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Tony Romo wasn't one quarterback, he was four

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Tony Romo's career timeline (1:01)

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo came from out of nowhere to help usher America's Team into a new era. (1:01)

Barring an unexpected comeback, Tony Romo's NFL career came to an end Tuesday afternoon after 162 games. Well, Romo's most recent career. See, eulogizing Romo's NFL tenure is difficult because he really has been several different players over the course of his 14 seasons in the league. Most Romo takes, particularly the critical ones, focus exclusively on one of those stretches from his career to the detriment of the truth.

But the most accurate Romo story revolves around at least four archetypes, each of which Romo embodied at different points throughout his run. Each of those guys Romo resembled could very well be different NFL quarterbacks, ones who are either currently playing in the league or who are recent to the league. Romo had one of the unlikeliest careers in NFL history, as Seth Wickersham noted, so it's no surprise that he had a very atypical career arc.

To put Romo in context, you have to go back to the beginning and work your way onward, knowing what's to come.

The first Romo: Underground sensation

Romo was a star before he ever drove the Dallas offense over the one on the field. For a guy who played his college ball at Eastern Illinois and went undrafted before catching on with the Cowboys, Romo had a disproportionate amount of hype before taking a meaningful snap in Dallas. He spent three years riding pine behind a mix of past-their-prime veterans (Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe) and failed prospects (hello, Quincy Carter and Drew Henson). He was not particularly impressive during the preseason, either -- Romo threw six picks against six touchdowns on 185 attempts. The 87.0 passer rating he posted on those throws wasn't bad, but Romo wasn't exactly pounding the door down to get regular-season reps.

And yet, for one reason or another, Romo was the subject of glowing stories before he ever took a regular-season snap as the Cowboys quarterback. One Fort Worth Star-Telegram story referred to Romo as Dallas' Jake Delhomme, which was a compliment back in 2006, while noting he had the vaunted "it factor." Sean Payton, who had been Romo's quarterbacks coach in Dallas, reportedly wanted to trade for Romo before settling for future Hall of Famer Drew Brees in free agency.

Romo finally got his chance during 2006, his fourth season with the Cowboys. He threw two passes late in a blowout win over the Texans, and then took over for a benched Bledsoe the following week in the second half of a 12-7 game against the division rival Giants. Romo's first pass that day was intercepted, one of three picks he would throw in 25 attempts, including a 96-yard pick-six to end the game as a contest in the fourth quarter. It didn't hold back Romo, as Bill Parcells noted Romo "exuded confidence" before giving him the start against a very competent Panthers defense the following week.

From that point forward, Romo was golden. The Cowboys were off to a 3-3 start, but they went 6-4 with Romo at the helm. Romo still struggled with INTs, throwing 10 in 10 games, but he completed 65.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt in those 10 starts. His 96.2 passer rating from Week 8 on was the third best in the league behind Peyton Manning and Brees.

Romo became a folk hero in Dallas, where the Cowboys had been longing for a quarterback since Troy Aikman was forced into retirement after the 2000 season. Teammate Bradie James gushed over Romo's swagger, noting how Romo had been "the coolest guy around for a while," and how the Romo we were seeing was the same Romo the Cowboys players had seen for themselves on the practice field.

For all the cool, Romo made a fatal mistake in his first playoff game. While virtually all starting quarterbacks are on the sideline for special-teams plays, Romo was still Dallas' holder because he'd been the backup heading into the season. Dallas needed a 19-yard field goal to take a 23-21 lead on the Seahawks with 1:19 left. Romo bobbled the snap, then failed in his subsequent attempt to run into the end zone for a touchdown. Game over.

It's tempting to look back and say that the Seahawks loss was a turning point for Romo and how he was perceived, but it's simply not true. Through the 2007 season, Romo was getting much of the same press as he had been the previous year as a winner. It was earned, too, because he and the Cowboys were great. Dallas started the year 12-1, with its only loss coming to the unbeaten Patriots. The Cowboys finished as the top seed in the NFC at 13-3, and while Romo wasn't going to garner serious MVP consideration across from Tom Brady, he finished second behind the Patriots star in yards per attempt and passing touchdowns. Romo was third in the league in QBR and fifth in passer rating.

What happened next changed how people perceived Romo. The Cowboys sputtered to a 2-2 December, although one of those losses was in a meaningless Week 17 game against Washington. Romo infamously went to Cabo during his bye week with girlfriend Jessica Simpson and teammate Jason Witten, the latter of whom has almost entirely escaped any scrutiny. The Cowboys then lost to the Giants at home 21-17 in a game where Romo went 18-of-36 for 201 yards and couldn't lead Dallas on a game-winning drive despite starting his final two possessions on the Dallas 44-yard line and New York 48-yard line.

You can see a few NFL players here.

It's not difficult to compare Romo to his eventual replacement, Dak Prescott, although Prescott drew attention for his brilliance in the preseason and didn't have to wait four years for a starting job. Aaron Rodgers also was hyped while waiting three years for the starting job in Green Bay, although Rodgers was a first-round pick and did struggle at times with the limited reps he got over his three seasons backing up Brett Favre. And there's Odell Beckham Jr., of course, who has taken most of the flak for the Giants' infamous trip to Miami before they were ousted from this year's playoffs by the Packers.

The second Romo: The disappointment

From that point forward, the stories about Romo changed. In the way that we often drag athletes down if they struggle in the postseason at the beginning of their careers, everything Romo did had to travel through the prism and perpetually shifting goalposts of coming through in the clutch. In 2008, Romo appeared to have the Cowboys safely in the playoff hunt at 8-4 heading into December, only to collapse. Dallas lost three of its final four games, including the final game at Texas Stadium against the Ravens, before getting blown out 44-6 in what amounted to a play-in game against the Eagles in Week 17.

Romo unquestionably struggled that December, turning the ball over nine times in four games. The idea that Romo annually fell apart in December stuck for the remainder of his career, even though it wasn't accurate. Romo's splits by month are a matter of public record, and they're telling:

October was Romo's worst month, not December. (I included four January regular-season games with the December totals, in which Romo went 1-3 but played well.) His numbers and win-loss record are essentially identical in October and the December/January super-month, and yet you'll never hear about how Romo couldn't handle the pressure of winning in autumn. It's also worth pointing out that, regardless of record, Romo's numbers were great in every month.

This is a theme with Romo: If you aren't selectively choosing games to fit your story, Romo's December record isn't much of a story. The Cowboys slipped and lost their first two December games in 2009, dropping them to 8-5, before Romo led the Cowboys to three straight wins (helped out by consecutive shutouts in Weeks 16 and 17) and then a 34-14 playoff shellacking of the Eagles for his first postseason victory. Dallas was blown out the next week by the Vikings, but you can't leave out the success it had in talking about Romo in the playoffs.

Injuries (more on them in a second) led to a lost year in 2010. In 2011, the Cowboys had their worst December, falling from 7-4 at Thanksgiving to out of the playoffs at 8-8, losing 31-14 in New Jersey to a Giants team that would go on to win the Super Bowl. The following year, the Cowboys missed out on the playoffs again after losing their final two games, although the story is a little more complicated than that. Romo furiously led the Cowboys back with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown drives against the Saints in Week 16, finishing with 416 passing yards and four scores, only for the Saints to win in overtime. He was far worse in Week 17, throwing picks on each of his first two possessions en route to a three-pick game against Washington in another de facto play-in contest.

Critics had more to say in 2013, when Romo lost games to Josh McCown and Matt Flynn before getting hurt in a Week 16 win over Washington and giving way to Kyle Orton, who lost a play-in game. Of course, that Dallas defense allowed 45 points to McCown and 37 to Flynn in those contests. It was only in 2014 that both the Cowboys (who went 4-0) and Romo (who threw 12 touchdowns against one pick) really dominated in December. Romo then posted a 125.7 passer rating in the playoffs with an up-and-down victory over the Lions before famously being denied by the referees on a fourth-and-1 throw to Dez Bryant that would have given Dallas the lead over Green Bay with 4:42 left.

Romo's legacy as a clutch performer is complicated. I don't think anybody would say that he elevated his game in December and January, but the idea that Romo significantly dropped off is overstated. Because Romo started his career with that brutal fumbled snap in Seattle and took the blame for the trip to Mexico, he spent the rest of his NFL life fighting the perception, right or wrong, that he wasn't a big-game quarterback. And defenses rarely helped.

There's a natural comparison to be made between Romo and Peyton Manning, who started his playoff career with three losses and threw blanks against the Patriots twice before finally beating them in 2006. Manning overcame that perception by winning two Super Bowls, both in cases where his defense gave him help. His defense allowed just 12.8 points per game during Manning's first run to the Super Bowl in '06, before the Broncos' D allowed just 14.7 points to push a fading Manning to his second Super Bowl in 2015.

Outside of perhaps 2009, Romo never got that help.

The third Romo: The injured

It might be foolish to separate the disappointing Romo from the Romo who was often playing through or sidelined by injuries, but there's an important distinction to be made. Romo's style -- often twisting away from free rushers and extending plays before eventually finding an open receiver -- lent itself to injuries. He lacked or perhaps abandoned the instincts to avoid those big hits that have kept a similar quarterback in Russell Wilson on the field.

Yes, Romo got hurt. But anyone who questions his toughness is worth ignoring. Romo collapsed in the shower after that ugly loss to the Eagles in 2008. He lasted all 16 games during the 2009 season despite suffering broken ribs against the 49ers in Week 2, posting a 102.5 passer rating in the process. Years later, in 2014, Romo broke three bones in his back and missed all of a game-and-a-half before returning to the lineup. Reports suggest Romo regularly required Toradol shots to make it through the grind of seasons.

Having said that, Romo's career was compromised by injuries. Various serious traumas either sank the Cowboys' season or put Romo and his team into a situation where they had only one shot to make it through to more meaningful action. If Romo had been healthier over the course of his career, he would have had a much better shot of finishing his time with a Super Bowl ring.

Two of Romo's most promising seasons went up in smoke thanks to collarbone injuries. After the 11-5 run into the postseason in 2009, the Cowboys started 1-4 in 2010, but each of the four losses were decided by seven points or fewer. They were an average team with bad luck, but things only got worse when Romo broke his collarbone in a 41-35 loss to the Giants. He missed the rest of the year. Then, after Romo's MVP-caliber season in 2014, the Cowboys started 2-1 in 2015 before Romo again fractured his clavicle. His backups went 0-6 before Romo returned for two weeks, beating the Dolphins before suffering another collarbone injury in an ugly loss to the Panthers. He didn't return. Romo underwent offseason surgery to repair the collarbone, but he fractured vertebrae in his back last preseason, which ended up costing him his job once Prescott excelled.

That's three years wiped off the books. Romo also dealt with a fractured pinkie finger and a ruptured disk in his back, among other maladies.

Romo spent 11 seasons as a projected or actual starting quarterback in the NFL, and five of those seasons were heavily impacted by injuries. In the other six seasons, the Cowboys went 58-31 with Romo at the helm, making four trips to the postseason. Romo made four Pro Bowls in those healthy years, too. Given that Romo only took over as a starting quarterback during his age-26 season, we're missing a huge chunk of Romo's career. Who knows what he might have been able to do if he had stayed healthy? There's a touch of Randall Cunningham here.

The fourth Romo: The guy who was brilliant anyway

Injuries be damned, Romo was as good as anyone in football between 2011 and 2014. Among players with 2,000 pass attempts or more over that time frame, Romo was third in completion percentage, fourth in passer rating and sixth in touchdown-to-interception ratio. He was at his best in 2014, when Romo led the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, QBR and game-winning drives. Romo would have been a totally reasonable MVP selection over Aaron Rodgers that year.

Romo is not going to be a Hall of Famer, but he played at a Hall of Fame level for four seasons. That's more than most.

If Romo successfully transitions to broadcasting and doesn't return to the field, he'll leave behind a fascinating, complicated legacy as a star quarterback. He went from being a guy who succeeded without any expectations to being a star who often disappointed against lofty expectations. Romo's career was blighted by injuries, but he was tough, perhaps to the extent where it might have been a detriment. He was the center of controversy when he shouldn't have been and, by all accounts, a model teammate when Prescott took over despite months of suggestions from the organization that Romo wouldn't lose his job.

Romo's career began and ended in such an unlikely fashion that the best way to describe him might simply be unique. There were echoes of other players' careers in Tony Romo, but he was one of a kind.