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Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys tied together for better or worse

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It was difficult to watch the Dallas Cowboys' opening day debacle and not wonder two things:

1) Was Jerry Jones thinking about the quarterback who got away?
2) What is there to think about the quarterback he is tied to?

Everybody had a good chuckle this offseason when Jones admitted he wanted to draft Johnny Manziel in May, only to have the card with Manziel's name reportedly snatched out of his hand by a quick-thinking son. It was "What a wild guy that Jerry is" time, and whatever else you might think of Jones, he enlivens the NFL with his personality, passion and business acumen. Do not mistake Jones for a fool.

What he is not doing is making his team any better, though, as was on vivid display Sunday in the team's 28-17 home loss to the San Francisco 49ers in what felt like a neutral-field game. Nobody was laughing along with Jones at his stadium in part because so many Cowboys fans seem so weary over their team that they just stayed home, selling off their tickets to Niners fans who clotted large swaths of seats in red.

That's a business issue for Jones, and he's very good at solving those. But the laughter stops when you consider that Jones' first impulse when given the single best moment all year to improve his defense-desperate team was to use his first-round draft pick on a lightning-rod quarterback, despite the Cowboys being tied -- as if with cement shoes -- to the quarterback they already have.

Jones gave Tony Romo a massive contract extension in March of 2013, and just 12 months later the deal had to be restructured to give the Cowboys salary-cap relief.

Romo is not a bad quarterback. He has borne more than his fair share of the blame for the errors of the Cowboys' ways in the past, including last season when he went toe-to-toe with Peyton Manning as the defense was disintegrating. But he was terrible on Sunday, throwing three first-half interceptions -- no doubt in part because after having his second back surgery in as many years he practiced little during the run-up to the season. And the Cowboys are saddled with his smothering contract, perhaps the worst in the NFL right now, which is exhibit A in Jones' mangled manual of disaster-planning.

Jones held his regular postgame press briefing, and, while he was clearly disappointed in the performance, neither he nor anyone else with the Cowboys professed an unusual amount of concern about Romo. To be fair, Romo has long said himself that he needs reps to get into a rhythm. So perhaps as he gets more into the groove of the season, the derring-do parts of his game will once again prevail over the "don't do that" parts.

The problem is that as he ages and his body betrays him, those reps must be saved for games. Until last week, Romo did not practice for three consecutive days at any point this offseason. And even after all that inactivity, he played fewer than 50 snaps in the preseason. This season, with this shell of a defense, Romo and the offense bear even more than their usual outsized responsibility for keeping the Cowboys competitive. There now have to be legitimate questions about whether the Romo we saw Sunday is an aberration or something closer to what we can expect on a more regular basis.

From one former NFL personnel executive who analyzed the tape of Romo's effort, which included two interceptions of the "what did he see there?" variety:

"Some of it could be rust from limited time (at) practice," he wrote. "Trying to make plays behind early in (the) game. At least twice he and the receiver were not on the same page. Some of it is trying to make plays from behind and Romo being Romo. He needs to practice more and be smart. He gets in trouble when he improvises. Less margin for error now.

"We have seen him do this forever."

Forever is a long time, but not as long as this contract seems to last. It expires in 2019, and Romo has said he hopes to play another five years. Next year is the doozy, though. Romo's salary-cap number will be $27.7 million, for a quarterback who -- if Sunday is any indication -- is unlikely to lead his team to the playoffs for the fifth straight season and is not getting any younger.

The Cowboys' myriad problems aren't nearly all Romo's fault, but this contract makes him virtually untradeable and uncuttable, essentially tying the Cowboys' hands at the game's most important position. The Cowboys must live, then, with this version of Romo -- whose head has to be at least as much of a worry today as his back -- and hope that he returns to something more resembling the quarterback who threw 31 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season and not the one who threw one interception so badly on Sunday that 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said, "You couldn't believe he actually threw it."

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Using a high draft pick -- which the Cowboys could well be in position to have -- on a quarterback will probably be a temptation again next spring. And make no mistake: Jones' intentions are good. There is no question of his desire to win. But if the last 18 seasons have proven nothing else, it is that he almost certainly cannot win on his terms, with him the ultimate arbiter of personnel and contracts. It's redundant to suggest that it might be time to try something else, but then again, the Cowboys' fortunes have never looked as bleak as they do right now.

Perhaps those draft cards should permanently reside in someone else's hands. The old way is what got Jones so closely tied to Romo that they are going to drag each other and the Cowboys down due to poor decision-making, from the board room to the line of scrimmage, sinking them further into mediocrity -- with only a bad back, a worse contract, innumerable losses and, most disastrously, a growing apathy to show for it all.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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