The refs screwed up. It happens. It wasn’t because they were fixing the game to help America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, advance in the playoffs and improve the NFL’s TV ratings. It wasn’t a protest from the officials, angry over Ndamukong Suh’s suspension being overturned.
Gentlemen, start your conspiracy theories. Sometimes, stuff just happens. Ironically, it usually happens to either the Detroit Lions or Tony Romo. And this time, both of them were involved. You had Romo facing the Lions in the playoffs on Sunday. And history would tell you that neither one of them should win. They never do. Romo always chokes and the Lions are the Lions.
So with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter, when Dallas was called for a pass interference penalty, and then the officials changed their minds, picked up the flag and played on – well, you knew something weird was happening.
Sure, the refs had been right the first time. And yes, Detroit was screwed. But there is no reason to think the Lions would have won this game in the first place. Dallas won because Romo made the plays when he had to, and because Detroit quarterback Matt Stafford didn’t.
I’m sure they don’t see it that way in Detroit. And in Dallas, Romo fans are surely celebrating. Because after all the painful things that have happened to Romo at the end of games, he finally caught a lucky break.
This is the year of redemption for Romo, and also for the Cowboys and their owner, Jerry Jones. It’s a weird storyline and this game had a similarly weird feel from the start. Chris Christie was up in the owner’s box with Jones, making a huge mistake by wearing a bright orange sweater on TV. After the game ended, Christie could be seen bouncing up and down, trying to high-five Jones, pretty much giving away Michigan’s 16 electoral college votes in 2016.
Meanwhile, Dallas defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence recovered a fumble with two minutes left, all-but sealing the win – until he fumbled it right back. And the guy who coached him up about it on the sideline? Leon Lett, known for a variety of on-field mishaps, most notably his embarrassing Super Bowl fumble. Lawrence eventually would make the game-winning sack.
And weirdest of all, here was Romo in a game with all sorts of crazy things going on, a surefire setup for another of his famous failed finishes. Instead, he led the Cowboys back from a 14-point deficit. That included a 59-yard touchdown drive with a 21-yard completion on fourth down. He stood in the pocket so patiently with such poise.
In all these years, it was just the second playoff victory of Romo’s career. And when it was over, he told Erin Andrews why he didn’t fall apart when the team was in trouble: “You just have to stay in the moment and understand the game. Usually, things dissipate a little bit. You just have to keep calm, and I’ve played enough games to know that. Maybe when I was younger I didn’t understand that.”
Sure, let’s go with the idea that Romo has matured. He has spent nine seasons as a starter showing that he’s good enough to win big games, but unable to do so. Like in the 2007 playoff game against Seattle, when he couldn’t even hold the ball for his kicker on a short field goal. Or the 2013 game when he threw for 506 yards – 506! – against Denver, only to toss an interception in the end and lose.
The big collapse that same year against Green Bay, aided by Romo’s interception. He had a fumble and a late pick in blowing a 14-point lead over the Jets. There were some other collapses in there, against the Giants and the Lions maybe, and the Steelers. Definitely the Steelers. They all start to blend together. One of them had a game-winning touchdown overturned because receiver Dez Bryant’s fingertips were out of bounds.
The difference this year is that the Cowboys finally realized Romo isn’t a superstar. So many teams think the model for winning is to have a great quarterback – Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning – give them the ball and let them win the game.
And that’s a fine model if you happen to have one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Romo isn’t one of them. But the Cowboys kept pretending he was, or trying to talk themselves into it. I’m guessing Jones was insisting. They would turn games over to Romo and he would throw the ball all over the place and look like he could pull out wins. Then he’d make that one fatal mistake.
Again and again.
Finally, the Cowboys decided to build a great offensive line and base the offense on running, not Romo’s passing. Instead of listening to Jerry and drafting Johnny Manziel, they took offensive lineman Zack Martin.
Bo-ring? Sure. But now the Cowboys are a great running team with three offensive linemen going to the Pro Bowl, including Martin. It took pressure off of Romo – he doesn’t have to make, say, 10 plays in crunch time without a mistake anymore. Now, maybe it’s four. Romo became a good quarterback as soon as the Cowboys acknowledged that he isn’t a great one.
Up next, the Cowboys are at Green Bay. It’s a marquee matchup that will be great for ratings. But that’s not what officials were thinking when they screwed over Detroit. There was something even stranger afoot on Sunday: Tony Romo caught a break, and for once, he knew what to do with it.