IRVING, Texas – It's a beautiful but cruel reminder of the competition level in the NFL that the response to the Cowboys' amazing December is "now what?"
The Cowboys set fire to nearly every label that's been assigned to them during their frustrating stretch of 8-8 seasons. They went 4-0 in the last month of the season, where they had typically struggled. Their defense generated pressure and turnovers. They won their division with 12 wins – the highest win total for the NFC East champion since the 2008 Giants also went 12-4.
"How could you not raise a glass to '14 if you're in my shoes," asked Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on New Year's Day.
All of that was fueled by an inspired performance from Tony Romo – a month of spectacular quarterback play that saw the often-criticized quarterback silence plenty of his own critics. Romo's 12-touchdown, one-interception December helped him finish the season with the sixth-best passer rating in the history of the league.
The simple truth of the matter is that it won't amount to much if Romo can't guide the Cowboys through the playoffs. Of the six highest-rated quarterbacks in the NFL this season – Romo, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees – only Romo hasn't won, or even played in a Super Bowl.
"Frankly, I don't know how you could have any more appreciation, and I say that in a positive way, for what he is as a quarterback without having actually played in and competed within a Super Bowl," Jones said.
Romo should be well-versed in this type of criticism by now, even if it's been five years since he reached the playoffs. It's perfectly encapsulated by the Cowboys' 2013 loss to Denver, when he completed 69 percent of his passes for 506 yards and five touchdowns – only for his final throw to be intercepted, setting up a Broncos win.
"I've said that it's all about winning. You're judged as quarterback and coaches on that," Romo said. "That's what the game is all about, I think it's a great thing. That's why you have to play great when it counts."
It certainly counts now, and it can only be emphasized by the Cowboys' lengthy absence from the postseason. Romo was 26 years old when he made his first playoff trip, and he was just 29 when the Cowboys were bounced last time – "Feels like I was 20 years old back then," Romo joked.
"Our 2009 team, our 2007 team – we missed big-time opportunities there with Tony Romo. We know that, and that's as it is," Jones said. "Consequently, everybody in the organization, including Tony, paid a price for that. You've got to get them. When it comes up and you've got a chance to get them, you've just got to take advantage of them."
Failure to do so will only bring on criticism, even if Romo did play well enough to merit MVP consideration – or perhaps even win the award. Going all the way up to the Hall of Fame level, quarterbacks like Steve Young, John Elway and Peyton Manning can attest to the difference made by championship success.
Jone said it perfectly himself.
"When you don't, you can have had good teams, really good teams and personnel, and if you don't get in those big games and you don't get a chance to compete and win one -- that goes with you," he said.
It's fitting, then, that the playoffs are being referred to as the second season. For as good as the Cowboys have been, and as immaculately as Romo played in December, the lasting judgment will be made in January. For Romo to climb above the narrative, he'll have to help the Cowboys to the next level.
"The credit that he really should receive will have to be at the point when he's playing in a big game, the big game – the Super Bowl," Jones said.
To hear it from Romo, that standard sounds just fine to him.
"I think that's the only reason you play the game," he said. "As players we all want to be playing in that game and holding that trophy at the end of the year, just hoist it up and know that you accomplished your goal that you set out. I know that's my goal. I mean everything else is just peanuts compared to it."