Tony Romo already appeared on the national scene six days ago against the New York Giants. Coach Bill Parcells inserted him for Drew Bledsoe at halftime and the 26 year-old backup quarterback/holder threw three interceptions and two touchdowns. Despite the errors that were more pronounced than Bledsoe’s in that, there was something different about this “kid,” as Parcells referred to him, that inspired confidence.
Drew Bledsoe was imperceptibly off in 2006. He was 34 years old, but he led the Cowboys on 4 game-winning drives the previous season. In 2006, his fizzling on final drives led to losses in Jacksonville on Opening Day and also a Week 5 loss in Philadelphia, which was probably the most egregious and the one that galvanized Cowboys fans to become Romosexuals.
Throughout the first seven weeks of the season, Mickey Spagnola backed the status quo and tried to discredit Romo. He would take fan questions about inserting Romo and treat them as though the question asked if the AIPAC was fixing Cowboys games. Similarly, when Bill Parcells announced leading up to the Carolina game that Romo would start, Jerry Jones said he believed Bledsoe should remain the starter.
I remember everything. I was 18 years old and lying on my parents’ couch in the living room on Sunday, October 29th. I sprained my ankle the previous Tuesday at basketball practice and was currently employing the R.I.C.E. (Rest. Ice. Compression. Elevation) method, because I didn’t want to get pipped out of starting lineup. Maybe this was my curse for taking behind her boyfriend’s back to the movies on a date that tall, curvy gal with aspirations and a voice for Nashville. I couldn’t be sure. Hopefully, the curses wouldn’t extend to my Cowboys. We needed this win to keep the season alive. I couldn’t take another year of not making the playoffs.
Terrell Owens gave a wink to the skycam in pre-game warmups that was used for all Cowboys games on NBC ’til his departure in 2008. On the other side was a former Cowboys receiver in Keyshawn Johnson, who was having a typical year with the Panthers. NBC Sports tried to play up the “Keyshawn is getting revenge” story line, but the real storytellers were following this undrafted backup Romo in his first NFL start.
After a Panthers three-and-out, Tony Romo threw his first pass, a 7-yard completion to Terrell Owens. In subsequent years, Owens would have the most touchdowns from Romo. It’s a record that still stands at 35. Also on the same drive, Andre Gurode’s chop block nullified a 9-yard catch by tight end Anthony Fasano, another nascent narrative: Gurode making things hard for Romo. Ultimately, the Cowboys’ drive stalled and they punted away to the Panthers.
The Cowboys defense provided a second consecutive three-and-out. The Cowboys offense provided a somewhat balanced attack with Julius Jones gains, Romo runs, and Owens catches to try a 48-yard field goal. The Cowboys special teams, notably pricey free agent kicker Mike Vanderjagt, provided zero points.
Carolina capitalized on the good field position and marched down the field for a touchdown in seven plays. The drive was aided by Anthony Henry’s pass interference with Keyshawn Johnson, awarding the Panthers 20 extra yards.
On the very next possession, Romo threw an interception to Chris Gamble. Very quickly, the Panthers cashed that turnover into 7 points with a 24-yard end-around by receiver Steve Smith.
Although down 14-0 as the second quarter dawned, Tyson Thompson gave the Cowboys good field position at the Panthers 47, 15 of which came from Karl Hankton’s personal foul penalty. Sadly, this was all rookie Tyson Thompson could give for the season, as he was injured on that late hit out of bounds. The Cowboys were down two touchdowns, but Bill Parcells, Tony Sparano, and Chris Palmer, the triumvirate that organized the offense, didn’t abandon the rush. A balanced approach where Julius Jones gained 18 yards and Romo threw for 29 yards helped the Cowboys shave the margin to only 7 points. On that drive, Tony Romo threw a 3-yard touchdown to Jason Witten, which was the Pro Bowl tight end’s only touchdown catch of the season.
The Panthers gained 40 yards and spent 5:29 to do it. The Cowboys got the ball back at their own 12 and proceeded to drive 68 yards to the Panthers 20. Julius Jones rushed for 19 yards, and Romo threw for 52 yards. But Romo was doing something in this game he rarely does nowadays, and that’s run when it’s open. Romo gained 3 yards, but it was his third rushing attempt on the game. He was already at 17 yards. It proved he was a double threat, maybe not to the degree of Donovan McNabb, but he was no statue to pocket passing like Drew Bledsoe. Ultimately, the Cowboys trimmed the margin to 4 with a successful 38-yard Vanderjagt field goal. WIth 19 seconds left in the half, the Panthers ran DeShaun Foster twice before throwing two short passes to Steve Smith. At halftime, it was 10-14 Panthers.
In the third quarter, neither team put any points on the board. Both the Panthers and the Cowboys would move the ball to the perimeter of field goal range and stall out. There were a total of four punts, two by each team. For the Cowboys, this back-and-forth pace played right into the Panthers’ hands. It’s not like the Cowboys needed a field goal; they needed to score a touchdown since they were down four points.
Dallas’ final drive in the third quarter began to feature Marion Barber as the runningback. This drive lasted 5:06 into the fourth quarter. Barber gained 14 yards on this drive, and helped the Cowboys reach the Carolina 6. However, the Cowboys could only settle for a field goal and cut the lead to one crucial point.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Panthers lost their patience in this war of attrition. Fullback Brad Hoover took the kickoff, and instead of going down and protecting the possession, he tried to advance it. Sam Hurd scored a fumble and collected it at the Carolina 14-yard line. On the next play, Julius Jones ran the ball up the middle for a touchdown. At this point, an extra point would put the Cowboys up by only six points. A touchdown would defeat them, presuming the Panthers got one in the final seconds of the game to repay the Cowboys in a similar manner on Christmas Eve last year. So, Parcells elected to go for a two-point conversion, which Terrell Owens successfully converted with a key grab.
The Cowboys went on to score 14 more unanswered points to make the final score 35-14. It’s true that the Cowboys’ touchdowns were all rushing, but it was evident to see on this night who had given new life to the Dallas offense. John Madden summed it up perfectly in the game’s final moments: the Cowboys need a guy that has “it,” and they’ve found that guy in Tony Romo. And Bill Parcells found that missing fun in coaching football, and showed it with a few kisses for his players. The older codger even played around with “The Player.”
Romo would lead the Cowboys to five more wins on the season to finish out 9-7 and qualify for a wild card berth. He still had maturing to do, but it was evident from that Week 8 encounter that the Cowboys’ quarterback position was locked down at last. No more playing around with ex-pitchers, has-beens, or never-weres. The Cowboys found the diamond in the rough with Tony Romo. The leadership qualities were yet to come, but the playmaking ability was evident and inspiring.