If Sunday was Tony Romo’s swan song as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, it was a pretty good way to go out.
Romo was back to his best, marching Dallas down the field on an 81-yard touchdown drive in his only regular season action this year. He moved in the pocket well, threw with precision, made quick decisions, and, perhaps most importantly, threw with real velocity.
After his multiple back surgeries, it was fair to wonder if Romo could still spin it the way he did during his 2014 MVP-caliber season. Sure, there were plenty of practice reports this year that he looked great, but you’re never quite sure where or who those are coming from and why. Sunday was our chance to see him back in live action. And for as small as the sample size was, there was no noticeable physical decline.
It seems like a foregone conclusion that this will be his last season with the Cowboys. And he’s certainly the key offseason domino. Of any player or coach on the market, he’s the quickest fix, with the ability to turn any team into a playoff hopeful, or a legitimate contender.
Let’s power rank where he would fit best in 2017.
1. Houston Texans
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way: this would be tough to do financially.
Any move to land Romo would likely have to come via a trade. First, he’s a valuable asset, and the Cowboys aren’t just going to let him go out of the goodness of their hearts. But more importantly, he has a $19.6 million dead cap hit hanging over his head if the Cowboys opted to outright release him. If a team decides to pull the trigger on Romo, they’ll be on the hook for his large $24.7 million 2017 cap hit.
The Brock Osweiler experience hasn’t gone well in Houston, to put it politely, but the Texans are still tied to him through next season to the tune of $19 million. Adding Romo’s current salary would mean the Texans committing $44.3 million to their quarterback room, which simply isn’t feasible.
If Romo were willing to take a pay cut, the two sides could reconstruct his deal (which is its own financial minefield). But does Romo, at his age, want to take money out of his own pockets? Perhaps after sitting out for a season he’s more apt to giving up money for a chance to make a championship run, but it’s unlikely he’d be willing to drop his salary to a point to where it makes sense for Houston’s cap situation.
Money aside, it’s the best fit. Romo would allow coach Bill O’Brien to run his true offense, which features more of a vertical element, and puts the onus on the quarterback to operate the game from the line of scrimmage.
In signing Osweiler (and it’s still unclear how much of a say O’Brien had in that), Houston thought they’d signed a big-armed quarterback, who had learned under Peyton Manning how to control the game, command a large playbook and orchestrate at the line. Yet none of that has come true. Osweiler has struggled from the neck up, and is often too tentative when throwing downfield.
As for Romo, he’d get to join a back-to-back division champion that is set up to compete for championships. Houston’s defense finished seventh in DVOA this season, without J.J. Watt, and has young talent all over the field. On offense, they’ve invested in all kinds of young talent, and would allow Romo to continue throwing to one of the league’s best receivers, in DeAndre Hopkins.
2. Denver Broncos
What’s this, the Broncos bringing in an older quarterback — who has been gazumped by a younger star — to try to win championships at the end of his career, and to help develop a tall protégé? How’d that work out last time?
Denver doesn’t have the same kind of offensive tools for Romo to work with initially as Houston. Its offensive line – aside from center Matt Paradise – could do with another overhaul, and former big-play threat Demaryius Thomas has declined in the past couple of seasons. However, they still have the NFL’s top defense, and a trump card: John Elway.
At this point, Elway has proven he’s capable of building and re-building a championship contender in the shortest amount of time possible, provided he has a decent quarterback. Remarkably, Denver’s 2015 Super Bowl-winning team had just 18 players on the roster who were there two years earlier when they were waxed by the Seattle Seahawks.
Elway has proven each year he’s willing to dip into free agency and the trade market to instantly upgrade and overhaul his roster. He’s also proven his eye for talent on the field and on his coaching staff is among the best.
The only thing knocking them below the Texans is their path to the playoffs. Making it through the AFC West is a tougher proposition at this point than the AFC South.
3. Chicago Bears
The Bears may not immediately spring to mind, but they have plenty in their favor. In some ways, they’re constructed similarly to Dallas on offense: An exceptional interior offensive line, a downhill power-run game and large, talented, receivers on the outside.
Coupled with that, you have a young defense that has talent at all levels, and a defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio) who will help lead that group into the top half of the league in 2017 and has another offseason of investment ahead.
With that said, there are three equally large downsides. First of all, Dallas may be unwilling to move Romo in-conference. Second, playing in Chicago means playing outdoors at least nine times a year; Romo has played mostly indoors while he’s been in Dallas. And lastly, it provides a really difficult route to the playoffs, one in which you battle with the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers team every year just to get into the dance.
4. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo offers the same outdoor and in-division Hall of Fame quarterback disadvantageous as Chicago. Furthermore, its defense, which has been excellent for a number of years, has regressed. The once-vaunted unit finished 26th in total defensive DVOA, with some of their top talent continuing to age.
Meanwhile, the Bears’ defensive arrow is pointing up. They improved their overall DVOA performance (22nd) in 2017, and were led mostly by recent draftees and free-agent signings who will be around for the foreseeable future.
With that said, there would be some advantages to Romo choosing the Bills:
A) He wouldn’t need to take a pay cut.
B) He’d be treated like a God (for like two weeks) just for choosing Buffalo.
C) Anthony Lynn, who is excepted to be the next Bills coach, is a talented and creative offensive mind.
D) They have a fantastic rushing offense.
E) He would be able to start on a team with enough talent to compete for the playoffs.
5. Dallas Cowboys
Now is as good a time as any to pause and think about the possibility of Romo simply staying in Dallas. There’s certainly no guarantee that he’d be willing to leave cash in the Jones’ pockets, and there’s no way of the Cowboys realistically getting out of the contract until after next season.
There’s no denying Romo loves playing for the Cowboys. And with the team set up to have immediate and long-term success, he may gamble on Dak Prescott declining or getting hurt, while collecting as much of his mega-contract as possible.
That would bring up an interesting tension for the Cowboys. The Jones’, particularly Jerry, clearly love Romo personally and professionally. Yet here they are with a young star at quarterback and the possibility of gaining a $20 million per-year salary cap bump if they’re able to move on from Romo. In essence, it it’s like when the Seahawks landed Russell Wilson. They had a quarterback playing like he was a $20 million a year player but who was making close to the minimum. With the extra cash, they were able to spend heavy on free agents who helped build their all-time great Super Bowl-winning defense.
It’s unlikely Romo will want to sit around as a backup, but the $20 million carrot gives him some incentive and leverage. Plus, Houston is close enough that he can visit on weekends.
6. CBS Sports
So, there should be two more teams on this list: the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns.
But in all honesty, if you were advising Romo, and these were the two options, what would you tell him? “Yeah, go and get your back pulverized behind a bad offensive line while not winning games or making the playoffs.” Or, if staying in Dallas as a last resort is off the table, “go and sit in a nice, shiny CBS (or any network) studio and become the next top announcer.”
Romo has made it clear he isn’t considering retirement, and nor should he. He remains one of the best quarterbacks in the league and has the ability to lead a good team into the playoffs. But moving into TV rather than getting beat up playing on a non-contender the likes of the Jets or the Browns would be a good decision for his long-term health.