By Jason Keidel
The NFL’s haunting vocational acronym, Not For Long, has long applied to the length of the average football player’s career, which hovers around three years.
But it could also apply to the allegiance or attention span of the fan.
The Dallas Cowboys just lost a football game to the New York Giants. While Dallas was 11-1, with all those wins coming consecutively, the Giants were hardly pushovers. The Giants were 8-4, at home and a divisional foe that knows the Cowboys better than most NFL clubs. Thus this should not be a shocking defeat. It hardly rivals Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in Tokyo. And even with the deck stacked in Big Blue’s favor, it took an otherworldly play by Odell Beckham Jr to win the game — by three points.
Yet to hear the apocalyptic cliches today you’d think the Cowboys had botched a chip-shot field goal that would have won a playoff game. There are now calls for Tony Romo to return to the lineup. The beloved Cowboys QB has been the forgotten cog in this new Doomsday Dallas Machine, which has literally bowled over the competition while piling up the best record in the league.
On some level, we are all afraid of change. Whether it’s moving to a new home or leaving an old flame or changing jobs, we wince at uncertainty. So Dak Prescott doesn’t feel like the face such an iconic franchise. Not at such a young age, and with such a dearth of NFL experience. This ship, which is surprisingly good, bordering on great, was supposed to be captained by Romo.
But Prescott is, in a very real way, the reason Dallas entered last night’s game at 11-1. And while it’s painful to see anyone suddenly realize their mortality in public, as Romo has, essentially saying goodbye to his Cowboys career before he’s ready to retire, and with the team so agonizingly good, it’s part of life in the league. Romo just got Wally Pipped. We’ll have to see if Precott becomes the NFL equivalent of Lou Gehrig, but he’s sure playing the part right now.
This could be a bit on Jerry Jones. The Cowboys’ loquacious owner clearly adores Romo, and can’t stop waxing poetically or professionally about his star QB. Just a few days ago Jones said he wants to make sure Romo is ready to help Dallas win the Super Bowl — this year.
On what planet does that theme work?
We get it. Jones and Romo have grown old together. They’ve been through the glory and the gory, every moment of it chewed on by the molars of media. Jones’s role with Romo is obviously just as paternal as professional. We’ve all been closer to a boss than the corporate tree indicates. And in a sport as intimate and violent as football, it’s natural to think of your peers or employers in familial terms.
And now that the Cowboys are favored to play in their first Super Bowl since their last iconic QB, Troy Aikman, led them 20 years ago, it hurts Jones to think of hoisting that Lombardi Trophy with Romo on the bench in a baseball cap. This was supposed to be Romo’s journey, and Romo’s team. He was the QB successor, the last in that line led by Roger Staubach, who handed the symbolic baton to Aikman, who’s clearly fond of Romo.
Who isn’t? Nothing about Tony Romo is offensive. Even those of us who would root for Red China over the Cowboys have great respect for the name and his game. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a more underrated quarterback over the last 15 years (other than Philip Rivers) than Romo, who has been an absolute stud for a decade yet regarded by fans like he’s Jeff George. Few players in any sport have squeezed out every ounce of their talent as No. 9 has.
Are the Cowboys better off with Romo at quarterback? No. That doesn’t mean Dak Prescott is a better player. It just means that, right now, Dallas has whatever chemistry goes into winning football games. And Dak Prescott is the chemist. Winning is its own billboard. And right now Dak Prescott is beaming from the center of Times Square.
In a perfect, cinematic world, Prescott gets hurt at halftime of the Super Bowl, and Romo rides in, like the lifelong Cowboy he is, and saves the day. Dak and Tony beam from the big screen while each grips the glittering Tiffany handle of the Lombardi Trophy. But there’s a reason that’s never happened in the history of football. A football team needs a single quarterback to be their voice and face. Dallas may not be a one-horse town, but they can only ride one man to the title.
And, in 2016, that man in Dallas is Dak Prescott.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.