It was just two years ago that Bill Parcells noted that Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback he had signed in 2003 for a $10,000 bonus, was playing with a sense of urgency, as if the then 34-year-old, with two back surgeries already on his resume, knew that time was slowly running out on his career.
Romo was in the midst of the best season of his career then, but time was running out, of course. On Tuesday, Romo seemed to signal that it had expired, at least in Dallas. In an emotional statement, his first comments since he was injured in August, Romo essentially passed the baton of one of sport's most storied jobs, to Dak Prescott, the rookie who has led the Cowboys to an 8-1 record and who has taken the starting job from Romo the way Romo once took it from Drew Bledsoe.
In his statement -- it lasted about five minutes and Romo took no questions -- Romo signaled that he would cause no waves for the Cowboys, saying that Prescott had earned the right to be the quarterback and that Romo had his back. If you hadn't heard Romo say the words, you could have figured out how he felt yourself, when you saw the little smile cross his face in Pittsburgh Sunday night, when Prescott uncorked a 50-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant. There was a bit of ruefulness combined with admiration and pride in that look. Romo is genuinely happy for the Cowboys -- their success is his, Jerry Jones said -- but he also knows that Prescott and the Cowboys are going to go on without him and apparently be just fine. That Romo could summon the grace to let this moment evolve without interruption or added angst is a testament to something that Jones, who is so personally close to Romo that Romo attended a high school game in which Jones' grandson was playing last Saturday, said about Romo back in 2014.
"Tony is a nice guy," Jones said. "He doesn't like to step on anybody's toes or undermine anybody -- most of all his coaches, but also his teammates."
That, Romo was Tuesday. In stepping aside in Dallas, and vowing to do everything he could to help Prescott, Romo was perfectly in character, a professional who had always appreciated his good fortune and had always felt deeply the responsibility of being the quarterback. He said something magical was happening and that he would not allow himself to be a distraction. He said suffering an injury when he thought the Cowboys had the best team he had ever had around him was "soul crushing," he said he felt like an outsider when he was hurt. He said it was a dark place.
Romo has often been the butt of jokes and complaints -- from Cowboys detractors and fans alike -- for the mistakes he made earlier in his career and then later for the brittleness of his body. But there should be nothing but praise and respect for how Romo has traversed the last three months and for how he quickly laid to rest any concerns about whether his position as the backup would be awkward for him or the locker room.
This has undoubtedly been a painful period for Romo, and for some members of the Cowboys' organization. Jones has said that if Romo were to finish his Cowboys career without winning a Super Bowl, it would be Jones' greatest disappointment as an owner. The personal affection between them is obvious -- Jones made a point of embracing Romo after the Cowboys beat the Steelers on Sunday night, and until a few weeks ago, Jones was insisting that Romo would regain his job when he was healthy.
But Prescott's performance has forced reality on everyone in Dallas and for Romo it may have even clarified things. Even in Romo's solemnity there was the whiff of the competitor who went from undrafted rookie to franchise quarterback. In a few sentences, while conceding how difficult it was for him to say that Prescott earned the right to be the starting quarterback, he sent the message that he wants to play on. He surely knows that, barring catastrophe, that will not happen in Dallas. So NFL general managers in need of a veteran quarterback, listen up: Romo wants to talk whenever this season ends.
"If you think for a second that I don't want to be out there, then you've probably never felt the pure ecstasy of competing and winning," Romo said. "That hasn't left me. In fact, it may burn now more than ever."
Romo will want to pick his next team carefully -- he will want, as Peyton Manning did, a team that will give him the best chance to win a Super Bowl in his remaining years, one that has an offensive line to protect him and weapons around to bolster his odds. Until August, that might have been the Cowboys themselves. But the Cowboys aren't Romo's team any longer. They know it, and on Tuesday we learned, he does, too.