The author of "America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,"* Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, *please click here.
Let's call it the Romo Effect.
Every summer, an undrafted free agent quarterback becomes, at least to fans and some in the media, the next out-of-nowhere success story. This has become one of the few guarantees of training camp, right there with, at least of late, devastating injuries and preposterous exaggeration to the every movement and sneeze of Tony Romo himself.
Some 11 summers ago, in San Antonio, Romo was an unknown. Heck, upon seeing him for the first time, on a shuttle bus from the airport, fellow rookie Jason Witten thought he was a kicker. As it were, he was an undrafted free agent, meaning 32 teams, over 262 picks, decided there was someone better suited for their franchise.
At the time, no one was thinking Romo would become a franchise quarterback, outside of maybe Romo himself, although most thought him somewhat delusional. That first season, he threw more passes for the flag football squad made up of team employees than the Cowboys.
Not that there had never been an undrafted free agent to hit the big time, Warren Moon, Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia being among the most notable. Just that no one ever expects much from such players. That is until the success of Romo.
Since he cracked the starting lineup in 2006, seemingly every camp since has featured an undrafted free agent quarterback that was deemed, at least by some, as the Next One, the Next Romo.
There are many reasons for this, more recently the simple fact that Romo is, like us all, aging and the end is closer than the beginning. Fans love to anticipate what's next, consider the hoopla of the NFL Draft. Also, there's this. The Cowboys don't draft quarterbacks. Since taking the immortal Bill Musgrave in 1991, some 23 years ago for those non-math majors, Dallas has drafted just two signal-callers: Quincy Carter in 2001 and Stephen McGee in 2009. That is mind-boggling.
For comparison, over that same time frame, the Green Bay Packers have selected 13 quarterbacks, the Arizona Cardinals 11.
The list of Cowboys quarterbacks who have struck a cord with fans and media alike include a few success stories and some we have never really heard from since.
Matt Moore is now entering his eighth NFL season after his undrafted free agent camp with Dallas in 2007, having played 38 games and started 25. He's currently slated to be the backup with Miami.
Then there's Matt Baker, Richard Bartell, Matt Nichols, Rudy Carpenter and just last year, Alex Tanney, who wasn't kept on the 53-man roster to the dismay of many fans and was eventually claimed off the practice squad by the Cleveland Browns. For the record, Tanney was in his second camp, having played in the preseason for Kansas City in 2012.
This season's "Next Romo" is Dustin Vaughan, a 23-year-old from West Texas A&M, who before Thursday night's preseason opener at San Diego, was best known for a hilarious, self-deprecating, tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek YouTube video, which is approaching 250,000 views, that he made with a friend following his junior year.
"It was after finals, and we were looking to release some stress and a buddy of mine is really good with the videography aspect of it, and he said, 'let's go make a parity, take you out of your comfort zone, make you arrogant and show this other side that you have no business being arrogant because you're so terrible athletically,'" Vaughan said. "That's where we got the laughs. We had no script, off-the-cuff, coming up with ideas as we went. I get asked about it quite a bit."
Like any rookie, especially those undrafted, Vaughan has good and not-so-good days of practice. The throws are there, he has ideal size, 6-5, 235 pounds, but not until the first preseason game did the coaching staff know whether or not he could produce on the grandest of stages. And he did himself quite well, completing 7-of-14 passes for 80 yards.
"For his first action, I was impressed by how he moved around," Garrett said. "Sometimes as a big guy with a strong arm, you're concerned about his ability to move his feet and be spontaneous when something breaks down.
"But we saw evidence of him climbing up in the pocket and getting out of the pocket. I thought he made some good, quick decisions out in space."
Garrett, of course, knows first-hand the challenges of cracking an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent. His first camp came with New Orleans in 1989.
"The quarterbacks that year were Bobby Hebert, Dave Wilson, John Fourcase and myself, so three veteran quarterbacks, three really good players," Garrett said. "My goal was to just learn as much as possible each day. The quarterbacks never threw twice in one day and we had doubles every day, so even me, fourth on the depth chart, not worthy of many reps at all, and I'm getting half the reps during a session. That was one of the most invaluable experiences of my career. That work, those reps, made a huge difference going forward."
Garrett made the practice squad that year and ended up spending 16 seasons in the NFL, mostly as a backup quarterback, starting nine games for the Cowboys.
So, does Vaughan have a realistic chance at making the team, or at least the practice squad? Many fans certainly hope so, hungry for the team to commit toward developing a younger quarterback. At this point, he's likely fourth on the depth chart, behind Romo, Brandon Weeden, who is cemented as the backup, and Caleb Hanie. No one is certain whether the team will keep two or three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, although if recent history is any indication, it'll be the former. Either way, Vaughan would seem to be a natural fit for the practice squad.
And Vaughan is realistic, too. He's not out here trying to over-impress, trying to make throws outside of his comfort zone, trying to vault everyone on the depth chart. He understands that as an undrafted free agent, just being at his first camp is a big deal.
"I think it helps to have a veteran player in Tony and also a head coach who has gone through the same exact thing," Vaughan said. "To work for what your working for and knowing it's possible. That you can do it, that someone has done it and if you work hard enough, you can do it. [embedded_ad]
"I have the utmost respect for what both of them have done as undrafted free agents because the one thing that we all have in common is that I know exactly what it felt for them being in this situation because I'm here now."
Each day, Vaughan makes sure to appreciate where he is. As a junior in college, he wasn't even thinking about the NFL, but after a stellar senior campaign, 5,401 yards, 53 touchdown tosses and just 10 picks, there was legitimate interest from numerous teams. Many thought he'd be a late-round pick, but it didn't happen.
Vaughan is enjoying his first time around through the NFL, the minicamp, the training camp, the first preseason game in front of a bigger crowd than he ever witnessed at West Texas A&M. And he's stopping and taking it all in, albeit for the briefest of moments.
"Absolutely, you have to try and take it in. You need to, it's a must," Vaughan said. "Everyday, at least once, just stand there and think where you are and think about the opportunity ahead of you. Now, obviously, it's a very quick thing that you do because you have to get ready and prepare to work."
Whether Vaughan becomes another undrafted free agent success story – like Garrett or Moore, or even the Holy Grail of Romo, Moon or Warner – is long from being determined. We likely won't know this year or even next. As for now, he's just the most recent example of hope, the most recent example of the Romo Effect.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at email@example.com.