Sunday was not the day to be a Tony Romo apologist.
The Dallas Cowboys quarterback faced off against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1 and managed to turn in one of the more embarrassing performances of his career against a 49ers defense that was missing a number of important players.
Romo didn't exactly have the worst performance the league will see this year, as he completed 23-of-37 passes (62 percent) for only 281 yards (7.59 yards per attempt) with a touchdown and three interceptions. Heck, there were moments where it looked like he might even bring the team back. Yet, in the end, it's difficult to really pretend that he wasn't a significant part of the problem.
Look, I am one of the first media members to rush to Romo's defense. I've written that he's not the real problem. I've even (recently) written that he and wide receiver Dez Bryant could be the answer to the big questions vexing the Cowboys.
Sunday, no one got to wear those rose-colored glasses.
Romo dug the hole against the 49ers and couldn't get back out of it.
Have to Play with the Hand You're Dealt
We can bicker back and forth about the root cause of most of the Cowboys' problems. If that's the road we're going down, Romo might come out a little more favorably in the discussion. For this team, though—the one the Cowboys have right now—Romo might not be enough, at 34, to be that guy he's always been.
Romo's Dallas tenure has been better—infinitely so—than the guys who have preceded him since Cowboys legend Troy Aikman. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com and its "Weighted Career Approximate Value," Romo (84, 286th overall since 1950) isn't that far off from Aikman (97, 141st overall since 1950).
For the Cowboys and the subsequent histrionics that surround "America's Team," that will never be enough without the same sort of rings that Aikman's squads brought to town.
Romo isn't getting those rings.
Romo will be lucky to get this team to 8-8 again this season.
I can already hear the comments: "Wait, though, didn't you just claim Romo could be the answer?"
Yes, he can be, and he should be, but he certainly wasn't in Week 1. And the Cowboys' upcoming schedule includes a murderer's row of defenses that could make the 49ers matchup look like a tea party. The Cowboys offense is packed with draft picks and should be able to run up scores on anybody to take some pressure off of the defense.
That didn't happen.
This was supposed to be a statement. Instead, it was chum in the water.
Tennessee just embarrassed the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1. St. Louis lost to the Minnesota Vikings, but it has one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the league. New Orleans, Houston, Seattle...you kidding me?
Those are all defenses that can be expected to exploit the kind of mistakes Romo made against the 49ers and come up with some of the same embarrassing interceptions that highlighted Romo's Week 1 play.
Romo is at the stage of his career—especially coming off a second straight offseason punctuated by back surgery—where he needs to provide more than a deep ball and a prayer. Yes, Bryant makes that game plan a little more palatable, and new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan isn't going to shy away from it, but that might be the problem in a nutshell.
The team around Romo makes that sort of high-risk/high-reward game plan foolish and makes darn sure that any team worth its salt knows exactly what it needs to do against the Cowboys. Just about any lead is a safe lead as long as Romo and his offense-mates are turning the ball over and the defense can't do a thing to stop anyone.
We can blame the defense (and we should), but the fact remains that this team has pumped a ton of resources into the offense in order to win games when its defense is so terrible. The Cowboys have let their defense suffer because the offense is supposed to be elite. If the offense is terrible, too, we can't exactly hold it to some sort of lesser standard.
Could It Be Time to Blow Up Everything?
For all of the many things we can say about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, he's been loyal.
Jones has been infinitely loyal to Romo. He's been loyal to head coach Jason Garrett. He's been loyal to his family—the Garretts included in that. He's been loyal to making the Cowboys one of the most successful businesses in the NFL even when the play on the field doesn't match that.
This past offseason, when it was so clear that Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2 defense were a huge part of the problem in Dallas last year, Jones even remained loyal to the scheme and doubled down on it, promoting defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to coordinator to lead it. He went so far as to even keep Kiffin on staff.
Jones has been known to have a quick hook in the past, but maybe the opposite is the problem.
I've called for Jones to blow things up before, and each time it seems as if the Cowboys go on a mini-run before settling comfortably back into the mediocrity that has so defined their recent history.
Recent calls have included a plea for Jones to stop wanting to do it all. The fact that he and his son Stephen ostensibly make (or, at least, have final say on) every single football decision is at least part of the problem. Frankly, there's your root cause right there.
That said, if Jones is going to mortgage his legacy at the expense of his hubris, he at least needs to find a head coach who hasn't been a lame duck for as long as many of the players have been on the team. This is, clearly, a rebuilding team, and no one seems to be willing to tell anyone else in the building.
What's most maddening is that the Cowboys have the talented pieces to rebuild if they ever found the will to do so.
Romo, in fact, might be perfect as a bridge-type player for a team with lowered expectations and a young quarterback to mentor. Of course, the big ol' extension he just signed might be a bit of an issue, but a rebuilding team can bite the bullet of a big contract a whole lot easier than a franchise trying to claw tooth and nail just to get into the playoffs.
Garrett, as uninspiring a figurehead as one can have, is wasting the play of young superstars such as Bryant, left tackle Tyron Smith and others. Linehan, after years of accomplishing zero in terms of developing the Detroit Lions offense, is just about the last guy one would want coordinating an offense featuring running back DeMarco Murray.
This, truly, is the biggest question Romo's Week 1 performance leaves us with: Is it finally the end?
The question has been asked before, and each time Jones resoundingly answers in the negative. Yet, if Romo and the offense can't keep up their end of the bargain, there's little chance of seeing the Cowboys outperform our expectations of them.