Mathematically, albeit improbably, the Dallas Cowboys can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs this weekend. And whenever that happens, Tony Romo again will be thrown into the crosshairs.
The question: what will the Cowboys do then?
They have to play him, of course. Don’t they? The Cowboys have a Super Bowl run to prepare for. They have a potential championship to win. And if Dak Prescott is truly their starter — and he indisputably is — well, then head coach Jason Garrett will need to protect him in the final weeks. That means he must relegate Romo, a four-time Pro Bowler with a 78-49 career record, to mop-up status as the Cowboys collectively catch their breath.
If Romo is true to his word and lives up to that unforgettable statement he made upon returning to active status, he won’t complain. He will go out there with scrubs and second-stringers and further risk his health for the Cowboys, as he has done for much of his career. Only this time, Romo has a future to think about — and, more specifically, a future employer — putting the interests of the Cowboys and their longtime quarterback in diametrically opposed positions.
The Cowboys are playing for the now, oddly enough. And their aging quarterback is planning for the future. How’s that for a plot twist? The interests don’t exactly align.
And so all of that said, here’s what head coach Jason Garrett should do if Romo needs any convincing at all:
He should show him the video from a game played at Pittsburgh on January 27, 2002, which did not even feature the Cowboys.
The significance, you ask? Well, January 27, 2002 was Championship Sunday in the NFL, a day the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots sealed their trips to the Super Bowl. In the case of the latter, New England did so with an improbable 24-17 win at Pittsburgh, a victory made all the more astonishing because New England scored one touchdown on a punt return and another on a blocked field goal.
The only other touchdown New England scored that day came on a touchdown pass… from the backup quarterback. That’s right. Starter Tom Brady was forced to the sideline roughly halfway through the game with a high ankle sprain, requiring the previously forced-out Drew Bledsoe to jog onto the field with a Super Bowl at stake.
At perhaps the only time of the season when the Patriots needed him, Bledsoe delivered. After that day, Bledsoe never took another snap in a New England uniform. But when the Patriots received their Super Bowl rings months later, Bledsoe could at least proudly accept his knowing he had made a significant contribution.
Naturally, there is a lesson in this for forced-out Romo, who is to these Cowboys today what Bledsoe was to the 2001 Patriots: a symbol of a bygone era in the relative twilight of his career. In Dallas, it was Romo who replaced Bledsoe, of course. And now it’s Dak who has bumped Tony. Yet the possibility remains that the Cowboys will need Romo at some point this postseason, and if they do, it will likely be someplace big. And it will be incumbent upon Romo, at the end of his soap operatic existence in Dallas, to be ready.
Just a few weeks ago, a dignified and poignant Romo stood before a podium and addressed the Dallas media — all of Dallas, really — saying, at one point, that he believed the Cowboys had the best team of his career. And they do. And if Romo truly believes that, if he truly believes (along with many others) that the Cowboys could win the Super Bowl and that this is The Year, then he has one more obligation to the Cowboys before he begins thinking about where he will take his first snap next season.
He owes it to Dallas — and to himself — to be ready for the chance that he must trot onto the field in a Dallas uniform, in a meaningful situation, for one last time in his Cowboys career.
Now wouldn’t that be something?
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.