Last week, Jason Witten spoke with superlatives dripping after the dismantling of Buffalo when asked about his Quarterback's performance: "Probably the best game I’ve seen him play where he’s just picking them apart," were his exact words in describing a near-perfect day from Tony Romo.
One would guess that there is a new "best" award to be distributed this week. As in, best performance by a QB in the 4th Quarter and Overtime to do everything he could to drag his team to a victory and then almost single-handidly prevent that victory in classic fashion. That award may sound a bit wordy, so elaboration is certainly necessary.
The Cowboys needed a win in Washington on Sunday in the worst way. If things worked out as the day went on (and they did) then Dallas could sit in 1st place in the NFC East by simply beating a team that hadn't led in a game in 49 days.
But, this team happens to be the Redskins, and if anyone has been paying attention for the last 50 years, they would know that wins against even the most putrid of Washington teams is never as easy as it seems it will be on paper. It is the ultimate true definition of "throw the records out the window when these two teams play". Crazy things happen and at least that stayed true to form in the latest meeting.
Dallas took an early lead, but due to careful play calling, poor special teams, and a shift in momentum that is tough to stop, the Cowboys entered the 4th Quarter down 7 points and seeing their season drifting away from them.
And that is when Tony Romo started making throws that would save the day. It was not his best day and it did not flirt with a perfect QB rating, but with 15 minutes to go and a crucial game on the line, there is no question that #9 was the catalyst in an amazing escape that required some high-stakes 3rd Down throws.
Here are the details:
Crucial Throw #1: 3rd and Goal from the 7 yard line, down 17-10 with 14:48 to play in the game. It is very important that the Cowboys get 7 points here and the only it is going to happen is if Romo keeps the play alive. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are closing in fast around the edge and Romo must step up and then slide to his left. Romo is trying to find Dez Bryant on the left, but the Redskins have him bracketed with 2 defenders, causing Romo to look elsewhere. He holds the ball an unheard of 4.7 seconds to wait for Laurent Robinson to drag across the field and to pop open for a split second. If he leads Robinson, the pass won't work because Robinson will get blown up, so he places it on the back shoulder of a cross route. Perfect ball placement for a Touchdown. 17-17.
Crucial Throw #2: 17-17, 3rd and 8 from the Cowboys' 14-yard line with 10:22 left in the 4th Quarter. Cowboys elect to use a 7-man protection here, meaning that Jason Witten will not be out in a route. Instead, with Robinson and Bryant out wide, the Redskins are using 2-deep to double both players on the sidelines. This leaves Kevin Ogletree against Kevin Barnes in the slot on the left as Romo's only viable option. It takes 3.5 seconds this time for Ogletree to get past the sticks and open, but Romo puts a throw right on him and he is wrestled down at the 26 after a 12 yard gain and a 1st Down.
Crucial Throw #3: Another 3rd and 8, later in the same drive with 9:01 to play. This time, the Cowboys have "S12" personnel on with 2 TE, 2 WR. This personnel grouping allows Witten to go into a route and asks John Phillips to stay back and protect to the right of Romo in shotgun where he can assist rookie Tyron Smith with Kerrigan. This play is just amazing as again Romo feels the rush of Orakpo as he knows Doug Free has no help at left tackle. Once he spins to the outside of Orakpo, there is nothing Free can do to help without holding, so Romo knows he is just buying a bit more time before he will get hit. This maneuver requires Witten to improvise across the field into an opening and Romo finds him with a perfect throw that travels from the Dallas 32 to the Washington 35 where it finds Witten in stride. Witten finishes the play by beating DeAngelo Hall to the endzone and the Cowboys take a 24-17 lead on a 59-yard improvisation. It only happens because Romo stays alive for another 4.7 seconds and then makes a perfect throw while fading to his left. It would have to be considered one of the best single plays of his career.
Crucial Throw #4: The fact that he had the opportunity to make this final throw is due to the Redskins missing a 52-yard FG in overtime. But, that happened, and so now the Cowboys had a chance to still find a victory. But, in overtime, they may not get many chances, and now it is 3rd and 15 from the Redskins' 49-yard line. A punt is near certain as the Cowboys rate of conversion on 3rd and 10+ was 6 for 35 (17%). They were 1-12 (8%) on 3rd and 15+, but the lone conversion, ironically enough, was a 3rd and 21 prayer to Dez Bryant against DeAngelo Hall back in Week 3. Here is 3rd and 15, and again the play is made possible because Romo is moving in the pocket elusively for 3.4 seconds. 5 Redskins are rushing and Stephen Bowen nearly gets there, but Romo works away, again to his left. Bryant breaks off his route and improvises to the sideline which leaves Hall in his dust. Romo squares and hits Dez past the chains at the Redskins 31 and then Bryant drags Hall to the 23. The game is now the Cowboys to be lost after an amazing 3rd and long conversion.
It would be disingenuous to not finish the story of the win in Washington. As the Cowboys often do, they flirted with disaster as Dan Bailey came on to attempt a game-winning 39 yard Field Goal a few minutes after Bryant's big catch. For reasons that apparently include the angle of Mat McBriar's ankle when he holds, Romo is still being asked to hold on Bailey's kicks. And, in the NFL overtime rules, each team gets 2 timeouts in the extra session - not 3. This is an important thing to know if you are Tony Romo. After making 4 gigantic throws to put the team in this position, he nearly wrote another chapter in his life-story about agonizing mistakes at the moment of truth. NFL Rule 4, Section 5, Article 1, Item 4 in the NFL Rulebook tells us that any team calling a timeout it doesn't have will be charged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and lose 15 yards. 39 yard field goals are money for Dan Bailey, but the Cowboys would not let him try a 54-yarder, most likely.
And, judging by the result of the 39-yarder, a good kick - barely - we know that this would have likely been the difference between winning and losing (or at least, tying). But, thankfully, the Redskins were also trying to call a timeout to practice their "ice the kicker" ritual, and Romo and the Cowboys were off the hook.
(Edit 11/21 at 4:05 pm): On Monday, the league cleared up the scenario with a clarification on the ruling of what might have happened: "Officials would not have granted Tony Romo a time out. They are instructed to ignore the request when a team has no time outs." This renders my speculation on what might have been irrelevant as was discussion on whether this would have been ruled a 5-yard delay of game or a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct.
But, make no mistake. This game isn't won without superior QB play in the 4th Quarter and Overtime. Not typical throws that should be made, but many high-stakes 3rd Down throws that you just thank Romo for converting. The Cowboys answered a gut check with a crucial win and their QB dragged them to victory.
The game itself wasn't pretty, but those 4 throws should certainly answer charges about his clutch ability with some exhibits for the other side of the debate.
Many things went wrong on Sunday, but the quarterback was there to save the day.