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Drew Bledsoe wonders if Tony Romo's time is up in Dallas

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Nearly 10 years ago, midway through a nationally televised night game, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe threw a short pass to the left flat that was intercepted by New York Giants cornerback Sam Madison a yard shy of the end zone. It brought a frustrating end to the Cowboys' final drive of the first half, and with the home team staring at a 12-7 deficit, Bledsoe retreated to the locker room at Texas Stadium intent on mounting a comeback.

Little did Bledsoe know that he had just thrown the final pass of his 14-year career.

As Bledsoe sat at his locker contemplating second-half adjustments, then-Cowboys quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer stormed into the room and announced that his boss, Bill Parcells, had decided to replace Bledsoe with his untested backup -- a decision with overtones that would alter the course of the franchise for the next decade.

"(Palmer) came in all heated up," Bledsoe recalled last week. "He made a big show out of it. I was in front of my locker, trying to get ready for the second half, and he yelled and screamed and said he was going to make a change. Obviously, I wasn't very happy. It was a clarifying moment."

If you're wondering why I had this conversation with Bledsoe -- and what it has to do with the Cowboys' 31-17 victory over the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium on Sunday night -- well, it concerns that untested backup who replaced him on that October night 10 years ago in that since-imploded stadium about 20 miles away.

Yes, Tony Romo is now the Cowboys quarterback in danger of losing his job to a young up-and-comer -- and, if he's honest with himself, he's at least entertaining the fear that he has thrown his last pass.

Look, I'm not saying the impressive September put forth by rookie Dak Prescott -- whose 19-for-24, 248-yard, one-touchdown, no-interception effort against the Bears was a thing of beauty -- portends that Romo's time as a starter in Big D is done. Once the 36-year-old quarterback is cleared to return from the compression fracture in his back, sustained in a late-August preseason game, the plan -- according to the organization's powers that be -- is that the Cowboys will once again ride with Romo.

"Oh, yeah, the plan is to go back to Tony," Cowboys executive vice president and player personnel director Stephen Jones said after the victory over the Bears, which snapped a perplexing eight-game home losing streak and pushed Dallas to 2-1. "You like these kind of 'problems.' But if he's healthy, it's Tony's team."

And yet, to discard the possibility of Prescott remaining as the Cowboys' starter would be naïve, especially given the fourth-round draft pick's poise and productivity thus far. If nothing else, his efforts to date -- which include three starts without a single turnover -- have reduced the team's temptation to rush Romo back into action.

Previously, it has been assumed that the Cowboys' Week 8 game against the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles, following a bye the previous Sunday, might be targeted for Romo's return. Now? Well, owner Jerry Jones admitted after Sunday's game that under the circumstances, later might be better.

"We can be (more conservative), but that has several aspects to it," Jones said. "We could be sitting here with more wins cause Dak is playing, and so those wins would allow you to be more conservative with Tony's condition.

"I don't hesitate to say today that when he's ready to play, Tony gives us the best chance to win. And when he's ready to play, we want him on the field. But I'd love to have the problem of (Dak) playing lights out and winning all the way to that point. I'd welcome it."

Romo, who threw some passes on the field to Cowboys receivers before Sunday's game and remains a popular leader in the locker room, declined to comment as he walked to his car late Sunday night, saying, "I'll talk next week. Just gotta keep rolling, keep winning." He was reasonably cheery, but this can't be a wholly comfortable state of affairs for a player who has become increasingly injury-prone in the latter stages of his career.

Rest assured, Bledsoe can relate to the anxiety.

After all, losing his job to Romo was only the second-most devastating demotion of his otherwise highly fulfilling career.

"When you're young in the league -- when you're young in life -- you think you're 10-foot tall and bulletproof," said Bledsoe, now 44, who was the first overall pick of the 1993 draft. "You think nobody can ever replace you, and that you're gonna be the guy forever. Eventually, you learn the lesson that it's a replacement business. Sometimes that hits you right between the eyes, which is what happened to me with (Tom) Brady, and again with Tony.

"It happens to all of us. I don't know if it's the time for Tony, but it's something that every quarterback has to confront."

Famously, Bledsoe first had to confront being replaced 15 years ago, after absorbing a hellacious hit from New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis that landed him in the hospital with internal bleeding, a potentially life-threatening situation. By the time he was cleared to play later in the 2001 season, his previously unheralded backup, Tom Brady, had performed well enough to remain entrenched as the Patriots' starter.

Even though Bledsoe returned to replace the injured Brady in the '01 AFC Championship Game, helping to spark an upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, coach Bill Belichick went back to Brady for Super Bowl XXXVI -- and a legend was born.

Bledsoe, who the previous March had signed a 10-year, $103 million contract with the Patriots -- then the richest deal in NFL history, and one which owner Robert Kraft said was designed to retain "one of the great Patriots for the rest of his career" -- would be traded to Buffalo in April of 2002.

Three years later, after being released by the Bills in a salary-cap move, Bledsoe joined the Cowboys, where Parcells (who'd coached him in New England during his first four seasons, including a Super Bowl XXXI appearance) was closing out his illustrious coaching career.

Benched in the sixth game of his second season in Dallas, Bledsoe -- once again -- had to deal with the uncomfortable sensation of watching a young replacement shine.

"It brings up very conflicting emotions," Bledsoe recalled. "In our heart of hearts, we all want to feel indispensible. We all want to believe, 'There's no way the team can succeed without me.' Then you see the team going on, and winning with a young guy playing the position, and playing it well, and you do some soul searching ... and you start to think, 'Maybe the team's gonna make that decision to move on.'

"You always want the team to do well, but it's hard. It can be [awkward]. Tommy and I are still good friends, and I text with Romo once in awhile ... but it's hard to love 'em if they've got your job and you want it back."

Romo's potential discomfort, however, is the franchise's magic elixir. For a team that has struggled mightily in his absence, including a 1-11 mark when he went down with a pair of broken-collarbone injuries last season, the knowledge that they are in good, steady hands with Prescott is a delicious surprise.

After all, this wasn't supposed to happen. The Cowboys targeted a quarterback in the top end of last April's draft, missing out on a potential trade-up to the back end of the first round for former Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, who instead was snagged by the Broncos in a similar move. According to sources inside the Cowboys' draft room, Jerry Jones was visibly angered when the team lost out on Lynch.

After a similar trade-up attempt targeting former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook failed, with the Oakland Raiders beating the Cowboys to the punch early in the fourth round, the Cowboys feared they had come up empty. Encouragement from the coaching staff, however, compelled them to take a closer look at Prescott, and they took a flier on the former Mississippi State passer later in the fourth round.

"Well, we're in the quarterback business," Jones said, confirming his frustration after missing out on Lynch. "But look how it worked out. Would I trade (Prescott) heads up for anybody that went in that draft?"

Jones smiled, leaving the rhetorical question unanswered -- but it's pretty obvious that the answer, at this point, is, "No way."

The team's primary concern about Prescott was his lack of accuracy in college, but that has not been a problem on the NFL level. Relatively raw upon his arrival, his improvement curve was steep -- and his demeanor downright unflappable.

"He's a good player, isn't he?" Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said after Sunday night's victory. Then, holding his hand in a horizontal pose, Garrett added: "He's just like this, all the time."

Asked what might happen if Prescott continues to shine, and Romo is cleared to play, Garrett pointed to his watch and said, "We just focus on 11:05 (p.m.)" -- the time of his answer.

At the time of what turned out to be his final NFL season, Bledsoe knew his young, eager backup was pining for a chance to play.

"When Tony got his chance, I really felt like he felt like he deserved that chance," Blesdoe said. "He probably felt like it should have been earlier. The difference was that Tommy was always just a sponge for information; Tony, not as much. He always felt he had a good handle on things."

Though Bledsoe wasn't thrilled about Parcells' decision, he ended up being at peace with it.

"The New England (benching) was quite different," Blesdoe said. "I had just signed a big deal there and planned on being there forever. And then, I went from being Patriots quarterback for a decade to, in a matter of weeks, 'OK, I might not be here next year.' If everything had gone perfectly in Dallas, I was maybe gonna play one more year. I had reached the point where I wanted to move to the next stage of my life, and I was preparing for that."

Bledsoe now owns and operates the critically acclaimed Doubleback Winery in his hometown of Walla Walla, Washington, and lives in Bend, Oregon, where he helps coach the high school football team on which two of his sons play. He and his wife Maura recently dropped off their oldest son, Stuart, for his freshman year of college, and still have three kids living at home.

He's quick to admit that he's had a pretty awesome decade since walking away from football. When I asked if he had any advice for Romo, Bledsoe replied: "You just handle every situation the best you can. You keep preparing, getting healthy and hope you get another shot. Ultimately, for Tony, he's got a decision to make about his health and his future.

"As I've experienced, there's a whole lot of life to be lived after football, and he's gotta decide if it's worth it to squeeze in a few more games."

In the meantime, Bledsoe -- like virtually everyone else who has watched the Cowboys this season -- can't help but be impressed by what he has seen from Prescott, something few people in the NFL community saw coming.

"He's good, man," Bledsoe said, via text, in the third quarter of Sunday night's game. "Legit."

Romo, we can only surmise, believes he's too legit to quit. In the next month or two, we'll see how his bosses feel about the situation.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

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