ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Tony Romo missed three games in 2008 because of a broken pinky, the Dallas Cowboys called on Brad Johnson as their quarterback for three games.
When Romo missed 10 games in 2010 because of a broken collarbone, the Cowboys called on Jon Kitna.
When Romo was unable to play in the 2013 season finale because of a herniated disk that would require surgery, they were able to call on Kyle Orton.
Before starting games for the Cowboys, that trio of subs had started a combined 292 games. Johnson won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and took the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins to the playoffs. Kitna took the Seattle Seahawks to the playoffs in 1999. Orton took the Chicago Bears to the playoffs in 2005.
Jason Garrett made his living as a backup quarterback for 12 years. One of his favorite sayings since taking over the Cowboys’ offense in 2007 was how much the team valued the quarterback position.
They especially valued an experienced backup to Romo.
Until this year.
With Orton skipping the team’s voluntary offseason program and willing to absorb fines totaling more than six figures, the Cowboys eventually decided to part ways with him before training camp started.
That decision came after Orton told the team he would be at training camp in Oxnard, California.
But the Cowboys decided they did not want a quarterback -- even a backup -- who was not committed.
And they liked what Brandon Weeden did in the offseason with Romo recovering from back surgery. They felt confident in Weeden with Romo unable to play Sunday because of two transverse process fractures in his back.
Their faith in Weeden was not repaid in the 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, but owner and general manager Jerry Jones preferred not to play the what-if game.
“I don’t second guess that at all because we lost games with those experienced quarterbacks, with the quarterbacks that were more experienced,” Jones said. “As a matter of fact we got knocked out of the playoffs with the more experienced quarterback last year, and so I think it’s all relevant.”
Johnson went 1-2 as a starter in 2008. Kitna went 4-5 in 2010 after the season was effectively lost, but he played so well with Garrett as the interim coach that it helped Garrett get the full-time gig. Orton lost his one start last year in a winner-take-all NFC East title game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
He completed 30 of 46 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns, but his second interception late in the fourth quarter ended the Cowboys’ comeback chances.
Weeden, who entered Sunday with 20 career starts, however, did not move the Cowboys the way Orton did last December. He struggled. Weeden completed 18 of 33 passes for 183 yards. He threw a touchdown to Dez Bryant but did not complete a pass to the Cowboys’ leading receiver until 1:50 remained in the game, and the Cardinals cashed in. Weeden was intercepted twice, including one in the red zone in the third quarter. He stared down Terrance Williams on his fourth-quarter interception.
“I hoped he’d have a better day today, but the Cardinals had something to do with that as well,” Jones said.
When throwing to his running backs and tight ends, Weeden completed 12 of 13 passes for 125 yards. On his throws to wide receivers, he completed 6 of 19 passes for 58 yards. He missed on his first eight throws to Bryant. In addition to the interception on the throw to Williams, Weeden made the wrong read, expecting Williams to run a stop route while the receiver kept running long.
“That was completely on me,” Weeden said. “There were a couple of times where we maybe weren’t on the same page. It doesn’t matter. There really was no excuse for it. I have to play better.”
And now he doesn’t know if he will get another chance. The Cowboys are hopeful Romo will be able to play next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars at London’s Wembley Stadium.
The life of a backup can be a mystery. If the starter struggles, the backup becomes the fan favorite. If he struggles, then the fans hope never to see him again.
“I hate to refer to baseball, but it’s like being the starter,” Weeden said. “You get five days’ rest, come back to work. As a player, as a competitor, that’s what you want: to play again as soon as possible. Who knows? We’ll see how things play out and go from there. But all I can do now is learn from what happened.”
Maybe the Cowboys learned something, too.