"Getting hurt when you feel like you have the best team you've ever had was a soul-crushing moment for me," Romo said during his emotional address to the media two weeks ago.
Watching Prescott roll to a 10-1 record and a likely No. 1 seed in the NFC with his team must be excruciating for Romo. It's also an almost fitting, fascinating coda to his Dallas career. I made the case in mid-August before his injury that Romo was one of the most underrated, unlucky and misunderstood players of his generation. For so many years, a snap that slipped through his hands seemed to unfairly define his NFL profile -- and now his Cowboys career and best chance at winning a title are getting away from him.
Football always allows time for the unforeseen. An injury to Prescott or a swift reversal of fortune for the rookie could allow Romo an opportunity to play the hero. It would be a script too unbelievable for "Friday Night Lights," but this entire Cowboys season has felt that way. For the first time since 2006, Romo's fate is out of his hands. He won't get control back until the offseason.
A say in his future
NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reported last week that Romo is likely to be traded in the offseason, and is already eyeing the Denver Broncos as a potential landing spot. The Cowboys would not be forced to release Romo if they chose to move on, because there would be no shortage of teams willing to take a chance on him. (More on that below.) The trick, when it comes to dealing a 36-year-old quarterback with serious injury concerns, will be finding the right compensation.
Romo's close relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will be a factor. Go to a Cowboys training camp practice and you'll see Romo and Jones chatting endlessly in a manner that simply doesn't happen in many places. That relationship -- and Romo's contract -- will allow the quarterback a significant say in his future. The way we see it, there are three possible outcomes this offseason:
1) ROMO STAYS IN DALLAS
"We're talking generic now, and I have no plans for him not to be part of the Dallas Cowboys. Not a consideration," Jones said on Nov. 17, two days after Romo's statement. "It is very tenable for me to see on a long-term basis us being strong at quarterback with these two. That's where we are."
That's the type of quote that makes sense to give in the middle of a season. The Cowboys could certainly afford to keep Romo and Prescott into next season. It's just difficult to imagine the guy who earned a $25 million signing bonus on his contract continuing to back up the guy making the league minimum.
Unless Romo somehow earns back his starting gig this season, he could make it clear to Jones that he wants to play elsewhere. Keeping Romo against his wishes and creating an uncomfortable situation for another season wouldn't make sense. Unless ...
2) ROMO RETIRES
Rapoport reported on "NFL GameDay Morning" last week that retirement is a possibility for Romo. If that happened, he could stay with the franchise in some capacity.
It would be strange if Romo didn't consider his long-term health and ponder retirement. His recent history demands it. He played two games to start the 2015 season before breaking his left collarbone. He returned to the field just before Thanksgiving last year to break the collarbone again in his second start back. After having surgery in the offseason, Romo lasted exactly 12 plays this preseason before breaking a bone in his back.
The injury concern complicates so much. Any team willing to trade for Romo would likely want to build protections into his contract in case of injury. Perhaps Romo has truly been unlucky, although his style of play puts him in harm's way. Expecting Romo to start 16 games when he's failed to stay healthy for three straight games over the last 15 months would require taking an incredible leap of faith. (Then again, that's what desperate teams do all the time ... )
3) ROMO IS TRADED
This is where Romo's relationship with Jones comes in handy. Rapoport reported that Jones would not deal Romo to a difficult situation, like with the Cleveland Browns (0-12). Moreover, no team wants to trade for a quarterback who doesn't want to be there. Romo and his agent could make it clear which teams they find acceptable and be flexible in adjusting his contract for those teams.
Romo's contract is a sneaky asset in trade talks. He's set to make "only" $14 million in 2017 before the figure balloons to $19.5 million in 2018. The 2017 salary is quite affordable for a starting quarterback, and the rest of the deal contains no guaranteed money. Trading Romo would mean a large amount of the Cowboys' salary-cap space in 2017 would be devoted to "dead money," but the transaction would still save Dallas $5 million overall in cap room.
There is a strong chance that Romo could ask for more money in a new deal from whichever team acquires him. It sounds a little crazy now, but this is a league where Adrian Peterson once received a raise after being banished from his team. Talent gets paid. Romo's 2017 salary is in the same neighborhood as what Ryan Fitzpatrick is getting from the Jets this season, and Romo is likely to want to get above that level, although his injury history hurts his leverage. Any interested team and Romo could work on an incentive-laden restructured contract based on playing time before completing the trade. In the end, the contract should not get in the way if Romo and Dallas find a suitable fit.
So how much would Romo cost?
Ask five people around the NFL how much Romo could fetch in a trade and you get five different answers. Sources from two NFC teams outside of Dallas pegged his value at anywhere from a conditional second-rounder (that could upgrade to a first-rounder) to a late-round pick. Let's be honest: No one knows anything.
The closest comparison in recent NFL history was Brett Favre, at 38, being traded from Green Bay to the Jets in August 2008, which cost New York a conditional pick that could have landed anywhere from the first round to the fourth, depending on how Favre played. (It wound up being a third-round pick.) But if Sam Bradford could nab the Eagles a first-round pick from the Vikings for a two-year tryout in September of this year, nothing is off the table. Despite all of Romo's red flags, above-average starting quarterbacks cost a premium. My guess: The Cowboys would be in great position to get a top pick, because there would be competition.
So who might be involved in that competition? Let's break down some potential landing spots.
The most obvious fits
Denver Broncos: Executive vice president of football operations and general manager John Elway has shown he isn't afraidto go big, and he knows how to close deals. He also has two compelling young quarterbacks, including 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch. Trevor Siemian has played better than his numbers show, and he demonstrated again Sunday night how he can overcome a poor offensive line.
It's no surprise that Romo would be eyeing the Broncos. Their great defense and organizational track record speak for themselves. Romo's desire to join a stable situation could also increase his willingness to be flexible on a contract (unlike, say, Colin Kaepernickin his dealings with the Broncos this offseason).
Other teams on this list have bigger quarterback needs, but Elway is bold and all about those rings. He's built this Broncos team in large part on veteran pickups. Never count him out.
New York Jets: Coming off a disastrous 2016 campaign, owner Woody Johnson could go the "big splash" route again while convincing himself that Romo can be a bridge to the fabled quarterback of the future. The scenario is almost too on the nose to actually happen.
The obvious question: Why would Romo view Chicago as an attractive destination? The proximity to his college surroundings at Eastern Illinois is a nice story, but the Bears' young roster is not any better than the groups in Cleveland, Jacksonville or San Francisco. It's a rebuilding job. We're not even listing these other downtrodden teams, because Jones wouldn't force that on Romo.
Palmer's 2017 salary is fully guaranteed at $12.45 million, so the only way he doesn't continue in Arizona is if he retires. Palmer signed an extension before this season that was supposed to quiet this sort of speculation. Since then, though, he's struggled to remain a top-20 QB while leading Arizona to a 4-6-1 record. Let's just say a lot of folks are watching closely to see what will happen with this Cardinals team this offseason.
Buffalo Bills: These two things can both be true: Tyrod Taylor has done a terrific job this season, and the Bills' passing game remains very limited. Taylor should be the team's long-term quarterback, yet his unique contract, with a massive 2017 option, allows for the team to pivot elsewhere if it chooses to. This ownership group and coaching staff desperately wants to win. If the end of this season goes sideways, we wouldn't rule the Bills out as factors.
Houston Texans: Bill O'Brien and GM Rick Smith should think about acquiring competition for Brock Osweiler, but it's more likely to come in the form of a young player. Osweiler is locked in on the Texans' roster for 2017 at a high salary. We also find it hard to believe Jones would want to help out his low-key cross-state rivals.
Fun to imagine
Kansas City Chiefs: How the rest of this season plays out determines so much, but imagine the following scenario: Kansas City fails to miss the playoffs or exits meekly after a disappointing offensive effort. Alex Smith and the Chiefs' offense have quietly taken a step back this season, and it's fair to wonder if coach Andy Reid has maxed out this group's potential with Smith at the helm.
Romo would be a terrific fit for Reid's offense. Meanwhile, the guaranteed money in Smith's deal ends after this season. Trading for Romo would be almost as bold and surprising as trading for Smith once was.
He's still one snap away in Dallas ...
So much can change between now and February, but nothing would alter Romo's trajectory more than increased playing time. His offseason value could soar or plummet even on the basis of one cameo relief appearance, à la Drew Bledsoe in the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
The story of the 2016 season is playing out in Dallas -- with Romo on the sideline watching it all. The story of the 2017 offseason awaits.