By Jason Keidel
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Green Bay, the icy outpost whose flag Vince Lombardi speared onto America’s spiritual soil, is playing for a place in their ancestral home: the playoffs, and a shot at the trophy bearing the name of their patriarch.
Dallas, home of oil and outsized hats and Friday Night Lights and all manner of excess, have always been an eternal, soap operatic affair that would make JR Ewing blush. They even built the largest HD screen on earth to simulcast the rabid and rampant dysfunction that is America’s Team, two decades deep into their journey back to gridiron greatness. And it’s hard to say if they’re any closer now than they were the day Troy Aikman retired.
Lombardi, the combustible, patron saint of pro football. Landry, laconic, iconic man in the fedora. Both former assistants for the New York Giants who went on to build their sprawling legacies in entirely different ways. And thus their former teams still do business in rather divergent directions.
You could not find more a fitting contrast, in teams, in towns, in temper, in torment.
Historically stable and understated and successful. For the fans, of the fans, by the fans, and owned by the fans. They are the land of Lombardi and Lambeau and The Leap, of small town fidelity and farmland harmony.
An endless saga, a series of explosions under an inflamed tent, even when Tom Landry’s stoic silhouette owned the sidelines, from Duane Thomas to Hollywood Henderson, to Michael Irvin to Leon Lett to today’s phalanx of misfits who haven’t won a playoff game since the Truman administration. Owned by an egomaniacal Cowboy who thinks running a football team and drilling for oil somehow share a business model. And he wonders why they’re not a model franchise and haven’t been one since he was a fledgeling owner, before the litany of coaching feuds and plastic surgeries.
Can we finally and officially declare that Jimmy Johnson built the ’90s dynasty? And that Barry Switzer won with Johnson’s players? And that Jerry Jones as GM has been appalling? Since the 1990s behemoth, Jones has whisked a comical carousel of coaches through his circus. Aside from Bill Parcells, it has been a cadre of geldings, glorified puppets who are just happy to have the job. And it shows.
By contrast, the packers are swathed in success, from Lombardi to Holmgren to McCarthy, from Starr to Favre to Rodgers – who may be even better than his deified predecessors. Just in time, Aaron Rodgers rides in on the white horse, through the snowflakes, to save the Packers’ season, as though it were scripted exactly so.
And then there’s the baleful contrast in Texas. Tony Romo, already the most beleaguered player in the NFL, and the most dissected athlete south of Alex Rodriguez, herniated a disc in his back, thus shattering the playoff hopes of America’s Team. But the Cowboys can’t even concede that Romo’s back will bench him this Sunday. Despite the annex of reports that Romo is scratched for the season, Jerry Jones insists Romo still has a chance of playing.
And while it pains this fan to say so, they are still America’s team. Though my blood runs black & gold, there’s no doubt that Dallas has the most, even if misguided, fans. Just ask around every office, store, movie theater, or restaurant, and you’ll find at least one Cowboys fan. Maybe it’s their perfectly placed historical bookmarks, winning in the ’70s, and exactly 20 years later, thus the 70s fan sired a new breed of Dallas devotees.
Why do you get the feeling that no matter what happens in Dallas Sunday night, Romo will be the face of it?
If he plays and loses he will be the quintessential compiler, all stats and no Super Bowls. If he doesn’t play and they lose he will be the soft superstar who came up lame when the stakes were epic. If by some small miracle Kyle Orton or Jon Kitna or Danny White saves the day, Romo will never hear the end of it, how anyone with a little mettle and moxie can win a big game.
While many quarterbacks have struggled in January, Romo has lost playoff games for the wrong franchise. Not only because the Cowboys are so popular, but also because they’ve featured two historically clutch quarterbacks.
If you had to win one game there were very few QBs you’d pluck before landing on Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. Outside of Joe Montana, Aikman might be No. 2 on my list of playoff performers. And Roger Staubach is only the progenitor of the “Captain Comeback” sobriquet.
The Packers went from 5-point underdogs to 3-point favorites with the announcement that Rodgers is playing. The Cowboys went from 2-point underdogs to 7-point underdogs with the reports that Romo would miss Sunday’s game.
More than movement on a Las Vegas sportsbook board, the numbers, the shift, the karma, represent the divergent paths of the NFL’s two signature franchises. The fact that Dallas was already an underdog at home speaks less to the cognoscenti’s belief in Romo than the utter disgust with Dallas’ defense, which may go down as the worst in NFL history. Blowing a 26-3 lead to the aforementioned Packers sans Rodgers will do that.
Four divisions are still undecided going into this weekend’s feast of vital games. But none are more gripping than Packers/Bears and Cowboys/Eagles. None of the four teams are considered sincere title contenders, but the sidebars are delicious.
Did Chicago do the right thing by benching the sizzling Josh McCown for Jay Cutler? Will Chip Kelly make his mark as more than a quirky college maestro? Will Rodgers be rested or rusty? And, of course, will Romo’s epidural numb his back long enough to grip and throw a football for three hours on Sunday?
Of course, we now know the answer to the latter, as Romo just had surgery on the most analyzed back in America. But up until the doctor’s first incision, the Cowboys contended or pretended that Romo was a game-time decision. Not even the most facile decisions are unanimous in the Wonderland of football.
Many see this season’s parity as a parody, a mass of mediocre teams pining for the Lombardi Trophy. Lombardi’s Packers hope they can squeak into the playoffs and let Rodgers’ golden arm do the rest.
If memory serves, the Packers are the only team (other than the Redskins) to win a Super Bowl with three different quarterbacks. It’s a group the Cowboys would love to join, and no one has had a heavier monkey on his back than Romo, who must feel like King Kong has straddled his shoulders.
Romo can’t run the ball, catch the ball, play defense or special teams or draft his teammates, yet he is somehow singularly responsible for everything that has happened to the Cowboys over the last decade.
Considering his bejeweled path to stardom as an undrafted player from Eastern Illinois – hardly a cradle of quarterbacks – Romo should be celebrated as a quintessential football success story. Instead, he’s regarded as a choke artist who isn’t worth a fraction of the traction he has with Jerry Jones, who just bestowed $55 million guaranteed his franchise quarterback.
It makes you wonder how Romo is rooting this weekend? A Cowboys victory makes him look expendable. A loss makes him look weak. It makes you wonder if Romo and the Cowboys are really sustainable together. Never has the deck been so personally and publicly stacked against one player. About 20 teams would sign and start him tomorrow, yet he’s been Page Six fodder for his entire career, more of a celebrity than signal caller who dates buxom blondes and marries Ms. Universe.
Rodgers is fine either way. He’s already won a Super Bowl, has posted Playstation numbers, and, if you ask yours truly, is the most talented passer on the planet. He is, forgive the exhausted Nevada cliche, playing with house money. Rodgers is the best player on the planet if he wins or loses.
It’s fitting that there’s just one star on the helmet. Tony Romo is indeed the loneliest star in the Lone Star State. He literally cannot win, even when he does. He drops 48 on Denver, who drops 51. He leads countless 4th quarter comebacks, but is only known for the failures. His epitaph leads with a botched snap in a playoff game. His byline reads “Yeah, but…”
But despite their dearth of recent success, all eyes will be on the Cowboys. For the karma and the drama, for better or worse, they are America’s team. Mostly for worse. Just watch on Sunday. Just watch how much they miss Romo, even if no one will admit it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.