Oh No, Romo: The One Guy Dallas Can’t Afford to Lose

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Only one thing was ever going to shake the NFC East–leading Dallas Cowboys. Although they would surely suffer if they lost the likes of DeMarco Murray or Tyron Smith, there’s just one truly irreplaceable player on their roster. The sole thing the Cowboys had to worry might drag them back down to the depths of the NFC’s also-rans was a serious injury to Tony Romo. On Monday night, for an hour or so, that fear was briefly realized. Losing to Washington is one thing. The idea of losing Romo is another.

That two minutes during which Romo was down on the turf without moving had to be harrowing for everybody involved. I suspect if you were watching the game with Cowboys fans and were able to interrupt their prayers during the commercial break, they would have happily taken a loss on Monday night if it meant also keeping a healthy Romo. They appear to have come away with both.

Romo went down for several minutes and disappeared for most of the second half, only to come back with 1:52 left in the fourth quarter to deliver a relatively shaky performance over Dallas’s final two possessions. Romo fumbled the ball during pressure from Brandon Meriweather and threw a dead-to-rights interception into the hands of impressive Washington rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland, only for both of those footballs to somehow end up in the grateful grasp of Cowboys players. Romo was limited to quick hitches against Washington’s big blitzes, was unable to elude pressure, and eventually had his final pass of the game knocked away by Breeland for a Washington victory.

It’s unfair to say the outcome occurred solely because Romo was injured. The Cowboys were already struggling to deal with Washington’s big blitzes, with each of Dallas’s first two drives ending on sacks. Those heavy blitzes should have allowed Romo to eventually take a shot downfield to Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams, but that bomb never came. Romo’s only completion on a throw of 15 yards or more downfield, per the NFL’s gamebook, came on that would-be interception that slipped through Breeland’s hands. Replacement Brandon Weeden, who went 4-for-6 with a touchdown to Jason Witten in relief of Romo, didn’t even attempt such a pass.

A steady dose of blitzes is right up Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s alley, and it’s also just what the doctor ordered to slow down the Dallas passing attack. Every passing attack declines in the face of opposing blitzes, but the Cowboys have been downright great when teams have laid off, and just mediocre throwing the football when teams have sent pressure, per ESPN Stats & Information:

Romo (and Weeden) have been able to produce scores against big blitzes, but those have mostly come from what their receivers have been able to do after the catch. Never the best tackling team, Washington did an effective job wrapping up Dallas’s receivers in the open field.

It’s an open secret that Romo is far from 100 percent these days, even before last night’s injury. Although his previous brush with injury this season was unrelated to his problematic back — he stayed down after a big hit to the ribs from Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner in Week 6, but didn’t miss any snaps — his back has definitely bothered him at times.1

The hope was that those back problems would get better as the season went along, but big hits like the one he took Monday night can’t help. Romo was diagnosed with a back bruise and doesn’t appear to have any long-term structural damage from last night’s hit, but it has to be troublesome that he needed a painkiller shot to go back into the game and looked far from his best after returning. Assuming Romo can play next week, he’ll be suiting up against the blitz-obsessed Arizona defense, which will surely use what Washington did to him as a field map.

One reasonable question I saw after the loss was whether the Cowboys should have brought Romo back into the game after his injury. Some of that is an ex post facto argument; if the Cowboys could have known that the Romo who came into the lineup was as limited as he was, and that they would lose anyway, it’s fair to say they would have invited him to lead tours of the stadium’s art installations for the remainder of the evening.

I don’t think you could blame the Cowboys if they had kept Romo out, given that it’s October and one of the few things capable of derailing their playoff push would be a long-term injury to him, but nobody enjoys seeing too much of Weeden. The 31-year-old backup didn’t play horribly by any stretch of the imagination, but he couldn’t capitalize on a 51-yard Murray run that set up first-and-goal, and the touchdown drive he led consisted mostly of a 23-yard screen pass to Murray and a 25-yard touchdown pass to Witten on a brutally blown Washington coverage. You can’t complain too much, given that Weeden was at the helm for two possessions that produced a total of 10 points, but Weeden’s history in Cleveland should inform the arguments against keeping Romo off the field.

If something were to happen to Romo that kept him out for any stretch of time, the Cowboys would basically be stuck with Weeden the rest of the way. Their third-stringer is rookie undrafted free agent Dustin Vaughan, a Division II star at West Texas A&M. Last year’s backup, Kyle Orton, left under acrimonious circumstances and is now the starter in Buffalo. A previous backup like Jon Kitna could theoretically be an option, but he hasn’t thrown an NFL pass since 2011.

It’s so Cowboys to imagine Jerry Jones giving into temptation and dealing a future first-round pick to the Browns for Johnny Manziel, but a trade is unlikely. Manziel would have to learn the Dallas playbook, so even if he were a fast learner, it would take him a few weeks minimum to be ready to start under center. With so many cooks controlling different aspects of the Dallas offense, it’s hard to really identify a quarterback outside the organization who would be able to take over quickly if the Cowboys lost Romo. The only option that might make sense is Rams backup Shaun Hill, who played under passing game coordinator Scott Linehan in Detroit. Even though the Romo injury happened hours before Tuesday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, it’s hard to imagine Dallas making a trade for a quarterback.

Instead, the Cowboys might hope to use the $3.9 million in cap space they have left to acquire a linebacker. While Dallas was happy to see Romo make it back onto the field without suffering a serious injury, the team wasn’t quite as lucky on the defensive side of the football. Jones said after the game that outside linebacker Justin Durant tore his biceps in the second half, an injury that should keep him out for the remainder of the season. The Cowboys have already used their short-term IR spot on defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, which makes it likely that Durant will soon hit injured reserve.

The rangy Durant had been an unsung contributor on the weak side this season. He led the team in tackles Monday, despite missing all of the fourth quarter and overtime, and there’s no obvious replacement for him on the roster. At the moment, it looks like 2012 fourth-rounder Kyle Wilber, who had played just 21.2 percent of the defensive snaps before Monday, will move into the lineup. Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has done an incredible job of piecing together a competent defense from spare parts, but Durant was one of the few players of any pedigree in the Dallas front seven. He’ll be missed.

While the loss does break Dallas’s six-game winning streak, it shouldn’t be too alarming for Cowboys fans. The chances Dallas will make the playoffs are still pretty strong. Since the league went to its current playoff format in 2002, teams that started the year 6-2 have made the playoffs 79.3 percent of the time. Then again, the NFC East leader as of Week 8 has finished that year winning the division only once in the past five seasons, and that team — the 2011 Giants — started 6-2 before losing five of its next six games. The 2012 Giants started 6-2, finished 9-7, and missed the playoffs altogether. And Dallas actually led the division at 4-4 a year ago, only to lose out to Philadelphia in Week 17.

Given that their running game remains proficient and their defense continues to hold up, the Cowboys shouldn’t collapse. If they lose Romo, though, even the combination of Murray and Marinelli might not be able to save them.

Lamarr HoustonElise Amendola/AP Photo

Lamarred

Late in the fourth quarter of Chicago’s 51-28 loss to New England on Sunday, Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston went unblocked on a play-action pass and sacked backup Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for a loss of 11 yards. As he bounced away from Garoppolo after the sack, Houston decided to leap into the air and strike a pose. Coming down, Houston’s knee buckled. A scan on Monday revealed that Houston tore his ACL, an injury that will bring his first season with the Bears to a close.

The sight of Houston going down with an injury brought cheers from those left in the stands in Foxborough, which speaks to a weird moral compass among fans in a league that already requires some suspension of morality to enjoy. The vast majority of fans aren’t cheering injuries to the opposing team in 2014. Even Eagles fans politely applauded in support of Victor Cruz when the Giants wideout suffered a knee injury several weeks ago; they also closed ranks on a Philly sports talk radio host who made light of the incident on Twitter. The only other recent incident of fans cheering at the sight of an injury I can remember is when Texans fans cheered Matt Schaub’s ankle injury last season.

Patriots fans haven’t been lambasted for cheering Houston’s injury, because it was self-inflicted. Apparently, because Houston celebrated at a time players aren’t supposed to celebrate — trailing late in a blowout — he deserved to get hurt. That’s nonsense. Booing a guy for celebrating out of some opinion that he’s not grasping the bigger picture is one thing. Joking about an injury like Gus Frerotte’s head-butt of the stands years later? Even that I can understand. But cheering the moment a player exhibits signs of an injury, while he’s actually in genuine pain? That’s pretty vile.

It’s ruthless and obnoxious for another reason: You don’t need to be a football player to get hurt doing something dumb. We all get injured in totally innocuous situations or while doing stuff we shouldn’t be doing. If you haven’t suffered some sort of serious injury out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason, you’re either lying or you’re next.

The Houston incident made me think about my own weird knee injury. I went to an Oktoberfest event at a local brewery, and after having a few drinks, I decided to embark upon the apparently challenging quest of walking to a bar to continue the night. Sadly, I found myself confronted by an unnavigable obstacle and was defeated by, yes, a curb. I stepped off that curb without realizing the sidewalk had ended, put my foot into a ditch, and felt my knee bend and wrench at an impossible angle.

Sadly, my friends were too drunk to realize (or perhaps care) that my knee had failed the curb test, and I was too drunk to realize that I should probably skip the next bar. I somehow ended up breaking up a fistfight on one leg before heading home, at which point the knee swelled. I later found out that I had gotten off lucky, with just torn cartilage and sprained ligaments. I was basically (more) immobile for a couple weeks, and the knee still bothers me years later. Lamarr Houston lost to a patch of turf. I lost to a curb.

Outside of getting concussed by a knee to the temple from a very small crowd-surfing girl at a show by Long Island pop-punk icons the Movielife in New York around the turn of the century, stepping into a ditch caused probably the most embarrassing injury I’ve suffered. I asked about your knee injuries on Twitter, though, and it led to a treasure trove of accidents and mistakes. I’ve put together the best of the worst.

The vast majority of the injuries were incidents suffered while participating in activities that aren’t really sports:

To be fair, there’s nothing he could have done about that. No way you can warm up for a basketball game without warm-up pants. You probably can’t even shoot layups without them on, if I’m remembering correctly.

One time in high school, a bunch of my friends and I went to play laser tag. We were too old to play laser tag. I know we were too old because about two minutes in, my friend started making out with his girlfriend in one of the alleys of the laser tag arena. I felt stupid. What do you do? They were, together, like 40 percent of the other team. They weren’t interested in laser tag and had found a much better way to spend their time. I, on the other hand, really wanted to win at laser tag. So I shot their backpack laser receiver things a bunch while they were making out and basically won the game for my team because they weren’t interested whatsoever in playing. That’s like emotionally dislocating your kneecap.

I have to give extra credit to injuries that onlookers ignored, as further punishment continued to be inflicted. Like this:

This poor guy resigning himself to a fate of getting hit by a stream of 60 mph fastballs while lying on the floor was maybe the funniest thing to me. I’m really sorry. Why were there family members (1) watching him take batting practice, (2) taking video of batting practice, and (3) not helping him?

Video Game Celebrations

This is a special section almost exclusively to help out Mr. Houston. Celebrating a sack in a four-touchdown blowout is far from the dumbest thing anybody has ever celebrated.

I am partial to Tecmo Super Bowl because it literally taught me the rules of football. But this is basically celebrating randomness and picking the right play.

That’s a catastrophic knee injury. It’s way worse than what Houston did. I wanted to assume it was some meaningful comeback over @Hermaphro’s best friend in some kind of semiprofessional Madden league …

Oh, there’s that, then.

The Top Five

I could have included maybe 100 more injury stories. There were so many incredible ones. But these were the five best stories I received.

Man attacked by jungle gym is no. 5. The lack of detail makes it even more distressing. I’m just envisioning all kinds of stuff falling here. The bars of the jungle gym. A few swings somehow collapse into the pile. An entire slide falls over. My belief in the integrity of jungle gyms was unshakable until I read this tweet. I never even thought somebody could grab a bar and pull down the entire operation. That would have really shaken me up as a kid. I would have lost faith in a lot of things.

You have to immediately throw out that boccie ball set.

Again, the lack of detail because Robert has to fit the entire thing into 140 characters leaves such an incredible range of possibilities. I really hope he was trying to do the worm at a party to impress girls when this happened. I hope he played it off for the rest of the night even though he had torn muscles in his scalp. I’m not sure how the impact of tearing scalp muscles is that you can’t use your peripheral vision for six weeks. Then again, I’m not sure how anybody does the worm without tearing their scalp muscles. This is an incredible injury. And yet, it’s only no. 3.

The flip side is that somebody in corporate at Au Bon Pain had to account for that in a budget. “That line? Oh, no, that’s for the hospital bill we had to settle. No, not the one about the extra-hot coffee. The concussion. Listen, Mr. Frederick. We can’t get rid of the umbrellas. That’s just the cost of doing business here at Au Bon Pain. Occasionally, we’re going to concuss a patron. That’s just going to happen. Might as well set aside money for it each year. It’s like clockwork.”

I’ll let no. 1 speak for itself.

Filed Under: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Lamarr Houston, Chicago Bears

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell