Tony Romo did not rise to the occasion when the Dallas Cowboys looked to him to play Superman yet again on Sunday night in Washington. For that, Romo deserves criticism. He played a mediocre game in the 28-18 loss, making three particular throws that probably cost the Cowboys a chance to beat the Redskins and punch a ticket to the playoffs.
But that does not mean that Romo should be blamed for the loss as a whole or the Cowboys' failure to make the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
When bad things happen, we feel the need to assign blame. But sometimes, crap happens. And what happened to the Cowboys this season, as well as in this particular game, resulted from a multitude of crappy factors, most of which had nothing to do with their veteran quarterback and his performances.
Romo is a quarterback in a quarterback-dominated era. Jerry Jones notwithstanding, he's the face of America's most popular team. And I understand that the quarterback is usually the first to be congratulated after wins and the first to be criticized after losses.
First, though, consider where the Cowboys would have been entering Sunday's game if not for Romo, who had the third-highest second-half passer rating in the NFL and had led a league-high five fourth-quarter comebacks to keep the Cowboys competitive long past their expiration date.
This is a team that was so badly ravaged by injuries that it was written off by fans and the media on multiple occasions. Would anyone have ever expected the Cowboys to be in contention in Week 17 despite not having Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Barry Church, Kenyon Coleman, Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent? Throw in that DeMarcus Ware has been a shell of his former self due to injury and consider, too, that Anthony Spencer was hurt during Sunday night's game.
Now take away both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, both of whom were injured and on the sideline with the game on the line. And don't forget that DeMarco Murray was barely able to contribute all season long due to—you guessed it—injury.
That left Romo and who else? He was the only healthy body left to pin this on. As far as his reputation goes, he'd have been better off hurt, it seems.
Shoddy pass protection and superb defense from Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's unit—DeAngelo Hall put together a career-defining performance against Bryant—made it nearly impossible for Romo to maneuver in what was already a difficult road game that the Cowboys were not supposed to win.
Romo made a few foolish throws, but he also made back-to-back beauties on a fourth-quarter touchdown/two-point conversion to keep his badly wounded team in contention.
There'll once again be a chorus of haters requesting that Romo be replaced. They'll overlook his phenomenal December numbers and his 104.0 fourth-quarter passer rating. They won't consider the circumstances, forgetting that it's a nuanced game that requires the combined efforts of 11 men at a time in order to achieve success.
They won't consider the injuries or what Romo faced from the Washington D and several defensive fronts before it. They'll just remember those mistakes and the Twitter overreaction and the melodramatic close-ups of Romo looking distraught after pick No. 3.
They won't consider Jason Hatcher's unbelievably stupid roughing-the-passer penalty that was the icing on the cake or Ware's inability to defend the read-option or the lack of pressure on defense.
They won't consider that, on the other side of the ball Sunday night, the Redskins proved exactly why Romo doesn't get a fair shake. Robert Griffin III had to complete only nine passes for 100 yards, and yet Washington scored 28 points. The Skins' running game was sharp, their pass protection was better, and they were healthy enough on offense and defense to support their injured quarterback.
Romo wasn't good enough to make up for his injured team, but is that a fair request?
Those haters will also fail to consider how much worse the Cowboys could have it at the quarterback position. Cowboys fans have been spoiled by Romo, who has posted elite numbers year after year. But they were spoiled even more so by Aikman and Staubach and Meredith, and now their perception of what a franchise quarterback looks like is warped.
Who would you prefer, Cowboys fans? And let's keep in mind that Hall of Famers Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees aren't available. You have to be pretty damn bad to rise up draft boards to take guys like Griffin, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton, but none of those guys have proven to be any more effective than Romo yet anyway.
My point is that you don't just find superstar quarterbacks growing on trees. Romo was better than Eli Manning and all but a handful of quarterbacks this year. You will not find a better quarterback right now. Not in free agency or on the trade market, and certainly not in the 2013 draft.
The Cowboys have the right pieces in place; luck just wasn't on their side this year. They were ripped apart by injuries to more of an extent than their peers, and that's ultimately what did them in. The core is still in place: Dez Bryant became a stud, as did Sean Lee; Morris Claiborne and Bruce Carter will only get better, as will Murray. The lasting memory might suck, but Romo had his best season as a pro quarterback.
Everyone I just mentioned is 32 or younger.
It's not time to panic. This team was going to get steamrolled by the Seattle Seahawks had it made the playoffs. This loss isn't earth-shaking or surprising. The Cowboys have a top-five quarterback who picked a bad time to stop being a superhero, but he was still clutch much more often than he was a goat.
There's no one else out there waiting to save this franchise, because this franchise doesn't need saving. The Dallas Cowboys took a tremendous step forward this year; if they'd been able to stay even remotely healthy, they'd have been a heavy hitter in the NFC.
I know waiting for next year becomes tiresome, and I realize that patience isn't a virtue a lot of Cowboys supporters—or employees—possess, but this team truly has the right recipe. This just wasn't the year.
After defying the odds far longer than anyone expected, Romo and the Cowboys ran out of magic late. That doesn't mean it's time to rebuild and find a new quarterback. The reality, Cowboys fans, is that Romo's still the best choice you've got.