Back in December, as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was undergoing a second back procedure in less than a year, former Cowboys great Troy Aikman, who himself had to retire at Romo's age due partially to back injury issues, raised concerns about Romo's ability to handle a less-than-fully-healthy back.
"I think it would be a concern of mine if I was with the Cowboys, having back surgery once again and at his age," Aikman said, according to The Dallas Morning News. "It could be a factor going forward as far as his performance."
Although he was Romo's age (34) when he was forced to walk away, Aikman had been through a lot more, starting 57 more games in four extra seasons. There was less tread on his tires. That seemed reason enough to be less concerned than the quarterback-turned-analyst was at the time.
But here we are nearly eight months later, and Romo is missing practices and games, and even his position coach won't deny he's yet to remaster deep throws.
"I think he's been a little tentative with it," quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said on Tuesday, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "Hopefully he's going to get four days off now because he won't do much (Tuesday), we travel Wednesday, play the game and then they're off on Friday. Hopefully with four days of complete rehab he can come back on Saturday and start to look like his old self completely."
But he's cutting it a little close, no?
"He can get the ball down the field, that's not an issue," Wilson added. "I think as camp goes on he'll get nothing but stronger and more confident in his throws."
Camp is half over, though, and Archer notes that he's been wobbly on deep balls. Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News is seeing the same thing:
Romo’s most-glaring issue so far has been his deep passes. Most of his deep passes have been wobbly and have floated into receivers’ hands. On the last play of team drills Monday, Romo’s deep pass to receiver Cole Beasley wobbled in and didn’t have much zip.
"He’s probably just protecting his back and not wanting to fully cut it loose right now," Wilson said, per George. "The ball is not spinning totally right every time, and there is a little bit of breeze. Usually he drives those pretty good. His most inconsistency has been on deep balls."
In the NFL in 2014, that's a concern. Teams can survive without having quarterbacks with cannons on their shoulders, and Romo never had a howitzer, but Dallas—with its depleted defense coming off a 32nd-ranked season—simply can't afford to have the offense lose a step.
Romo went deep on only 10.5 percent of his dropbacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was the 29th-lowest rate among 40 qualifying quarterbacks. However, he and Nick Foles were the only two quarterbacks in the league with fewer than two picks on more than 50 deep attempts. His 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio on those throws was second-best in football.
|Best TD-to-INT ratios on deep throws, 2013|
|1. Nick Foles||14-to-1|
|2. Tony Romo||8-to-1|
|3. Drew Brees||15-to-2|
|4. Mike Glennon||7-to-1|
|Pro Football Focus|
The Cowboys need that type of performance in 2014.
Romo admitted earlier this summer, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus, that he'd never fully be back to normal, which, again, isn't a good sign. The fact that neither he nor his coaches are trying to paint a typically optimistic picture is concerning, especially with the regular-season opener looming just four weeks away.
It might not be time to panic, but we can no longer pretend that Romo's back hasn't become a true threat to both his career the short-term future of the organization.