Tony Romo needs to earn it

IRVING, Texas -- For some reason Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has consistently neglected the position of quarterback for more than a decade. That flawed philosophical approach is the primary reason his beloved franchise is now compromised.

Tony Romo is supposed to count nearly $17 million against the Cowboys' salary cap in 2013.

Conventional wisdom says the Cowboys should give Romo a lucrative, long-term extension designed to lower his salary-cap number next season and keep him with the team long term. Doing so would allow the Cowboys to do business this offseason with few cap restraints.

Jones should try a different approach, a bold tactic designed to maximize Romo's competitiveness and talent.

The Cowboys should let Romo play out his deal just as the Baltimore Ravens did with quarterback Joe Flacco.

Make Romo play his best football for himself -- and the team -- next season.

And if Romo still hasn't earned a contract extension with his performance, Jones should place the franchise tag on him in 2014. And 2015 too, if necessary.

The Cowboys could absorb Romo's salary this season, but it would mean saying goodbye to players such as nose tackle Jay Ratliff, Doug Free, Marcus Spears, Dan Connor and Anthony Spencer.

Then the Cowboys would have to restructure the contracts of Brandon Carr, DeMarcus Ware and maybe, Miles Austin.

Bottom line: It could get done without too much pain.

Understand, Romo isn't going to like it. Too bad.

Romo, who will be 33 when the 2013 season starts, must earn a contract extension just as he earned the six-year, $67.5 million deal he signed in 2007.

A new deal for Romo shouldn't just be the lesser of several evils.

As much as I like Romo -- he has the talent to be a Super Bowl winner -- he hasn't earned another lucrative long-term extension.

Not yet.

We're talking about a team that has missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons.

And we're talking about a quarterback who's 17-21 as a starter since 2010 and tied for the league lead in interceptions in 2012. And we're talking about a guy who could've re-written the narrative of his career in the final game of the season with a win over the Washington Redskins.

Instead, he threw three interceptions and the Redskins beat the Cowboys, 28-18.

We can spend all day arguing about how much blame Romo deserves for the Cowboys' record of late or his interceptions, but the reality is he hasn't played his best football when it matters most.

None of his legion of apologists can dispute that.

Besides, everyone on this team should be accountable. Everyone should have to compete for a position.

Since Bill Parcells made him the starter at halftime of Week 6 in 2006, Romo has never competed for the starting job.

That's not his fault. Blame Jones and Jason Garrett.

They've never opened up the competition, or even put a worthy contender on the roster.

Kyle Orton? When he signed, the Cowboys told him that he was in Dallas to back up Romo. Don't even think about competing for the starting job, they said.

In retrospect, how dumb is that?

Then again, the main reason the Cowboys have no legitimate options at quarterback is because Jones has refused to invest in a quarterback.

Since 2000, 164 quarterbacks have been drafted, including 29 in the first round. Your Cowboys have drafted two: Quincy Carter in 2001 and Stephen McGee in 2009.

What a joke.

It's because Jones has been obsessed with getting something for nothing -- and it just doesn't work that way most of the time when we're talking about the quarterback position.

He has tried to bypass the system by signing free-agent players such as Drew Henson and Chad Hutchinson. He even grabbed former No. 1 pick Ryan Leaf off the scrap heap.

Undrafted free agents Clint Stoerner and Anthony Wright also started games for the Cowboys during the wretched period between Troy Aikman and Romo.

Of the NFL's 32 starters, Romo is the only undrafted free agent. Twenty-eight starters have been selected in the first three rounds. Twenty-five were taken in the first two rounds.

See, it's not a coincidence. Most teams spend a premium pick, usually a first-round pick, to get a quality quarterbacks.

The numbers don't lie.

Think about it, taking McGee in the fourth round was a good gamble. The problem is it shouldn't have even taken three full seasons to see McGee couldn't play.

The reality is it's hard to find quality quarterbacks after the third round. It happens from time to time, but it's the exception.

The Cowboys should use a premium pick to acquire a quarterback this season. Or next.

If Romo plays so well he earns a long-term deal, then Jones can always flip a good quarterback for an even better pick in a league always starved for quarterbacks.

For now, though, Romo needs to prove he's worthy of a big-money deal. No quarterback starting since 2006 has fewer playoff wins than Romo.

This game is about winning. Romo hasn't won enough games yet.

When he does, Jones will gladly pay him. Until then, the owner should make him wait for long-term security.