Romo announced his retirement Tuesday, ending his playing career for the chance to ruin Phil Simms' spring. (OK, this probably wasn't the primary reason behind Romo's decision, but you can't argue the science behind cause and effect here.) Good for Tony, who, let's be honest here, makes a decision that will spare football fans the depressing sight of a grimacing No. 9 being carted to the Texans' locker room with Sad Tony Romo Face. (You know the one.)
As I said on the most recent Around The NFL Podcast, Romo comes out of this as a big winner. Though we might never know for sure, there's a decent chance Romo already had reached his expiration date as a functional franchise quarterback. So, he scanned his options and maxed out his leverage to get one of the best media jobs in the business. As far as backup plans go, it beats the hell out of watching Dak Prescott from the sideline as FOX cameras cut to you 45 times a game.
The loser? Well, it might be you. Were you one of the millions of football fans who despised Romo on an almost pathological level? Did the man -- this handsome, rich, successful man -- come to represent everything you loathed about America's Team? Don't worry: There's no witch hunt here. Hating on Tony Romo was one of the great pastimes of the last decade of professional football. I personally chose not to partake, but it was still great fun following along.
With Romo gone, who will you love to hate now? Who fills the vacuum? This is a real problem! And it gets worse. There's an entire separate segment of football fans who cherished the opportunity to trash Jay Cutler. And we might lose him, too! For a decade, Romo and Cutler jockeyed for position as NFL's No. 1 Whipping Boy the way Bird and Magic jockeyed for O'Brien Trophies in the '80s. Now what?
Someone will need to fill that void. All that negative energy needs to go ... somewhere. So let's try to figure this out, going through each of the 32 teams in search of the player most vulnerable to becoming a target of vast national derision. I'm going to stick to the position Romo and Cutler played, since, let's face it, the quarterback stirs the drink -- even when the cocktail is toxic.
I'll break it down in tiers, going from passers with no chance of becoming National Punching Bag to, eventually, my final top 10 of quarterbacks in imminent danger.
TOP-TIER GUYS WITH RINGS, BOTTOMLESS JOB SECURITY, MULTIPLE ESTATES, ATTRACTIVE COMPANIONS, UNTOUCHABLE CREDENTIALS
Unless you're one of those spoiled fans who tweet at me how the Packers belong on my Pain Rankings, you get it. If you have one of these passers, you are blessed, and as a Jets fan, I kind of hate you. Each of these quarterbacks have all played at an elite level for years and thrived in the crucible of the playoffs. You might love to root against them (Brady and Rodgers particularly so), but you can't deny their greatness. There must be some sound logic behind criticism of a true Whipping Boy, and you just won't find it here. Move on!
ESTABLISHED STARS WHO HAVE ENGENDERED RESPECT FROM PEERS, FOOTBALL COGNOSCENTI
Ryan would be in the first tier if, well, you know. Still, no one here is going to achieve National Punching Bag status. Luck is a generational talent trapped on a team that might not know what it's doing. Rivers is just too damn likable -- plus, who can really hate on a married father of eight? Carr is one of the league's great young stars and he continues to performrandom acts ofcivic greatness. Flacco gets on some people's radar because he's overpaid, but he has that ring. And, you know, he's Joe Flacco. Who's going to get too worked up over the guy? Anybody who thinks Eli should be in a lower tier is still in denial that he's a two-time Super Bowl MVP. Yep, that happened. Deal with it. Palmer is a little different due to his playoff struggles in Arizona, but he's been a respected pro for 15 years. Not hateable.
YOUNG BUCKS WHO HAVEN'T BEEN AROUND LONG ENOUGH TO BE MALIGNED BY THE MASSES
Prescott could very well slide into Romo's shoes for obvious reasons: Everyone loves to hate the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, especially if you're a great one. But it's still too early to anoint Dak or anyone else here. Jameis has quickly emerged as one of the better young talents in the NFL, but there are fans out there who have not forgotten the scrutiny with which he entered the league. He is someone to track.
STARTERS WHO ARE NON-STARTERS IN THIS PARTICULAR CONVERSATION
Who's going to get too worked up about any of these guys? (Other than their respective fan bases, of course.) Side note: Over the course of this exercise, I've noticed that the number of slashes (/) you have directly correlates to how screwed you are as a team in 2017. Jets football, baby!
WHO'S LEFT? THE PUNCHING BAG CONTENDERS
10) Andy Dalton: NFL fans have always struggled to take Dalton seriously. How much of this has to do with Ginger Bias is unknown, but his inability to end the Bengals' playoff losing streak has not helped matters. Still, I put him at the back end of this motley crew because Dalton seems like a nice enough fellow who's just trapped in team and QB purgatory.
9) Alex Smith: Like Dalton, Smith exists in that middle tier of starting quarterbacks, which keeps him off the radar for Global Whipping Boy status. (Counterpoint: Cutler was thoroughly middling for the better part of his career and that never stopped people from vociferously despising him. This is kind of impressive when you think about it.)
8) Ryan Tannehill:Dolphins fans seem to have a complicated relationship with Tannehill, a former first-round pick who can look like a career backup one month and an All-Pro the next. He has ranked 27th and 24th in QBR the past two seasons and has big-time money coming to him for another three years. People in South Florida have enough to process with the guy -- the rest of the football world seems to be sitting it out.
7) Kirk Cousins: If you're still not convinced that Cousins is any good, don't feel bad: The Redskins aren't sure, either. And yet the man is in line to play this season on a one-year, $24 million contract. This on the heels of last year's one-year, $20 million deal. Good work if you can get it! Playing for a team bubbling with in-house dysfunction -- and now without offensive coordinator Sean McVay and receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon -- Cousins could be headed for a possible come-down year. But will complete strangers actively root for his demise? Doubtful. Let's move on.
6) Sam Bradford: Bradford might be the most overpaid player of his generation, which certainly should not count as a personal demerit, but it still gets on people's radar. Last summer, Michael Bennett derisively called Bradford "a real Joe Montana." (I love how the most simple lines can also be the most cutting.) Bradford was lucky to get out of the hate cauldron in Philadelphia and has found relative peace as the starter in Minnesota. He's not our guy.
5) Jared Goff: This is totally unfair to Goff, who should be hanging out in the above tier reserved for young guys. But things are sometimes different with No. 1 picks, and there seemed to be a level of schadenfreude associated with Goff's miserable rookie season under Jeff Fisher. Maybe it's the draft standing, the big media market, the laid-back NorCal demeanor, but I can't shake the feeling that people have it out for the guy. Head on a swivel, Jared!
4) Matthew Stafford: Like Goff, Stafford is a No. 1 pick who entered the league with sky-high expectations. Over the course of eight seasons, Stafford has treated Lions fans to a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows. He's thrown for at least 4,200 yards in each of the last six seasons and even had buzz as an MVP candidate at a point last season. But the Lions have yet to win a playoff game with Stafford, who turned 29 in February. He's a frustrating talent but not a polarizing national figure, so we'll cross him off the list.
3) Colin Kaepernick: Kaepernick doesn't have a job, and there's no guarantee he'll get one. But if he does, and he ends up in a starting role, many, many, many people will root for him to fail. This one goes beyond football, which takes some of the fun out of it. Actually, it takes all of the fun out of it. Next ...
2) Blake Bortles: Bortles disappointed both his team and himself with a poor showing in 2016, but that's not his real concern here ... Hell hath no fury like a fantasy owner scorned. Millions of amateur GMs made decisions last season like, "I believe Bortles' upside is higher than Matt Ryan's. I feel good about this. Give me another beer." And now, thoroughly disgusted by their faulty logic, these fantasyheads are out for blood in 2017. If I'm Bortles, I'm investing in a panic room.
1) Cam Newton: Newton checks all the boxes. An unquestioned franchise quarterback who's successful, charismatic, handsome and gifted with an ability to get under people's skin. He also still has Super Bowl 50 hanging over him, a game in which some thought he quit ... and that was before he gave a postgame press conference that ... well ... let's just say it lives on a lot of people's radar.
The best thing about Newton: The dude's got the goods ... and he can take it. You get the feeling he finds motivation in the haters. It feels like the basis of every one of his insane Under Armour commercials. Being the Guy You Love To Hate won't work unless you have the ability to shut people up every now and then with your greatness. It's the fuel that builds the irrational hate fire.
Tony, it's time to pass the kerosene.