Tony Romo can't outrun bobbled snap

IRVING, Texas -- The picture is forever etched into the memory of Dallas Cowboys fans everywhere.

Tony Romo clutching his face mask, sitting on the ground, his head dejectedly down. Al Johnson leaning over -- one Wisconsin kid asking another if he was OK.

"I only ever think about that play when I see the picture," Johnson said this week from his Brussels, Wis., home. "But here's the deal. I feel bad for all the crap Tony takes about that. It was one play. That is not going to be the defining moment in an already great career. And I do feel bad. He's taken a lot of crap for that one play. That is not always just."

On Sunday, Romo returns to Seattle for the first time since the wild-card loss to the Seahawks in the 2006 season when the snap on a field goal attempt slipped through his hands with 1:19 left in the fourth quarter.

Despite all Romo has done in his career -- three Pro Bowl appearances, franchise records for touchdown passes and passing yards in a season, a 48-30 record, two NFC East titles, a victory in the 2009 playoffs -- the bobbled snap, to many, remains the defining play of his career.

How many times have you seen the picture? How many times have you seen a replay? How many times will you see it this week?

Try living it, like Romo has, and being reminded about it again not only this week but countless times even as the years pass.

He made light of the situation Thursday as he read the comments he made to the Seattle media the day before from his iPhone, knowing the questions were coming.

"Football is a great game," Romo said, his thumb scrolling the touch screen of his phone. "It teaches you a lot of lessons. It's about your ability to interact with other people. From that game, it's like anything in life. From adverse situations you learn from it and get better. You can teach yourself certain things and that was part of it."

According to the official play-by-play sheet, the fourth-down play took five seconds. It seemed a lot longer with each frame dissected and analyzed.

The despair when L.P. Ladouceur's snap slid through his fingers. The frantic attempt to place the ball as Martin Gramatica approached the kick. The hope as Romo started to run toward what looked like a touchdown -- or at least a first down at the Seattle 1 -- with no defender in sight. The deflation as Jordan Babineaux tackled Romo from behind, stopping him short of the goal line and even a first down.

Johnson thought Romo was hurt as he approached him.

"He took a pretty good shot and he was on the ground," Johnson said. "My first reaction was just to go see if he was hurt. I asked him if he was OK. I don't think he responded."

Emotionally, Romo was hurt for a while. Not only because of what he lost, but there was the hurt he felt for everybody else around him: teammates, coaches, staff, ownership.

"I remember more than anything his mindset of, 'Man, I feel like I let everybody around us down,' you know?" tight end Jason Witten said. "I do think he uses that fuel. That's what kind of teammate he is. Not only for himself [and] for what he wants to achieve but he wants others to have that success. He wants it bad for them."

Sean Payton, an Eastern Illinois grad like Romo and one of the major reasons he signed with the Cowboys in 2003, was the NFC's coach at the Pro Bowl a few weeks after the Seattle loss. At a meeting to set up the week for the players, Payton ended the session with, "And Romo, you're holding."

The room broke up in laughter. Even Romo chuckled.

"I think he laughed out of respect," Witten said. "I'm not going to speak for Tony but I know I felt I wanted to punch him [Payton] at that moment. But, yeah, he probably laughed out of respect."

How much changed that night for the Cowboys?

Bill Parcells sat with the pilots on the charter flight home, like he always did, knowing he had coached his last game. Marco Rivera's back was in so much pain that he had to lie down the entire flight home and went straight to the hospital from the airport.

So many people who remain in the organization today and those who have moved on believe the Cowboys would have beaten the Chicago Bears the next week and played in the NFC Championship Game.

"That's all speculation as to what we would have done," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said, but later added, "I think there's a good chance we would have some success, maybe a lot of success in the [2006] playoffs."

If the Cowboys had made that 19-yard field goal and stopped Seattle in the final minute, then the Romo story would be so different. You wouldn't hear so much about his lack of playoff success. The Cabo trip before the 2007 playoff game against the New York Giants would not be on his Wikipedia page. You wouldn't hear so much about the team's lack of playoff success since the franchise's last Super Bowl win.

But maybe Romo would not have become the player he is today.

"You never look back and say, 'What if?'" Romo said. "What you do is learn and you get better. Anytime we've had a loss, I've learned and used tools from those games to figure out how to get to the point where you're a better player the next time."