In a sport tilted toward quarterback value, the 2017 offseason is shaping up as one of the most interesting in recent years. In Tony Romo, Jay Cutler and Jimmy Garoppolo, three of football's top 25 quarterbacks could be on the move after sitting out the majority of the 2016 season. In Tyrod Taylor, Mike Glennon, Brian Hoyer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Nick Foles, five more veteran signal-callers could find themselves at the helm of new offenses by Week 1.
That motley menagerie of available quarterbacks doesn't even include top free agent Kirk Cousins, who seems unlikely to escape a Washington organization ready to once again wield the franchise tag.
Although Garoppolo will be the most sought-after commodity, Romo is dominating headlines leading up to the March 9th league year.
Appearing on Monday's edition of Good Morning Football, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport outlined the plan for Romo. Amid speculation that Dallas' displaced starter expects to be released, Rapoport emphasized that the Cowboys' first priority is to gauge the trade market in search of a mid-round draft pick.
Romo knows that a release would be a smoother path toward his preferred destination, per Rapoport, but he also understands the Cowboys won't send him anywhere against his approval.
"So even a trade can be okay with him," Rapoport explained, "because he knows the Cowboys will take care of him and he would get a new contract anyway."
That said, it will be a challenge for Jerry and Stephen Jones to find a team willing to part with valuable draft-pick compensation for a quarterback who turns 37 in April and has missed 27 of his last 32 games due to injury.
Although Romo's relationship with the Cowboys is not as contentious, his current scenario is reminiscent of Brett Favre's breakup with Green Bay in 2008. Nearing the end of the line as a high-risk 38-year-old starter, Favre had the potential to make-or-break his new team's season.
After rejecting Favre's request for a release, the Packers also refused to trade him to the Vikings -- his preferred destination. Once the trade market was limited to the Buccaneers and Jets, Favre chose the former, angling for a reunion with former position coach Jon Gruden. The Packers' front office opted for the Jets' deal, which featured a conditional fourth-round draft pick that would rise to a first-rounder if New York reached the Super Bowl.
New York went on to pull the trigger against Favre's wishes, leading to an awkward conversation between Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and agent Bus Cook.
"You did what?" Cook yelled, via Jeff Pearlman's 2016 Favre biography. "You're a crazy bastard. I told you I don't know if he's coming. This was not smart."
That's not to suggest Romo's quest for a new NFL home will resemble the Favre-to-Jets soap opera that extended into the summer of 2008. But the Favre saga does drive home the point that there is still plenty of time for back-channel maneuvering and last-minute flourishes when a franchise-altering quarterback is changing hands.
With that backdrop in mind, let's rank Romo's potential landing spots:
1. Houston Texans: Only four teams advanced further last season than Houston, a team that has the luxury of competing in the perennial pushover AFC South. Boasting the No. 1 total defense, an arsenal of intriguing skill-position talent and a respected offensive mind at head coach, the Texans are a quarterback away from challenging the Patriots and Steelers for conference supremacy. It doesn't hurt that Houston is less than an hour's flight from Romo's North Dallas homestead. Financial considerations aside, the fit is custom-made for organization and player.
Ah, but there's the rub. Hog-tied by colossal free-agent bustBrock Osweiler's guaranteed $19 million salary-cap charge, the Texans would need Romo to restructure his contract and settle for an incentive-laden, cap-friendly deal to make the arrangement work. Even if Romo prioritizes winning and location over salary at this stage of his career, that compromise is easier accomplished via release than trade.
Less than three weeks before the start of the league year, the Texans should be viewed as heavy favorites to win the Romo sweepstakes.
2. Denver Broncos: Just over a year ago, Romo watched a dominant Denver defense carry a diminished 39-year-old quarterback to the Super Bowl 50 title. It's hardly a surprise that Romo would initially set his sights on the Peyton Manning path. To this point, though, Romo's interest had been unrequited by a Broncos leadership group content to roll with Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch at quarterback.
Expect that stance to be tested if Romo is ultimately released. Reluctant to part with draft-pick compensation or devote a substantial portion of the salary cap to a declining, injury-prone quarterback, general manager John Elway will cross that bridge if he comes to it.
3. Kansas City Chiefs: In late January, Andy Reid doubled down on his quarterback, insisting there's "no question" Alex Smith is the man. A week ago, general manager John Dorsey emphasized that the Chiefs have "said all along" Smith is the starter. That hasn't prevented every NFL insider in the business from listing Kansas City as a potential landing spot for Romo.
Alex Smith has four years invested in Reid's offense. Since 2011, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks to lead their teams to more wins than Smith (60). With Smith under center, the Chiefs' .793 winning percentage is the NFL's best since the middle of the 2015 season. This isn't to say that Smith doesn't have shortcomings. His inability to make plays down the field has put a ceiling on the Chiefs' postseason success.
It's easy to believe Reid would upgrade if the perfect opportunity presented itself. It strains credulity, however, that he would risk alienating Smith -- or losing him altogether -- for a quarterback who could be one hit away from retirement.
4. Buffalo Bills: It's easy to see why the Bills would turn to Romo as an alternative to Tyrod Taylor. The team's brass might just find that the interest is a trifle one-sided. Why would Romo choose to spend his precious few remaining NFL days far from home on a perennial AFC East also-ran with more questions than answers?
5. Chicago Bears: General manager Ryan Pace served as team captain at Eastern Illinois during Romo's 1999 freshman season. Three years later, Romo won the Walter Payton Award at Pace's alma mater. That said, another Eastern Illinois star -- Jimmy Garoppolo -- is a more logical trade target for Pace's rebuilding Bears.