With Tony Romo all set to make a triumphant return to his home state of Wisconsin this week, the air in his hometown of Burlington, a quaint little spot an hour southwest of Milwaukee, will be filled with two of the town's favorite things: the sweet aroma of cocoa from the giant Nestle factory and tales of Tony's legendary toughness.
Like the time in 1997 when Romo, looking a bit like a young Jason Bateman, was knocked woozy and had his chin opened up by a blitzing linebacker from nearby Racine. Romo, just a teenager mind you, stalked to the sideline, with Tarantino-esque levels of blood everywhere, and had his chin stitched up like some kind of minor-league hockey goon. Then he went back into the game and finished with almost 400 yards passing.
Tales of Romo's toughness have only grown in Dallas during the past decade, where he has endured more punishment than probably any other quarterback in the game. This season alone, Romo overcame a second offseason back surgery and, what the heck, two spinal fractures in Week 8, to put up MVP-like numbers while leading America's Team to just its second playoff win in the past 18 years.
A few weeks ago, I was in Philadelphia where, after losing to the Cowboys, Eagles coaches were legitimately in awe over Romo's ability to consistently stand tall in the pocket under intense pressure, read the blitz scheme and coverage disguises and deliver the ball to the exposed part of the Philly defense. Not just once or twice -- but every time they challenged him. "The difference in the game, it was all Romo," said Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. It's another example of how, over the course of the quarterback's career, there is substantial, objective, quantitative proof to back up the claim that Tony Romo is indeed tough and talented.
What happens, I wonder, if we apply that same standard to this new, somewhat ludicrous theory floating around football this week that, all of a sudden, Tony Romo is also now America's undisputed, unshakable Captain Clutch?
Sorry. Does. Not. Compute.
At least not yet.
Look, I know it's the playoffs, and I know one of the things we all love about this time of year are the hyper-speed, explosive hot takes from snap to snap that seem to instantly redefine a legacy or an entire franchise. In fact, in 12 minutes on Twitter during the Ravens' win in Pittsburgh, I saw the experts' (by experts, of course, I mean people like myself) take on Steve Smith go from "Is he even on the Ravens' active roster today?" to "Steve Smith is better than several of the receivers already in Canton."
So, yes, I saw that 11-play, 59-yard winning drive Romo orchestrated against Detroit. I saw the amazing, gutsy, zero-room-for-error, 21-yard pass to Jason Witten on fourth-and-6 and the cool, calculating 8-yard touchdown strike to Terrance Williams. (Romo pounding his fists into the Texas turf in celebration? The moving expression of pure childlike joy, relief and deep trust when he and head coach Jason Garrett embraced after the game? Yep, saw them both.)
But for at least the next few weeks, when it comes to declaring Romo fully clutch after, let's be honest, a career chock-full of late-game gaffes, blunders and outright chokes, I'm on the side of Romo himself and his boss Jerry Jones.
"There is no sense of relief," Romo said after the Lions game.
"Only a Super Bowl," is what Jones replied when asked what it would take to change Romo's rep.
I can't believe I'm gonna say this, but what a calm, reasoned and smart thing for Jerry to say.
I guess, just like me, deep down in his gut somewhere, Jones can't fully shake the feeling that Romo the Choker is still lurking around in the shadows waiting to pop out at the worst moment possible and totally wreak havoc with a fumble, a pick-six or a lob into triple coverage, like some NFL split-personality version of Gollum. But this time, for some reason, the skinny, pale, stringy-haired creature has Jay Cutler's face and is dressed in an ill-fitting orange V-neck sweater he borrowed from Chris Christie. Weird, right?
Remember, Jones and the Cowboys are actually the ones who had grown so tired of waiting for Romo the Choker to change his ways that they selected offensive linemen in the first round in three of the past four drafts, hired Scott Linehan as passing coordinator and rebuilt the Dallas offense around DeMarco Murray (1,845 yards rushing) and the ground game. There's absolutely no shame in this, either. Just ask John Elway.
What I'm saying is, we know the Cowboys' offense has changed. Has Romo? Man, I hope so. Few players deserve it more. But, given his track record, maybe, ya know, we wait and see how he does in the cold and on the road -- a few hours north of his hometown -- with the Cowboys' 26th-ranked passing defense facing off against a Packers team that has taken ball security (13 turnovers, total) to another level.
Everyone seems to be referencing this silly game-winning drive stat to prove Romo's instantaneous transformation into America's new Captain Clutch. It's not enough, people. Not even close. Romo apparently has "28" game-winning drives, tops in the NFL since 2006. That sounds awesome. It really does. But as many of you know, I've long considered the GWD to be, well, nearly 100 percent bullstat.
Here's a little context: Based on the list of GWDs at Pro-Football Reference, Captain Clutch Romo is now just one whole GWD ahead of Brad Johnson and needs only two more game-winning drives to catch the legendary Mr. Ice In His Veins, Kerry Collins. Oh yeah, and based on his current pace, Romo would need to play until he's roughly 57 to catch Peyton Manning, who leads the list with "52."
Also, for us to call the things that quarterbacks get credit for on this list of game-winning drives is downright silly. (Hence the quote marks around the numbers.) When we see the term "game-winning drive," we immediately picture football's version of a walk-off homer in the World Series, like what Romo did Sunday to the Lions -- high-wire quarterback artistry performed with the highest level of skill and cunning and, in Romo's case, repeated an NFL-high "28" times since 2006.
Well -- spoiler alert -- the reality is far, far different.
Take Romo's first career GWD in 2006 against the Panthers. Trailing Carolina 14-13 with 9:47 to play, the Panthers fumbled the ball at their own 14-yard line. Romo came in and handed the ball to Julius Jones, who scored to put the Cowboys up (after a two-point conversion) 21-14.
That's it. That's all he did.
Romo jogged onto the field, pivoted, handed the ball to Jones, got out of the way and, voila, had his very first GWD. (It gets worse. The Cowboys actually scored two more times to win the game 35-14. Not exactly the Cardiac Cowboys, ya know?)
Don't get me wrong. Many of Romo's GWDs are legit, last-second, all-or-nothing, stealing-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat-take-your-breath-away-and-order-a-Romo-jersey kind of performances.
But enough of them are like GWD No. 4 to at least hold off on rewriting Romo's entire legacy for one more week. In 2007, the NFL's new Captain Clutch threw five interceptions on "Monday Night Football" against Buffalo. After the Cowboys recovered a late onside kick, Romo then -- are you sitting down? -- gutted out a three-play, 12-yard drive before Nick Folk kicked a 53-yard field goal to win the game 25-24.
Like I said, bullstat.
In fact, by the time you whittle down Romo's list to just legit GWDs, he barely has a big enough body of work to match all those truly epic game-losing drives we're all so eager to whitewash off his record.
I mean, can one great drive against the Lions make you forget that botched hold during a wild-card game at Seattle in January 2007? How about the three picks he threw against the Redskins in 2012 in what was essentially a Week 17 play-in game -- by my count, Romo's third collapse in a season finale? Or, the 23-point lead Romo blew against the Packers in 2013? How about that crushing late pick he threw in a 51-48 loss to Denver earlier that same season? That one was truly Cutler-esque. With 100 better options at his disposal, Romo just couldn't help himself and threw the one pass he absolutely could not throw in that position.
Or, finally, how about Romo's season-ending pick against the Giants in the divisional round in January 2008, the last time (before this season) that Dallas had a legit shot at the Super Bowl? That pass, remember, was a mistake so awful and costly to the top-seeded Cowboys it reduced Terrell Owens to tears.
Is that Romo gone for good?
Or, is he still lurking somewhere in the shadows of Lambeau?
I guess we'll know for sure in a couple days.
To get the Cowboys one step closer to the Super Bowl, Romo first has to prove he can go home to Wisconsin without returning to his roots as a quarterback.