— IRVING, Texas - With loose-limbed gliding steps, Tony Romo enters the Cowboys locker room.
It’s Wednesday. “Tony” talks today.
The mess of tangled humanity in front of Romo’s locker blinks back at him, wary that the arms, legs and torsos he decides to part will belong to them and that the minutes spent staking out a prime location in front of “Tony’s locker” will be compromised.
Romo smirks his dimpled smirk, turns his shoulders and edges to the vacant space in the middle. He settles on the bench in front of his spot like a nucleus returning home to its cell. The cell walls close, all entries sealed off.
Romo’s round, black eyes scan the hovering faces. He looks down at his hand. Elbows on the insides of his knees, he fiddles with the small splint on his right hand and waits for the questions to start. The blue mesh hat turned backwards and pulled tight to his head only adds to the carefully rumpled “aw shucks” personality he’s settled on as his Public Persona.
Any moron could come up with the storyline-to-date for this Cowboys season.
The Cowboys — with attendant glitz and hype to match a roster laden with talent — broke from the gate fast. Then the fall. A home loss to the Redskins on September 28. A narrow win over the horrible Bengals a week later. A mind-numbing overtime loss to the Cardinals in Arizona, a game in which Romo broke his right pinky and real panic gripped Planet Cowboy. Then, Romo-less, Dallas was eviscerated by winless St. Louis. After narrowly beating Tampa, they rolled over and played dead against the Giants, skulking into their bye week at 5-4. Sunday, the third-place Cowboys play at Washington. The Redskins are 6-3.
This is the part where the hero — banished — returns astride his horse. Looking down into the valley at the chaos and pillaging that’s taken hold, the hero spurs his steed and plunges ahead. The hero’s pinky feels better. Restoring order is his charge now.
So why fight the storyline? Can Tony Romo gallop into the fray, reach down (compromised pinky and all), scoop the Cowboys season from certain disaster and gallop off in the direction of Super Bowl 43 in Tampa Bay? Is it all gonna be … OK?
Not far from Romo’s locker, Dallas linebacker Bobby Carpenter ruminated on that.
“Is injecting him into the lineup a cure-all?” he said, repeating the question. “No. But you definitely have one of the top five quarterbacks in the league coming back. And when you put a top-five player at any position back onto a team, especially at quarterback where he controls as much as he does, you have to expect it will contribute to some success.”
A lot has changed since Romo went down. First off, the team’s gone from 4-2 to 5-4. And they’ve added wide receiver Roy Williams but taken significant injury hits at other spots. They’ve also spent more than a month getting tossed on the waves of controversy, speculation and dysfunction which is a by-product of embracing the chance to be the NFL’s “it” team of 2008.
After the Cowboys' loss at New York, owner Jerry Jones cautioned that when Romo returns he would not, “Hit the ground running as if he's been out here completely healthy and be coordinated with Roy Williams, Terrell Owens and (Jason) Witten. He can't be as effective as he could have been if he'd been playing straight through. That's gonna be a real challenge.”
It’s worth noting that Romo wasn’t standing the NFL on its ear before he got hurt. While his statistics were fine, he’d still not broken his habit of making at least two or three costly decisions in every game.
His flaw is an inclination to do too much. Now, with the Cowboys hopes at least perceived to be riding on his return, will he be able to temper that?
“I’m just going to go out there and do what I do, you know?” he said. “Just throw the ball, hopefully find the right guy that’s open and give him the ball. And push the tempo and we’re going to do a couple of different things this week that will help us, I think, offensively, and I’m excited about the second half of the year. It’s going to be fun.”
Asked if there’s anything he can’t do because of the injury, Romo answers, “I don’t know that there will be anything.”
Which is what Cowboys fans are hoping. Dallas is reeling, to be sure. But a 5-4 record after nine games certainly doesn’t preclude the Cowboys from having a chance to get to the playoffs. They play every team in their division again. But they need to win the games against the teams ahead of them — Washington and New York.
“This is a very important game,” said Romo. “We understand that. That’s why there’s a great sense of urgency around here. I think I said this last week but there’s different times in seasons where games become these types of games. It’s come about for a number of reasons. We obviously haven’t had all of our guys on the field, but we feel like we’re going to have a strong number of people playing in this game like we had at the beginning of the year.”
The unfolding plot line isn’t lost on Romo, who certainly has a sense for the dramatic.
“The reason why football is such a great sport is you have a full week for people to talk about it,” he noted. “It's like a reality show. You guys have all week to talk and build up something, talk about it and people go back and forth and new subplots shape up every week and you get to a point where all of a sudden it's built up to something each week and then the next week something brand new comes about.”
So does the story turn now to Romo riding in and beginning Dallas’ happy ever after?
“We’ll find out on Sunday,” he said with a knowing smile. “I think a lot of different people may have gotten to a point where they feel we might not have a chance to do what we hoped to do at the beginning of the year. So it’s exciting in a way. To have a goal that no one really sees but yourself and your teammates . I think that something that can bring a team together. I think that is something that is very exciting. Very enjoyable to try and go out and do.”