Broncos-Cowboys was the most satisfying game of the season, and not just because it was the sort of record-breaking, no-defense, aerial shootout the NFL seems to be moving toward. No matter what your opinion of Tony Romo coming in, it was confirmed. A win for the Broncos, perhaps a moral victory for the Cowboys, but above all a banner day for narrative.
Tony Romo's final line: 25 of 36 passing for 506 yards, five touchdowns, and one back-breaking interception. Those 506 yards are a Cowboys record, and 12th on the all-time list. Dallas's 48 points in defeat are one shy of the pro record (a 1963 AFL game) and tie an NFL record.
But: that interception. Late in a tie game with the Cowboys deep in their own territory, Romo forced a ball to Gavin Escobar that was snagged by Danny Trevathan. Surprise wasn't in it; You could almost hear Sisyphus's boulder rolling downhill.
Everything that could go wrong on that play did. The two-minute warning was approaching on a second-and-long, meaning the clock would stop no matter what and if Dallas wasn't able to reach the down marker, Denver would get the ball with time left. The pocket collapsed, and Romo's footwork was awkward and constrained. He was seeking a rookie TE with only four NFL catches to his name. And Escobar was in triple-coverage.
Romo didn't blame any of that. "I wanted to put it another two feet out in front," he said afterward, "and I didn't put it exactly where I needed to."
The praise for his game was effusive. "I am so proud of Romo," said owner Jerry Jones, who called his quarterback "tough as a boot." But almost as common was the straw-man argument admonishing everyone not to blame the loss on Romo. Well, no shit—the man threw for five scores in a game where his defense couldn't stop a thing. Without Romo slinging, the Cowboys lose by multiple scores, like most of Denver's opponents.
But can't it be both? Are we so incapable of shaded analysis that we can't celebrate a wonderful game from one of the NFL's better quarterbacks while also acknowledging that he committed a turnover at a time when a turnover would mean the game? Is it really so hard to believe that a guy who would throw into triple coverage when an INT would be fatal is the same one who can do something like this?
Romo's career is incapable of being summed up with a pithy descriptor, and that's bad because complexity is hard. Instead he gets saddled as a good QB (when the numbers say he's probably great) who falls off after Thanksgiving (when the numbers disagree) and tends to choke in the clutch (when the numbers say he's among the best). Basically, he's Dan Marino and needs a ring to become John Elway.
As tough as complicated career legacies are, individual games are even harder. It should be enough to say Romo was godlike for 58 minutes and boneheaded for one split-second. But in a 16-game season, the cold calculus of wins and losses leaves little room for nuance. The Cowboys lost when the Broncos scored last after Tony Romo turned it over. Whatever baggage you unpack from that sequence is yours, not Romo's.