Tony Romo stood completely crestfallen against a door that would usher him into a waiting horde of fans. He just had thrown three interceptions in Dallas' 33-31 loss to the New York Giants in the grand opening of Jerry Jones' new palatial stadium. He was checking his text messages but seemingly before facing the inevitable, mingling with folks who would try to make him feel better (impossible at the time) or worse (maybe even more impossible).
He eventually made his way into the tunnel and out of the stadium into relative peace, but the pressure on Romo, no matter how much support has been thrown his way by teammates, Jones and coach Wade Phillips, seems to be mounting. Critics wonder if he'll ever be a big-moment, big-game quarterback, even though he's only two games into his third season as a full-time starter.
Though Romo has plenty of time to make amends, it was his second dreadful game in his last three; the first came in the 2008 regular-season finale, a 44-6 loss in Philadelphia that assured Dallas would miss the playoffs and added another ghost to Romo's late-season futility (Dallas finished 1-3 last December and is now 5-10 in December and beyond with Romo as its starter, including 0-2 in the playoffs).
Can Romo win big games?
"He's still a young guy, but everyone's told him how great he is, and that's put him in this spot and made everyone's expectations of him a little too high," said an NFL defensive assistant coach whose team faced Romo last season. "Everything happened really fast for him, because he did make some great plays. He is incredibly talented. A lot of the mistakes he's made are part of a maturation process. You still see some of the off-the-reservation plays where you ask yourself, 'Where did he come up with that?'
"He's still got to learn that sometimes a punt's a good thing."
It's ironic that on Monday night Romo is facing Carolina's Jake Delhomme, another undrafted quarterback who had to bide his time, had early success as a starter and has faced constant criticism. Delhomme, about as game a quarterback as there is but someone who can make mistakes in bunches when under duress, is viewed as a game manager whose team needs to help him with its rushing attack and defense.
The same thing has been said about Romo. Is Romo destined to become Delhomme?
Cowboys fans might take that, since Delhomme has played in a Super Bowl and helped Carolina consistently contend for playoff berths. What is different about Romo is that even though he has yet to make it happen in the postseason, he is viewed by his peers, opposing coaches and some observers as someone who could be The Guy.
He just has to learn from his mistakes.
"I've only played against Romo once, but when we scouted him, the first thing that was said was he was a guy who can make all the throws, and he can keep a play alive, so you can't ease up on coverage," current Saints and former Vikings and Packers safety Darren Sharper said. "The thing is, with his arm, he might think he can make certain throws that other quarterbacks shy away from.
"He does trust his receivers a lot, too. He thinks he can put a ball out there sometimes, thinking they'll come down with it, and that sometimes can get you in trouble."
That last critique was shared by at least one other observer, who said that even with former wideout Terrell Owens, Romo at times had too much faith that his receiver could catch a pass that was a little high or in tight traffic. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it led to an incompletion; sometimes the pass was intercepted.
Romo's risk-taking was a concern of former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who signed Romo as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois. Most everything Romo did was what you'd want from a quarterback, which is why Parcells made him the starter after three-plus seasons with the likes of Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe.
Romo is said to have great vision, good field sense, solid huddle presence and the ability to read defenses. His vision is so adept, a source said, that sometimes he processes too much information and has paralysis through analysis. Such was the case with his first-quarter interception against the Giants in Week 2 that was returned for a touchdown by cornerback Bruce Johnson, a rookie free agent.
"When he's on he's lights out," said Eagles safety Quintin Mikell. "The thing about him is you've got to frustrate him, change up the looks and get pressure on him. That part is tough, because they got those big guys up front on the o-line. He's got a lot of different weapons now. By not having T.O. there, he's able to play his game and throw it to whoever he wants to and not worry about the repercussions. That makes him more dangerous, so we're going to have to be on it when we play Dallas."
What is currently drawing heat on Romo is what was supposed to be helping him: Jones' proclamation that Dallas would run a Romo-friendly offense. Besides jettisoning Owens, the schemes and play-calling were supposed to enhance Romo's strengths as a passer and focus more on Dallas' running game.
In the Cowboys' season-opening victory against Tampa Bay, things went as planned. Romo threw for 353 yards and three touchdowns, spreading the ball around to six different receivers. All was well, and Romo was on his way ... until he threw the three picks and finished 13-of-29 for 127 yards against the Giants.
The magnitude of the event and expectations of a victory against a heated rival amplified Romo's struggles -- and the criticism -- leading to his somber post-game acceptance for his team's loss.
What Romo has to show now is that he can bounce back. A quality performance against the Panthers could ease the sting. A victory would give Dallas a 2-1 record. Another bad showing against winless Carolina and the criticism and self-doubt will only grow.
The Cowboys aren't going to pull Romo. There is a reason he is the starter and Jon Kitna is the backup. Romo never has finished a season with a passer rating below 91. He has thrown 85 touchdowns and 49 interceptions. His career completion percentage is a shade above 63 percent.
Romo is better than average, but better than average doesn't cut it in Dallas, or in most NFL cities, especially when things have been made friendlier for you.