PHILADELPHIA – Did everyone's hearts good, didn't it, to see Tony Romo smile?
Yours, too, right?
Been a while. Been a long while. And he deserved to.
The guy has been working his tail off, ever since he was cleared to work after suffering the compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae back on Aug. 25 against the Seattle Seahawks in a darn preseason game.
Who knows what the future holds, near and far, but the 14th-year quarterback – and let's remember, the best darn quarterback in the NFL that 2014 season – has gone from lying on the ground helplessly in Seattle, grabbing his back and grimacing, to grinning as if a 22-year-old rookie trotting off the field here at The Linc Sunday with 10:11 left in the second quarter following his 3-yard touchdown pass Terrance Williams.
Of course, the Cowboys were happy for themselves, Romo proving during a mere seven snaps (one penalty), his first snaps in an NFL game since Nov. 26, 2015, when he fractured his collarbone on Thanksgiving day a second time that season, that he's not quite ready for the rocking chair so many seemingly want to plop him into at age 36.
OK, I get it. This was only seven actual snaps, not seven series in what turned out to be a 27-13 loss to the Eagles, with only a smattering of Cowboys starters even playing, let alone past halftime. Yet Romo completed 3-of-4 passes for 29 yards during the 81-yard touchdown drive that would have been 4-of -5 for 58 yards had Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll not interfered with Dez Bryant on their 3-yard line on a 29-yard pass interference penalty.
So the Cowboys seemingly can rest easier heading into the playoffs knowing they have a mighty competent backup quarterback in case something should happen to rookie Dak Prescott, probably as good if not better situation at the quarterback position than any team in the postseason.
But you could see it, the Cowboys were quite happy for Romo, too. They know the dice came up snake eyes for him this year after working so hard during the offseason to recover from the two collarbone fractures that short-circuited his 2015 season to just four starts, finishing only two of them. They know he was more than capable of leading this Cowboys team to a 13-3 record, too, and for the second time during his career, for what could have been a 28-8 record over the past three seasons.
They know Romo purposely had preventive surgery to shave down the end of the troublesome collarbone in hopes of lessening the chances of suffering another fracture. They saw the work he was doing in training camp before that mishap against Seattle in the third preseason game.
They also know Romo very quietly, behind the scenes for these past 128 days, was toiling in anonymity getting himself in shape, sharpening his throwing skills before being cleared to practice with the team on Oct. 25. He was going out there and dropping back time and again, throwing to Miles Austin now working in the scouting department, throwing to equipment room assistant Steve, throwing to anyone who would lend him their time of day.
Then, once he was cleared to practice, once he was named the backup quarterback on Nov. 15, the Cowboys created more snaps for him than normally given a second-string quarterback in practice to speed up his preparedness.
[embeddedad0]Finally circumstances afforded him a chance to play. The Cowboys had clinched the No. 1 seed. They had a prime opportunity here Sunday to somewhat take their foot off the pedal, little at stake in this final game of the regular season when preserving good health going into the playoffs became the overriding goal. They didn't play Ezekiel Elliott or Sean Lee or Ron Leary even though they were in uniform. They had seven players inactive because of injury, five of them previously starters. They wanted to keep Prescott out of harm's way, especially against this Eagles' robust pass rush, limiting him to just two series.
And in came Romo, two minutes into the second quarter of a 3-3 game. He seemed as eager as a rookie, sitting with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan when he knew the next series was his, going over the Surface Pro to prepare for his 2016 debut as the calendar turned to 2017.
In he came, trotting out by himself after the TV timeout with the offense awaiting his arrival to what else, a rousing round of boos from Eagles fan, their perverse way of showing respect since they at least thought enough of Romo to boo him, just like Santa back in the day, just like their own struggling teams without reservation any day. Hey, the Cowboys arriving buses Sunday barely were given the accustomed middle fingers, and not an egg was thrown, so at least he was recognized.
Welcome back, Tony.
And those smiling coaches and teammates welcomed a grinning Romo back to the bench after the touchdown pass, first head coach Jason Garrett beaming while shaking his hand and giving him a pat on the back. Then Prescott. Then a big hug from Elliott, and anyone else who could get close enough to him. Then Prescott again, giving him one of those affectionate, way-to-go-big-boy shoves to the shoulder.
Come on, you fist-bumped someone, too, didn't you? Pretty neat moment that series.
Afterward, Romo publicly answered questions for the first time since training camp. Remember, he took no questions that Nov. 15 day he acquiesced the team to Prescott at The Star with the statement heard 'round the country. But he predictably downplayed the whole ordeal that had been making national news all week.
In aw-shucks mode, he would say, "For me, I've always been someone that thinks how you practice is how you play. I've been practicing pretty well, so it kind of just carried over from practice."
He would add, "It's another step in the season and you just have to go out and play. If you're good enough you are going to play well."
Now, he took none of those global-view questions, or as he calls them "existential questions," nothing about how his performance affects the team, how this might affect his future with the Cowboys or any other team, very politely declining by asking for questions pertaining solely to Sunday's game.
Shouldn't have surprised anyone that his first snap after all these 13 months was a home-run ball to what appeared to be an unsuspecting Terrance Williams that harmlessly fell incomplete.
Said, "If you're going to play you might as well be aggressive as far as the reads," suggesting he was just doing what the defense on that particular play call dictated, not purposely resurrecting that riverboat gambler in him.
When asked how he felt physically, Romo said, "Good. I feel better now than I did last year."
Yeah, for sure.
Then when asked if it felt good to throw the 248th touchdown pass of his career, a honey of a toss over the beaten DB's back to Williams heading toward the back corner of the end zone that moved him into 21st place in NFL history, he coyly answered, "All touchdowns feel good. Weirdly you kind of expect it, to go out there and throw touchdowns. 'Let's go out there and throw a touchdown.'"
Like, hey, it's not my first rodeo, you know, yet knowing so many had been waiting with bated breath for this moment, wondering if he would succeed or stumble in his return. No way was he going to allow anyone to perceive he came riding in on his white horse to the rescue or that he was going to celebrate his return like it was 1999.
What he's saying simply is nothing has changed; this is what I do when I'm healthy.
But alas, what about just getting back out there on the field again, just playing football, something you've done only four times since the divisional-round loss at Green Bay on Jan. 11, 2015?
"It just kind of feels good to do what you've been doing," he humbly said.
"You just want to go out and prove to yourself, prove to your coaches and prove to your teammates that I can be the same guy."
For six plays, he sure did. So come on, Tony, it's perfectly fine to smile again on a podium at The Linc that's been a pretty cruel landing spot in the past.
Hey, guy, Happy New Year.
All the best photos from Tony Romo's return to the field, where he played his first game in 15 months.