Few players in this era of the NFL have a more complex, murky legacy than Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. His individual achievements, celebrity status and all-around likability have made him a superstar, one of the biggest names in football. But given the hype, longevity and iconic nature of the position he held for roughly 10 seasons, his famed tenure in Dallas — which officially came to a close Tuesday — is peppered with failure.
And while it’s ultimately his advanced age, slew of recent injuries and the rise of Dak Prescott that pushed him out of Dallas, none of those factors tarnish his place in team history.
Since the mid-1960s, Cowboys quarterbacks have been immense figures in the game. Although he was unable to supplant the rival Green Bay Packers for a NFL title, Don Meredith was every bit the efficient field general as his NFL counterpart, Bart Starr, and every bit the thrill-maker as his American Football League counterpart, Joe Namath. And given Meredith’s years as a folksy Monday Night Football voice, his fame carried on far after he retired in 1968.
Roger Staubach soon managed to unexpectedly exceed Meredith in wins, championships and fame. And even though Staubach’s successor, Danny White, never won a Super Bowl, he, too, was a worthy heir, guiding Dallas to three consecutive NFC Championship games. That achievement seems almost quaint compared with the next great signal caller in the Dallas lineage, Troy Aikman, who became the first quarterback in history to win three Super Bowls in four seasons.
So when Romo emerged as the Cowboys starter midway through the 2006 season, he had unbelievably large shoes to fill.
In terms of statistics and memorable performances, Romo did just that. He threw for 4,000 yards four times in a six-year period and topped 30 touchdown passes four times, feats that Aikman, White, Staubach and Meredith never achieved.
And because the Cowboys seemed to be a legitimate Super Bowl threat virtually every year of his tenure — at least until the beginning of December — Romo received a tremendous chunk of the credit. But, of course, because the Cowboys either folded in the final weeks of the regular season (2007, 2011, 2012, 2013) and missed the playoffs, or failed to advance beyond the NFC divisional round in four postseason trips, he drew a good deal of the blame.
Given that staggeringly low success rate — four playoff berths, two playoff wins — during a long run on a talent-laden team, Romo never can be considered equal to Staubach or Aikman. Any Cowboys fan who points to Romo’s laundry list of 49 300-yard passing games or 42 3-passing-touchdown efforts is fooling himself. It’s a different game, far more passer-friendly than it was in the 1990s and in the 1970s.
Sure, Staubach and Aikman each had better defenses, running games and offensive lines, and each played for a better head coach than Romo. But the regular-season wins and fantasy football-endearing numbers is a classic episode of comparing apples to oranges. Staubach and Aikman were top-tier regular-season quarterbacks of their era as well as postseason magicians. Romo was not. In Romo’s four playoff losses, the Cowboys offense managed 1 second-half touchdown.
It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Romo forever will sit behind Aikman and Staubach in the pantheon of Dallas passers. A far more relevant question than “Is Romo the best quarterback in Cowboys history?” would be “Is Romo the third-best quarterback in Cowboys history?” And, to that, the answer is a resounding “yes.”
Meredith was as flashy as Romo, displaying a knack for long touchdown throws and fourth-quarter comebacks. But his body of work is too limited to be considered the franchise’s bronze medalist. He was Dallas’ full-time starter for six seasons. Because the number of playoff berths awarded per season during the 1960s was far fewer than the number awarded now, there’s less to judge him on.
That’s not the case for White, who won more playoff games as a starter — five to Romo’s two — and earned more playoff berths — five to Romo’s four. But unlike Romo, White was not the centerpiece of those offenses, running back Tony Dorsett was. And aside from one incredible fourth-quarter comeback over Atlanta in 1980 — truly his signature performance in a Cowboys uniform — White was never an improvising, risk-taking, drama-fueling quarterback like Staubach, or even Romo.
This rich, varied history of Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks has put the position on the same level of majesty and importance as center field for the New York Yankees or center for the Los Angeles Lakers: multiple fabled players have graced the same spot in the same lineup. And for Romo’s final resting place in NFL history, that fact is his gift and his curse.
Because he was the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys — one of the most polarizing franchises in American sports — people noticed and cared about him far more than they would have had he played in Arizona or Buffalo or San Diego. Measured against the enormous figures of Staubach and Aikman — and to a lesser degree White and Meredith — Romo’s successes were magnified. Cowboys fans flashed back to the glory days of the 1970s and/or the 1990s whenever Romo marched his offense down the field for a spirited fourth quarter-earned victory.
But the flip side to that déjà vu means Romo’s failures were as intensely magnified. To never even come close to appearing in a Super Bowl — let alone winning one or several as Staubach and Aikman did — always will keep Romo at arm’s length from his heroic predecessors.