does not expect to waltz back into his job, but it was one of the truest explanations I've ever heard of why we love sport. It could almost make me like the Dallas Cowboys.