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All aboard the (Tony) Romo coaster

Game time

Cowboy at Patriots

3:15 p.m. Sunday

KDFW/Channel 4

Posted 7:48am on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011

Do great minds think alike, or did a certain sports TV network overhear us talking about Tony Romo? Either way, ESPN takes an amusing ride on the Romo Coaster -- literally. Check out the video.

On a glorious football Sunday in North Texas, the Dallas Cowboys and their quarterback, Tony Romo, are manhandling the undefeated Detroit Lions. Romo, the grin-and-bear-it gunslinger who led the Cowboys to heroic victories the previous two weeks with broken ribs and a punctured lung, is carving up the Lions' secondary with surgical precision. The score is 20-3 at halftime, so I click off my TV and head out into the autumn bliss. Only at the last minute do I push the record button on the DVR. Just in case.

A few hours later, I run into a friend who has an incredulous smile on his face.

"He did it again," my friend says, head shaking.

"Who?" I ask.

"Romo," he says.

While I listen to him recount Romo's three second-half interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, I feel a wave of exasperation rising in my gut. Then, inexplicably, I can't wait to get home and see this train wreck. Exactly how did Romo snatch defeat -- a 34-30 loss to the Lions -- from the jaws of victory?


Step right up, Cowboys fans, and climb aboard a ride I like to call the Romo Coaster. It's more harrowing than the Titan, The Texas Giant or any ride at Six Flags. If you have a weak constitution, you may want to skip it altogether. After all, we've got plenty of other great rides here: The Texas Rangers are in the playoffs again. The Dallas Mavericks are NBA champs. TCU won the Rose Bowl last season and just announced that it's joining the Big 12. Heck, even the Dallas Stars are showing signs of life.

But for pure blood-pumping adrenaline, twists and turns, highs and lows, you cannot beat the Romo Coaster.

It will make you scream. Maybe even throw up a little. But rest assured, every Sunday, you'll be lining up for another wild ride.

Consider that, just four games into the 2011 season, he has already delivered more thrills and spills than the Houston Texans have in their entire history.

Week 1: Romo marches the Cowboys offense up and down the field against the vaunted Jets D in New York but fumbles and throws an interception in the fourth quarter, costing his team the game. ROMO, WHAT A CHOKER!

Week 2: Playing with a broken rib and punctured lung sustained in Game 1, he toughs his way past the 49ers in San Francisco. ROMO, WHAT A WARRIOR!

Week 3: At home on Monday night against the Redskins, he overcomes bad snaps and shaky receiver play to pull out an 18-16 win. HE'S A COACH ON THE FIELD!!

Week 4: Three second-half interceptions. The worst collapse in Cowboys history. BENCH ROMO! DRAFT ANDREW LUCK!

Longtime fans have no patience for such an unpredictable quarterback. They like their heroes solid, unshakable. John Wayne in pads.

Romo is anything but that. He is brilliant and boneheaded, often in the same set of downs. You could argue that the Cowboys would win more games with his backup, veteran Jon Kitna, under center. (He certainly provided steady leadership in the second half of last season, when Romo was recovering from a broken collarbone.)

But is that what we really want? Someone to just steer the ship? Someone to throw 8-yard passes and hope Rob Ryan's defense can hold the other team to field goals? And, honestly, are the Cowboys good enough to play it that safe?

I watch sports for many reasons: to marvel at the athletes' grace and skill and, yes, to see my favorite teams win. But I also want drama. With Romo, you surely get that. For every stupid play he makes, he pulls off two or three breathtaking ones. He has style, personality, attitude -- a true star presence that can't be taught at training camp.

Indeed, in all the ups and downs on the Romo Coaster, here's the thing area sports fans often forget: Simply put, Tony Romo gives the Cowboys their best chance to be great.

Swagger versus stats

Mondays after another Romo/Cowboys collapse can bring out the jerk in all of us. (They don't call it a knee-jerk reaction for nothing.) People are surly in traffic or standing in line for lattes at Starbucks. Nobody tells you to have a blessed day. And every conversation, whether it's at the water cooler or on Facebook, comes around to: "Can you believe that @#$@#% Romo?!"

But, seriously, why can't we believe it? Romo has been a feast-or-famine, all-or-nothing guy since he trotted onto the field on a Monday night in 2006, taking the place of another guy we were fed up with, Drew Bledsoe.

An undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois University, Romo was a Rudy -- a guy who never should have had a chance to play quarterback for America's Team. Yet for his first couple of seasons as a starter, he made quarterbacking look easy.

He dodged defensive linemen and dated pop stars. He piled up gaudy passing numbers and went to Pro Bowls. He drew lofty comparisons to the ghosts of Cowboy Super Bowls past, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. He sparred with the media and even wore his hat backward.

All that swagger and talent is what drew us to Romo and made him a celebrity beyond the playing field. It's also what makes us pounce on him like a jungle cat every time he screws up -- in Texas, we tend to feel outraged when our sports heroes don't have the big wins to back up their big contracts.

Yet battered and bruised Cowboys fans, aching for a return to the Super Bowl years of the mid-'90s, tend to let the failures blot out Romo's many big wins. We dwell on the trail of wreckage that began in Seattle in the 2006 playoffs, with Romo's botched hold on a go-ahead field goal, but we ignore the winning touchdown drive he orchestrated in Week 11 to upset the undefeated Indianapolis Colts, 21-14, and propel the Cowboys into the playoffs in the first place.

We're still bitching about that late interception against the Giants in the 2007 playoffs, which short-circuited a 13-3 season, or the pick-six against Pittsburgh in 2008 that also cost the Cowboys dearly. Yet we've pretty much erased from our memory his Houdini-like play against the St. Louis Rams, when the snap sailed 20 yards over his head and he scooped it up, juked defenders and ran 30 yards for the first down. Or his five touchdowns in the 2007 season opener against the Giants. Or his eight 300-yard passing games in 2009.

I'm not suggesting that the quarterback isn't careless at times. Talk about a Romo Coaster. The man threw five interceptions against Buffalo in 2007 and still somehow managed to eke out a victory. But the qualities that makes him special -- his ability to escape and create -- have also been his most glaring flaws. And he tends to be so overconfident (some might say arrogant) that he never sees the potential for a turnover until it's too late.

Take a closer look at the numbers, though, and you might be surprised. Romo's percentages in close games measure up well against legends like Aikman and Brett Favre. He's actually better than Aaron Rodgers, whose Green Bay Packers won last year's Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, according to the fine folks at ColdHardFootballFacts.com, who did a painstaking analysis of every close game Romo has played in the NFL.

To quote their conclusion: "If you think Tony Romo is a choke artist that can't get out of his own way in close games, then you're going to have to expand that gallery to include some other quarterbacks, such as Rodgers and [San Diego Chargers QB Philip] Rivers. Romo has had his share of mistakes. He has underperformed in the postseason. But it is all overglamorized because everything, including the criticism, is bigger in Texas."

Hold on tight

As frustrating as the 2011 edition of the Cowboys have been so far, they seem like the perfect team for our topsy-turvy times.

For the past several years, we have all stared uncertainty in the face. Jobs have been lost, 401(k)s have plunged and rebounded, only to dip again. Every time it seems like we're getting our heads above water, another setback shoves us back down. It can be exhausting.

Sports is supposed to be an escape from all that. Who has time to worry about a stack of bills or a leaky roof when the Mavs are vanquishing the mighty Miami Heat and bringing DFW its first NBA championship? A winner is a comforting and much-needed distraction. (Go, Rangers!)

So it's no wonder we unleash all of our pent-up disappointment on Romo and the Cowboys. They are just as flawed and vulnerable as we are. America's Team, for sure. In the face of enormous expectations, they keep coming up short.

Yet if that description sounds familiar, it's because it echoes the career arc of a certain 7-foot sharpshooter from Germany who, for 10 seasons, was called soft. Nobody questioned his talent; everyone questioned his heart and his ability to win it all.

Fitting then that Dirk Nowitzki -- that would-be NBA Champion Dirk Nowtzki -- tweeted out a stiff shot of perspective amid all the hyperbole and hand-wringing after the Cowboys' loss to the Lions.

"Dear tony romo. Don't worry abt all the critics. I heard that same garbage for a long time. Keep working hard and keep improving."

It's the most enduring lesson of sports (and life): No matter how soul-crushing and confidence-shattering your failures, you simply can't give up. That advice applies to my son's peewee soccer team as easily as it does the most valuable franchise in U.S. sports. Give up on Romo now, and we run the risk of missing out on a Nowitzki-esque evolution. And a championship.

Romo is that good.

Will he continue to test our faith and flare our tempers? Of course.

Would I love to see Romo throw the ball out of bounds sometimes instead of trying to fit it in to Dez Bryant? You bet.

And please, Coach Garrett, the next time you're up by 24 points, run the damn ball! It doesn't take a Princeton grad to figure that one out.

But as someone who has suffered through the unwatchable Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson years, and the oh-so-boring Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde days, I'll take a spot in the front car of the Romo Coaster any day.

So climb aboard and buckle up. It should be a helluva ride.

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