"Football is a meritocracy," Tony Romo once said, midway through a speech that will be remembered as the high-water mark of his public approval.
This is horseshit, of course. There are endless examples of stubby impact players who were passed over for less proven physical specimens; lower-salaried producers who give way to underachievers tethered to onerous long-term deals; undrafted free agents who toil behind early-round draft picks whose primary qualification is a front office determined to mine return from a significant investment. Romo's NFL is increasingly ageist, too, an unintentional byproduct of a collective bargaining agreement that rewards the use of cheaper, disposable labor instead of accomplished, better-compensated options.
Football is JaMarcus Russell at No. 1 overall. It is every combine warrior who gets drafted three rounds above a player with way better game film. To Texans who follow the college game, it's Chris Simms starting over Major Applewhite. It is a set of circumstances, of which merit is a single component, in service of a larger confluence, one that routinely gouges players who deserve better than what is actually provided.
Football is Tony Romo's career.
Romo, as we know now, is not long for the Dallas Cowboys. This was inevitable and entirely reasonable. Building around Dak Prescott, a man 14 years his junior and immeasurably healthier, is the only practical decision for Dallas to make. It's also par for the course for Romo, who deserved far more than he got.
Romo is the Cowboys quarterback who comfortably out-produced Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman but will leave with his reputation as soiled as Danny White's. He is the player whose desire was questioned for proclaiming—correctly—that life is about more than football, even as he routinely jeopardized his long-term health to stay on the field. Unlike Jason Witten, Romo has never lived down going to Mexico during a playoff bye week, never mind that the tight end accompanied him on the same trip every step of the way.
He quite literally gave his body to an organization too feckless to build a line capable of keeping him upright during his prime years. By the time they wised up, it was too late. Romo began the last year of his Dallas career incapacitated and ended it with his position usurped. The player who took it, Prescott, worked in front of Dallas' most talented runner since Emmitt Smith, behind the best offensive line in the league, and out of a cut-down playbook. It was everything a quarterback could hope for, only Romo was too battered down to realize the rewards himself.
Hardly anyone mourns this, or him. Nobody cried foul when one of the league's most productive quarterbacks, who came of age in the most productive passing period in NFL history, lost his job of ten years without a chance to win it back. Instead, they rallied behind his now-famous press conference, the one in which he stepped aside.
Romo's final season in Dallas amounted to a lot of this. Photo by Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
It was what everyone—fans, the media, even Romo's own team—wanted. Optics had abandoned him long ago. He was no longer the quarterback who emerged from the ether of undrafted free agency to rescue the franchise from nearly a decade of post-Aikman despair, from mediocre (or worse) dreck like Chad Hutchinson, Quincy Carter, Drew Henson, and Vinny Testaverde. He was no longer the city's everyman, the way he used to be, who took homeless guys to the movies and fixed flat tires.
Some of this is simply growing up, everyone's memories graying alongside his hairs. Too much has happened over a decade for the image to just stay the same. Romo is fallible and flawed in a way that his successor simply has not yet had time to be.
None of that accounts for how little credit Romo got on the field. His passer rating ranks fourth all time and that precision has only improved in his golden years; per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota, nobody has a higher quarterback rating over the last three seasons.
By rights, he is one of the greatest fourth-quarter performers in NFL history. As ESPN points out, Romo engineered the most fourth-quarter comebacks from 2006 through 2014, his last full season. The gaudy passer rating, meanwhile, only improved as the minutes ticked down: at different points over the last several seasons, he has reigned as the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in league history as well as its leading active passer in the final two minutes.
It's Hall of Fame-caliber stuff and it was forged within a foundry of total idiocy. None of this was acknowledged, at least not very forcefully, because it was always more fun to zero in on what went wrong. Romo's end-of-game letdowns are a sports meme fit for the age of fake news, a curated reel of specific failures that subsumed the larger reality because it was played loudly and often and to the correct demographic.
Each season brought its own shell game. If it wasn't a playoff failure, it was a failure to reach the playoffs. If it wasn't a lack of focus, then he was too brittle to be relied upon. For years, Romo weathered the perception that he was overly reckless. When, in 2014, he led the NFL in passer rating, yards per attempt, completion percentage, and game-winning drives, the credit was instead bestowed upon DeMarco Murray, whose career year supposedly relieved Romo of the burden of carrying the offense. (Murray rode that wave to a monster deal with Philadelphia, bombed, and was contract dumped a year later.)
Romo withstood the caravan of coaches, the flimsy defenses, the endless recycling of his receiving corps, the plodding linemen, the inexhaustible media scrutiny, the owner who fancied himself a personnel man, and the dime-store Gronkowski brother who damn near got him killed. None of it was ever enough. Other than DeMarcus Ware, no Cowboy since the turn of the millennium did more to elevate the franchise on his own. Short of Jerry Jones, however, no one was scrutinized for longer about whether he was the problem.
Tony Romo will go somewhere else now, where he will try to win a Super Bowl. It is the primary accolade that has eluded him and the only one that can fumigate the conversation around him. You can chalk this up to football being football. Romo probably would. Just don't pretend that any of it is fair.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.