Decision time for Romo

Tony Romo has to take better advantage of big-game opportunities with the Cowboys if he wants to change the impression that he is a poor decision-maker.

 AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

IRVING, Texas -- Most folks see Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in black and white. The Romo haters and the Romo apologists seemingly spend hours perusing the Internet for articles and statistics that support their perspective.

Just so you know, there's never been a recorded instance of a Romo hater or a Romo apologist changing his opinion of the quarterback.

A few us, though, see the most polarizing player in franchise history in shades of gray.

Romo's performance against the Denver Broncos is a prime example of why.

He was phenomenal for 57 minutes -- a quarterback savant, if you will. Then he made his only mistake at the most inopportune time, allowing Denver to slip away with a 51-48 victory.

Everything we saw in that game is why Romo is equally loved and loathed.

It's kind of shame, really. As an undrafted free agent starting in the NFL, we should be celebrating Romo's career.

We're talking about a dude who's the highest-rated fourth-quarter passer in NFL history (102.0). Did you know Romo has the fourth-highest passer rating in NFL history (96.6)?

Better than Troy Aikman. And Dan Marino. And Tom Brady.

He's thrown 97 more touchdown passes than interceptions. And by the time his career ends, Romo will own every significant passing record in franchise history.

He led the Cowboys to a league-high five fourth-quarter comebacks last season, and he has 18 overall -- more than Aikman or Roger Staubach.

Alas, the game is about more than numbers. This ain't fantasy football. Winning trumps everything.

And Romo's biggest problem is that he hasn't won enough of the games that matter the most. He's 19-24 as a starter since 2010, and the Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of the past three years.

In each of the past two seasons, the Cowboys have lost their last regular-season game with a playoff spot on the line.

You can shout about how unfair it is until you're blue in the face, as Mama used to say, but quarterbacks get more credit or blame than they deserve the moment they put their hands under center for the first time.

That's life for every NFL quarterback, whether he's a scrub or a star.

And when a 33-year-old quarterback with one playoff win after six full seasons as a starter gets a six-year, $108 million contract extension, the scrutiny gets more intense.

Romo receives even closer examination than other good high-profile quarterbacks for one reason: The majority of the defining moments in his career have a negative vibe.

The botched hold. The trip to Cabo San Lucas. The 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games.

Now the loss to Denver has been added to his legacy.

Romo, who had 506 yards passing and five touchdowns, may never play a better game than he did against the Broncos. Time after time he created big plays from chaos.

He battled Peyton Manning -- the future first-ballot Hall of Famer -- in the midst of his best season, drive for drive.

And Romo positioned himself and the Cowboys to win. All he needed was a field goal to secure one of the biggest regular-season wins in his career, and he had three timeouts and the two-minute warning to get it done.

After a sack on first down, Romo eschewed the checkdown pass to running back DeMarco Murray that would have probably gained 6 or 7 yards and set up a more manageable third down. Instead, he forced a pass to rookie tight end Gavin Escobar on second-and-16, and Denver linebacker Danny Trevathan made a diving interception at the Dallas 24.

Jason Garrett said Romo should have slid to the right and taken the safe throw. Garrett described Escobar's route as quarterback-friendly.

Romo chose to attempt one more great toss when the situation screamed for a cautious throw to live to play another down.

Manning threw an interception on the final play of the third quarter, but he still had time to make up for his gaffe. Romo was not afforded the same luxury when he threw his interception with 1:57 left in the game.

It matters whether you make a mistake in the first quarter or the fourth quarter, just like it matters whether you make an error in a regular-season game or the Super Bowl.

It's too simplistic to say Romo choked, because that requires no insight.

He didn't wilt under pressure. He's guided too many comeback victories to believe that narrative.

But he did make a poor decision. He didn't have to make that throw at that point of the game.

Last season against the Washington Redskins in the final tilt of the season, Romo made another poor decision at a critical point of the game. On first down, Romo tried to lob a pass over the head of Washington linebacker Rob Jackson. If Murray had caught the pass, he probably would have gained 30 or 40 yards, but it was a risky decision, especially on first down.

You know what happened next. Jackson made a leaping interception and the Redskins scored the clinching touchdown.

And if you rewind to 2011 and the biggest collapse in franchise history, when the Cowboys blew a 24-0 halftime lead, Romo's final interception was an ill-conceived heave off his back foot on first down that set up the Detroit Lions' winning points.

This season, Romo is easily one of the NFL's top eight quarterbacks. Maybe higher. Over the next few seasons, he has an opportunity to change his legacy just like Dirk Nowitzki changed his. Or Steve Young changed his.

As for what Romo's state of mind will be like Sunday against Washington, don't worry about it. None of the chatter, locally or nationally, will have any effect on him.

He's been through all this before. Many times.

But for Romo's narrative to change, he must make better decisions when it matters most.