Throughout the season, with the defensive collapses and the head-scratching play-calling and the oddly timed votes of confidence, there has been at least one constant about the Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo and his never-full landfill of blame.
The Cowboys give up 51 points to Peyton Manning, and it's Romo's interception that is remembered. The Cowboys choke away a 23-point halftime lead to the Green Bay Packers and Matt Flynn, and it is Romo's decision to pass instead of run on a packaged play that the head coach points to. His December record, his playoff failures, that bye-week trip to Cabo with a long-ago girlfriend, all of it has been dredged up this month, as the Cowboys frittered away one opportunity after another, winnowing their season down, again, to a final-day must-win game against the Eagles on Sunday night.
The Cowboys have been in that spot before to no avail, in the last two seasons of course. Those losses always led to an unanswerable question: Would the Cowboys have been better off not giving Romo that latest contract extension and moving on without him?
Be careful what you wish for.
The Dallas Cowboys could be about to find out exactly what life without Romo will be like, at the most critical moment of the season, with everything from the postseason to perhaps the head coach's job at stake. With the stunning news Monday that Romo's back injury is serious enough that it could keep him out for the rest of the season -- however long that lasts, and it might not last very long against the Eagles' offensive firepower even if he does play -- the Cowboys would be free of Romo, for better or worse, only one day after he led what now should be remembered as a gutty touchdown drive to beat the Washington Redskins and keep the Cowboys alive. He was hobbling badly as he eluded a pass rush to throw that fourth-and-10 touchdown pass to DeMarco Murray. Now, he might be watching Kyle Orton, who hasn't started a game since 2011 and who has attempted exactly five passes this season, try to take the Cowboys into the playoffs.
Coach Jason Garrett would not confirm Monday afternoon that Romo is out, although he said the Cowboys will likely look to sign another quarterback. The Cowboys' defense could suffer a similar blow, too, because linebacker Sean Lee might also be out for the rest of the season, with a neck injury.
Lee's absence would not be not much of a shock -- he has already missed three games with the injury. But the loss of Romo would be stunning, because he was able to complete Sunday's game -- and lead that game-winning drive -- after suffering a herniated disk, which is believed to eventually require surgery, likely in the third quarter. For all of the foibles -- overstated or not -- he has played well this season, completing nearly 64 percent of his passes for 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions, while absorbing 35 sacks.
Garrett tried to put a brave face on the potential absence of Romo.
"The next-man-up philosophy is alive and well for us," Garrett said. "We feel good about having a veteran quarterback. If Tony can't play, let's go forward."
How they go forward will be a source of intense interest. Perhaps the absence of Romo will finally spur the Cowboys to call more run plays for Murray, as they should have done to preserve that precious lead against the Packers. But for a team with a gift for drama, that would seem to be an overly simple ending. The last time he was a starting quarterback in 2011 in Denver, Orton lost his job to Tim Tebow. But Orton is paid handsomely by the Cowboys precisely because he is an experienced veteran who should not be cowed by the circumstances. Garrett talked about Orton's poise and calmness, and certainly after as much drama as Romo has generated this season, it would seem more fitting if the Cowboys were to win with Orton, in what is likely to be a shootout, because that would somehow draw Romo's uneven season into the glare of the postseason even in absentia.
More daunting for Garrett and the Cowboys is if there is no postseason, with or without Romo. That, of course, was always a distinct possibility, given the Cowboys' porous defense and the Eagles' explosive offense. Orton has completed more than 58 percent of his passes in his career, and, if he starts, he will be surrounded by more talent than he has ever had.
But while he might be one of the best backup quarterbacks in the NFL, he is a backup nonetheless, even if it is behind one of the most polarizing players in the league. After taking just 15 snaps since 2011, he will likely have only one week of practice to prepare to save the season, and maybe Garrett's job. It is unrealistic to think Orton can do that with his arm alone. Jerry Jones said several weeks ago that Garrett would return no matter what, but as the Cowboys' fortunes have wavered, it has become increasingly hard to imagine that he could survive another playoffs-less finish. Orton will need all of that poise and calmness that Garrett praised to manage that responsibility.
Nothing about Romo's season, or his career, or the perception of him, has ever been described as calm. Instead, it has all been a rollercoaster, full of soaring highs -- that touchdown pass Sunday to Murray comes to mind -- and plummeting lows, which have been exhaustively cataloged. Now it appears to be screeching to a sudden, jarring halt.
The Romo ride has been lurching enough to turn plenty of stomachs among the Cowboys' faithful. Now they could find out, once and for all, if they can survive the end of it.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.