Tony Romo's unlikely rise changed the NFL

Romo leaves behind impressive stats and a complex career (1:32)

Tony Romo was among the NFL's best a few years ago, but injuries and new opportunities led him to walk away from the game. (1:32)

When I think of Tony Romo, I think of two things: Bill Parcells, and my job as a reporter.

I think of Parcells because of a great story about him by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Magazine from 2006. The story was about why Parcells coached, even though the job brought him no outward (and inward) signs of joy. The Cowboys' quarterback problem at the time was the latest symptom of the disease. Drew Bledsoe was struggling, and for the second time in his stellar career, he was about to be replaced by a nobody, this time an undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois whom few had heard of until Peter King, earlier in the year, slipped a line into a column that he thought Tony Romo (say what?) would be the Cowboys' starting quarterback by the end of the year.

Reporters daily asked Parcells about the status of Bledsoe as a starter. It galled him that the media's questioning so closely mirrored his own. You have to understand how unusual that is. I once asked an NFL head coach what percentage of questions from reporters reflect his daily challenges. "Outside of injuries, zero," he said.

This wasn't one of those times. Everyone knew that Bledsoe was in a quarterback's death spiral, slow to react and watching the rush more than dissecting the coverage. And Romo -- well, that nobody knew anything about him made it all the better. There was a time, beginning in 1999 with Kurt Warner and continuing with Tom Brady in the early 2000s, that incredible NFL quarterbacks came out of nowhere. It was awesome and crazy. Warner came off the bench to produce one of the greatest seasons ever for a quarterback, punctuated by a Super Bowl win. Two years later, Brady gave us a glimpse of what was to come when he drove the Patriots down the field with 90 seconds left in the Super Bowl and upset Warner's Rams. Two years after that, undrafted Jake Delhomme of the Panthers almost beat Brady's Patriots in the Super Bowl. And during that time, Marc Bulger, like Brady a sixth-rounder from 2000, stole Warner's job in St. Louis and looked for a few seasons like the best pure passer in the NFL.

Great quarterbacks seemed to be buried in the depth chart of every team. And so when Romo finally took over for Bledsoe in 2006, he laid claim to a bizarre status: He was an undrafted quarterback who was somehow burdened with huge expectations.

Would he be the next Warner or Brady?

Turns out, he was the last.

Romo had by any measure an outstanding career. He retires ranked fourth all-time in passer rating and won 61 percent of his games. Yet when you read career retrospectives in the next few days, as he walks away from playing the game and walks into a job talking about it, many in my profession will couch his career as a slight disappointment, as if it somehow never lived up to expectations because he never reached, much less won, a Super Bowl.

There are two ways to look at this. One, you could argue that after he was established as a franchise quarterback -- and compensated like one -- it didn't matter where he came from. It only mattered what he would do next. It's valid. He was the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, after all. Certainly, that's how Romo viewed it. He never apologized for his unlikely story. He always knew he belonged, and he has been proved right.

But let's face it: Romo's story is dented only because Warner and Brady turned out to be future Hall of Famers. Their story was so insane that it unfairly has made Romo's less so.

It is no small feat to have produced the third-least-likely outstanding career for a quarterback in the past 20 years. Debating Romo became a contact sport in the media, even after we realized that the Warners, the Bradys -- hell, even the Romos -- aren't plural. They don't happen every year. You don't see it much anymore, the late-round or undrafted guys taking over the league. Outside of Brady and Russell Wilson, almost all of the elite QBs were first-rounders. That era, from 1999 to 2006, changed scouting a lot more than teams will want to admit. They started looking for quarterbacks in hidden places, with different college careers -- or, like Matt Cassel, no real college career. We've known since Johnny Unitas that the rare mix of talent, drive, ruthlessness, confidence and insecurity is impossible to spot, much less predict. The rule became to never wait: If you see a quarterback who might -- might -- be special, take him.

Romo, of course, never forgot how he got his job in the first place. He recognized his own thievery in Dak Prescott. The story from the Cowboys' 2016 war room is well-known by now. They wanted Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook, but Jerry Jones found the prices of trading up too expensive. So they settled for Dak, who became this year's version of that old story, the quarterback nobody expected to dominate now dominating. Only Dak was a product of Warner, Brady and, yes, Romo.

It turns out the Cowboys never forgot, either.