Reporters, bloggers, sports anchors and adjoining camera crews have followed Romo like ducklings at every opportunity this preseason, the norm ever since the undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois beat the odds and earned the starting job midway through the 2006 season. But many of the questions in recent weeks sounded like Sanjay Gupta sneaked into the media mob.
“How are you feeling?” … “Can you twist your back OK?” … “Can you throw deep?” … “Will you be able to practice tomorrow?”
“Will you physically be ready for the season opener?”
That's because he's 34 and has been operated on twice within 18 months, most recently in December to repair a herniated disc in his back.
As Romo walked away from the conclusion of such a session a few weeks ago at training camp in Oxnard, California, his patience regarding the subject nearly evaporated.
“I’m not eighty-four years old,” he said with a wry smile.
Romo would have had enough on his to-do list for this ninth season as Dallas' starting quarterback without the reconstructed sacroiliac. Dallas has ended each of the past three seasons losing NFC East showdowns that determined the division’s winner and only playoff qualifier.
(Romo’s discectomy was performed two days before last year’s Week 17 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, his back having been aggravated the previous week while rallying Dallas past the Washington Redskins to stay alive.)
The Cowboys have straggled home at 8-8 in each of the three seasons since Jason Garrett, a member of the team's QB fraternity, was named full-time head coach. The Romo Cinderella saga, from Division I-AA to NFL understudy to Pro Bowler, has been supplanted because of missed opportunities.
The bold, fearless quarterback—critics might say reckless—has often been blamed for late-game failures leading to late-season defeats. Dallas has won only one postseason game during his tenure and hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2009.
Such is the arduous burden for Romo on a franchise whose quarterback legacy was forged by Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman and their multiple Lombardi Trophies. Uncertainty over Romo’s back creates more questions than ever for the 6’2” lightning rod for all lovers and loathers of America’s Team.
When Tiger Woods called it a year a few weeks ago following similar surgery, speculation grew that newly acquired Brandon Weeden should prepare to be more than a backup.
"People are going to talk about your injury history and things of that nature," Romo said. What is not as talked about, he said, are the strides he's made in both the physical and mental aspects of playing quarterback. "You just didn’t know that much stuff when you were 28,'' he said.
Back then, Romo said, "you just didn’t have all the intricate, little things to be great every single day."
He said he is closer than ever to having that now, that "feeling of being confident in everything that you do."
Romo and the Cowboys will open at home on Sunday afternoon against the San Francisco 49ers, the first of three top-five defenses that they’ll face in the season’s opening six weeks. He’ll debut following an offseason in which he sat out most team-related activities—put on a “pitch count”—a training camp during which he was regularly a spectator and a preseason in which he played seven series in two games.
Romo now undergoes hours of exercises and back therapy before putting on the pads. Each game is now followed by a date with a cold bath. Jim Maurer, the team’s head trainer, declined through a team spokesman to provide details.
Romo was hit for the first time in eight months during the Cowboys’ third preseason game, at Miami on Aug. 23, when he was sacked three times and got up three times.
“That was good just in regard to getting up and keep playing,” he told reporters afterward. “That part of it was positive. The hits in general, hopefully we can avoid.”
Romo’s quarterback rating last season in 15 starts ranked eighth in the NFL; three players ahead of him were older. He threw for fewer yards at a slightly lower completion percentage than in 2012. He cut his interceptions nearly in half, cut his rushing attempts by a third and didn’t lose a fumble for the first time in his career.
That followed an April 2013 operation to remove a cyst from his back which sidelined him until camp. That followed a March '13 contract extension for six years at $108 million, $55 million guaranteed, that goes into effect this season.
No Cowboys player is closer to Romo than Jason Witten, the 12th-year tight end who owns the franchise record for career catches. Witten said Romo will actually benefit from his time away from the field in recent months.
“I think when you have that time off, it really allows you to evaluate and see things from a different perspective,” Witten said. “Every opportunity is precious, and he realizes that. ... I think he’s going to have his best year yet.”
Romo went beyond that during his first Oxnard news conference: “I think over the course of the next four or five years, you’ll see the best version of me that I’ve had throughout my career.”
Romo’s career statistics compare favorably with the franchise’s quarterbacking aristocracy. Romo is first in touchdown passes and second to Aikman in completions and yards. For those who assume Romo has been more prone to picks, his interception percentage of 2.7 trails that of both Staubach (3.7) and Aikman (3.0).
Note: Aikman was Dallas’ primary starter for all 12 seasons, Staubach for nine, Romo for eight to date. Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com
If Romo is forced to adjust his style of play because of his back, he will be doing something that Staubach—“Roger the Dodger”—never did. Or really even tried, much to the chagrin of his Hall of Fame coach during a Cowboys career that ran from 1969-79.
“Tom Landry, in the films in ’79 when I ran, said, ‘You’re going to learn someday,’" Staubach recalled.
Staubach retired after that ’79 season at the age of 37 from the effects of repeated concussions. The four seasons that he played after turning 34 were in many ways his best.
He set personal season records for attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns during his final season. He cited Dallas’ 35-34 victory over Washington in 1979 as his best career game, guiding the Cowboys to two touchdowns in the final 2:20.
But, Staubach noted, he never faced back issues.
“A quarterback can hang in there for a long time,” he said. “But with age in context with [Romo’s] back, I really don’t know if he’ll have a relapse. Hopefully, their offensive line isn’t going to let somebody hit him in the wrong spot.”
The franchise’s other Hall of Fame quarterback did face back problems. Aikman had an operation in the summer after the Cowboys' 1992 Super Bowl win and led the team to a repeat the following season.
“Not that I was ever as mobile as Tony is in the pocket,” Aikman said. “I think his style’s going to be his style. Now, whether he’s as effective at doing it, that’s probably a better question.”
Aikman was 26 when he had the surgery.
“I missed some early parts of training camp,” he said. “But once I came back and began practicing, which was just before the third preseason game, I never missed a practice because of my back.
“Him, eight months out, to be missing some days, I don’t read too much into it. But to me, just from afar, it does raise some concerns.”
Aikman played his last NFL game a month after turning 34 in 2000 because of back issues that he said were unrelated to the surgery.
As much as the Cowboys’ recent 8-8 reboots are often blamed at least in part on Romo, they hover over the head of Garrett heading into the final year of his contract. All that keeps his career record above .500 is the 5-3 mark that he fashioned as interim head coach during the second half of the 2010 season following the 1-7 start under Wade Phillips.
Garrett called the plays in 2011 and 2012. The duties were handed last season to Bill Callahan—by Garrett? by owner/general manager Jerry Jones?—with no better bottom-line results.
This season’s play-caller is Scott Linehan, the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator during the past five years under Jim Schwartz. Linehan’s title is "passing game coordinator"; Callahan remains offensive coordinator in name only while concentrating on the line.
Linehan was Garrett’s offensive boss with the Miami Dolphins in 2005, when they worked for first-year head coach Nick Saban. His Lions led the NFL in pass attempts twice.
“He’s got a great mind for football,” Romo said. “I think our interaction has been outstanding. He sees the game from a very simple perspective, and it makes it easy to communicate daily about what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Linehan said he wasn’t hampered by installing a new system with his No. 1 quarterback limited during the offseason. When Romo isn’t participating in practice sessions, he usually isn’t far from his new play-caller.
“In my back pocket,” Linehan said. “He’s well-prepared for any situation. There’s not a lot he hasn’t seen.”
A favorite target of Romo critics are late-game, last-season offensive plays gone awry, often considered avoidable. In the 28-18 loss at Washington which ended the 2012 season, the last of his three interceptions came with about three minutes to play and ended any comeback opportunity. Afterward, the Cowboys veteran was consoled by Washington’s rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III.
Last season, Romo was picked off twice in the final three minutes after the Green Bay Packers crawled from a 23-point hole in the second half in mid-December to win 37-36. Romo audibled out of a run on the first interception because of the defense’s look.
Linehan told David Moore of The Dallas Morning News that Romo this season can still audible out of what appears to be a doomed run but only to a different run, not a pass.
There was similar angst among Cowboys fans last October following a performance that Jones called his quarterback’s best ever. Romo set team records with 506 passing yards and five touchdown passes against the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys lost 51-48 with Romo throwing an interception with 1:57 to play.
For the record, neither Staubach nor Aikman ever had to march back out onto the field after running up 48 points and needing another score to win. The Dallas defense allowed 6,645 total yards last season, third-most in league history.
Regarding the frequent outside castigation, Romo said, “That’s what makes the game great; people love to talk about it. If you play professional sports, you’d better be able to handle criticism. Otherwise, you’re not going to last very long.”
Staubach, a Heisman Trophy winner, was in his first year as a starter in 1971 when Dallas notched its first Super Bowl win after five consecutive years of postseason frustration. He said that achievement essentially awarded him equity among the fans. Playing in four Super Bowls in nine seasons, adding a second win, earned him near-royal status for life.
Aikman was a No. 1 overall draft pick joining a 1-15 team. The team quickly ascended to playoff qualification and three Super Bowl wins in four seasons.
“Fortunately for me, we were able to capitalize on a lot of those years when we were really good,” Aikman said. “It’s one of those flagship franchises that is about winning championships. Whether or not that has been realistic during Tony’s tenure, I don’t know. In some ways, Tony becomes a victim of the optimism and marketing machine of the Dallas Cowboys.”
Babe Laufenberg saw young Aikman deal with criticism while serving as his backup and roommate for two seasons. He has seen Romo deal with it during his tenure as a Dallas TV sportscaster and the color analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts.
“From the outside looking in, I think he has certainly insulated himself a lot more,” Laufenberg said. “His circle is tighter, and I think that probably happens to everyone.
“Tony was a lot more open early and, honestly, when he started out, people loved him. It’s the undrafted guy, and he’s running all over the place. In 2006, he totally energized everything. The organization. The team. The fanbase.”
This preseason began less auspiciously. Romo’s first possession, against the Baltimore Ravens, ended with a botched handoff to DeMarco Murray. Linebacker Courtney Upshaw turned that into a touchdown, avoiding the quarterback’s attempted hand tackle.
"I had 'im, too," Romo said afterward.
The only Dallas touchdown of Romo’s preseason was a 31-yard pass to Dez Bryant. The fifth-year wideout’s contribution this season will be critical.
Bryant has averaged 92.5 catches, 1,307 yards and 12.5 touchdowns the past two seasons, leading the league last season in goal-to-go touchdowns. He also can execute a route into the locker room with the game still going on.
With Romo’s preseason concluded in Miami, Laufenberg was asked if Romo will be the same quarterback as last season.
“Great question. Hard question,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell with the limited sample.”
Laufenberg said Romo’s ability to successfully execute comeback routes to the sideline 30 yards downfield has convinced him he can make any throw. But he also noted Romo doesn’t have to be hit to re-injure his back.
“He wasn’t hit at Washington [last December],” Laufenberg said. “Stretching for a handoff, he could herniate. He’s always one play away from going Tiger Woods on you.”
Up next are the 49ers. There will be no more pitch counts.
Romo is somewhat philosophical about what lies ahead:
“The only easy day was yesterday.”
Jeff Miller is a Bleacher Report feedback editor. He spent 21 years at The Dallas Morning News as an editor, writer and assistant sports editor.