Hard Not to Feel Sorry For Tortured Romo

To describe him as ill-crossed, the victim of some hex or curse, is not what’s going on here. Before we spill tears for Tony Romo at the holidays, be reminded of his proneness to self-induced mistakes that sometimes lose football games. That said, it’s a shame he won’t have a chance Sunday to undo his reputation as a big-game straggler and lift the Dallas Cowboys into the playoffs.

Just after hushing his numerous critics with heroics in a must-win scenario against Washington, Romo was greeted by more news from a familiar devil: A herniated disk in the lumbar region of his back would require surgery. He tried the meat-on-the-hoof thing all week — an epidural, every pill in Dallas-Fort Worth, every prayer in the Bible Belt — but the cruel reality was that he needed immediate surgery, which happened Friday.

“He’s devastated,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He puts a lot into this.”

And seemingly gets little out of it.

The injury not only sidelines Romo indefinitely but also throws a blanket of doubt over the future of a quarterback who — gulp — signed a $108-million extension last spring and will turn 34 in April. The back has been a lingering problem for Romo, who had a cyst removed from his back in April, didn’t begin full-scale workouts with the offense until training camp and reported back soreness in practice last week. He was noticeably limping last weekend against the Redskins after taking a fierce first-half hit. Should he have left the game? Then someone would have questioned his toughness. When it’s Romo, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

“That triggered it a little bit,” Romo said after the last-second comeback win. “Whatever the (hit) did on that one play, it really sent something that didn’t feel comfortable.”

He kept playing and, in the end, willed the Cowboys to victory after losing the previous week with two late killer interceptions. Said his friend and teammate, tight end Jason Witten, per the Associated Press: “I saw him limping around after that, but I didn’t realize he was that injured. Obviously, it’s a testament to how he plays and what kind of competitor he is. A lot of times you lose sight of that, what Tony is all about, the kind of toughness that he shows day in and day out, not only mentally but physically, you just commend him how he approaches it, just resilient to find a way and he’s so good in those situations and kind of put the team on his back.”

But that back has assumed too heavy a burden through the years, figuratively and literally, with the Cowboys relying on Romo to pull them through the annual Jerry Jones comedy show, a horrendous defense, the regular Dez Bryant controversies and an underachieving culture that has produced only one playoff victory in 16 years. In a fairer world, the Cowboys would put Romo out of his misery, trade him and give him a change of scenery and better chance to succeed. But there was Jones, always in denial, already thinking of next season. “One of the pluses for having had it done as early as (Friday) morning is that it would really contribute to him being able to get right when it comes time for the team to be in OTAs,” Jones told KRLD-FM. “The OTAs are what we call the equivalent of our spring practice, so we would anticipate him being right on time there. We’ll see how it goes.”

“This was the right decision for him, and this is the right decision for our organization,” Garrett said. “He started his road to recovery, and he’ll be back sooner rather than later.”

At which time, the ongoing tragicomedy of Tony Romo will continue. America can’t wait.

The Cowboys could do worse than having capable Kyle Orton as the starter against the rampaging Philadelphia Eagles, but he hasn’t started a game in two years. “Feel great about Kyle Orton,” Garrett said. Romo or no Romo, the Cowboys were doomed anyway. It has as much to do with the coach and team they’re facing as their own habit of big-moment meltdowns.

Chip Kelly is not cute. If he seems that way, another innovator from the college ranks who uses local symbols drawn on display boards — Rocky Balboa, Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, a cheesesteak sandwich — to flash in plays from the sideline, just realize that he wants to slash your throat. He showed the mentality at Oregon, where he routinely ran up whopper scores by using his starters when not necessary.

And he did so again in his most dynamic NFL coaching performance to date, a 54-11 stomping of the futile Chicago Bears, summoning all weapons when he conceivably could have rested them for the play-in game in Dallas.

“We’re from Philadelphia and we fight. If there’s a game on, we’re playing. End of story,” said Kelly, sounding like a South Philly kid on the playground.

His aim was to send a forceful message to a team that isn’t known for fighting or intimidating or anything more than laying down. The Cowboys are infamous for tragicomic dysfunction, the grand work of their megalomaniacal owner, and no metric is more telling than their record in elimination games in the Romo era: 1-6. Though Romo saved their season — buying time on 4th-and-goal from the Washington 10, then finding DeMarco Murray open in the flat for the dramatic winning touchdown — raise your hand if you have faith in this operation after they’ve been defined by so many late flub-ups? Roger Staubach could be quarterbacking the 21st-century Cowboys, and I’d have doubts.

They need to go out, win a big game and shut us up, or there need to be substantial internal changes, starting with Jones handing over day-to-day responsibilities to a real football man. With or without Romo, I don’t think they have it in them, particularly with Kelly coming to town and smacking his chops at the idea of rolling another 50-spot against another inept defense. Sure, he could have played it safe and rested his best players against Chicago in a game that became irrelevant after the Dallas victory. But Kelly was thinking bigger thoughts — igniting the crazed Philly crowd, pounding the opposition to chants of “We want Dallas!” and using the occasion as a pep rally and inspirational moment for the all-important business trip. I like how his mind works. So do his players.

“This is our job. They pay us to play ball,” LeSean McCoy said. “The fans pay their hard-earned money to watch. As a player, we never think a game is meaningless.”

But then, Kelly has been answering every challenge since he arrived in Philly amid skepticism. When NFL pacing protocol wouldn’t allow him to run offensive plays as relentlessly and quickly as his Oregon days, he adjusted to a more deliberate but still-productive rhythm. When Michael Vick was injured, Kelly summoned Nick Foles and developed him into a quarterback efficient enough to make the cover of Sports Illustrated and put Vick on the offseason trading block. When a porous defense was placing too much pressure on the offense, Kelly made sure it was fixed — something Dallas still hasn’t done after Jones fired Rob Ryan and replaced him with useless Monte Kiffin.

So, who do you like Sunday in Jones’ $1.1-billion circus big top?

I like the man who simply says, “One down, one to go.”

That would be Kelly.