- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Before Sunday, Tony Romo was merely the NFL Quarterback Most Likely To Be Confused With A Ribs Joint. But now the kid is Joe Gibbs’ worst nightmare, and we all know why.

While Coach Joe continues to turn a deaf ear to the “Play Campbell!” crowd, Cowboys coach Bill Parcells has already admitted the obvious and benched dead-weight Drew Bledsoe in favor of Romo. And — wouldn’t you know it? — Parcells’ much-analyzed move turned out just fine … for a night, anyway. In fact, it turned out so fine that, in the closing seconds of Dallas’ 35-14 clocking of Carolina, a giddy Tuna was seen (a.) kissing a player on the head and (b.) adjusting Terrell Owens’ cap to make him look more gangsta-like. (Good thing the game wasn’t in Irving. He might have done the Texas Two-Step with a Cowboys cheerleader.)

And where does the Tony Romo road show pitch its tents next? FedEx Field, of course. Talk about bad timing. The last thing Gibbs needs is for Romo to remind everybody that, yes, you can replace an experienced quarterback with an inexperienced one and live to tell about it. The last thing, for that matter, his struggling defense needs is to face a QB who, unlike Bledsoe, can skitter out of the pocket and make a play. With Romo taking the snaps, a difficult game becomes even more challenging for the Redskins.

Such high drama for Week 9 — on top of the usual Redskins-Cowboys angst. Is Romo as smooth an operator as he looked against the Panthers in his first NFL start (24-for-36 for 270 yards and a touchdown, with one interception)? And if he outplays Mark Brunell in the early going, will the cries for Jason Campbell become even more insistent?

Depending on how Romo fares, this could well be a watershed game for the Redskins, the first day of the rest of their life. A fourth straight loss by the Snydermen (which would drop them to 2-6, three games behind Dallas), another spotty performance by Brunell — either of those scenarios could bring about a quarterback change.

That it might be Romo who ultimately forces Gibbs’ hand makes the story even more compelling. After all, the Redskins spent millions to acquire Brunell and parted with three draft picks so they could select Campbell in the first round. Romo, on the other hand, wasn’t even drafted in 2003 and likely would have been cut a year later if Quincy Carter hadn’t flunked a drug test. He’s anything but a silver spooner.

Indeed, he played his college ball at a I-AA school, Eastern Illinois. Eastern Illinois has turned out some swell coaches — the Broncos’ Mike Shanahan, the Saints’ Sean Payton and the Vikings’ Brad Childress among them — but it hasn’t produced a single NFL player of note. Until, perhaps, now.

This might explain why Romo was overlooked in ‘03, why then Redskins coach Steve Spurrier opted for Gibran Hamdan in the last round, even though Hamdan had started just a handful of games at Indiana. Each of the 13 quarterbacks taken that year — from Carson Palmer to Dave Ragone to Brian St. Pierre to Ken Dorsey — came out of a big-time program.

All Romo had done, meanwhile, is throw 85 touchdown passes, a career record in the Ohio Valley Conference, and win the Walter Payton Award as the top I-AA player. Who’d want him?

A scouting service at the time evaluated him thusly: “Intelligent. Pocket-type passer with average setup quickness — not real fluid. Holds the ball a bit low coming back. Tough. Can take a hit in the pocket. Lacks good escapability. Erratic passer on the move. Inconsistent in his mechanics. Accurate in the short game. Does a nice job of hitting receivers in stride on swing passes. Doesn’t have a cannon [arm] but gets zip on his intermediate throws and shows deep passing skills. Solid developmental prospect.”

In his three-plus seasons under Parcells, Romo seems to have smoothed over many of the rough edges. He certainly didn’t look like a quarterback who “lacks good escapability” or is an “erratic passer on the move” when he dodged the rush on third-and-12 at the Carolina 24 and hit tight end Jason Whitten for 16 yards to set up a field goal — the start of Dallas’ 25-0 fourth-quarter deluge. The bounce in his step, moreover, appeared to energize the entire offense. (Heck, T.O. was so happy afterward, he didn’t even badmouth him.)

Granted, it’s only a first impression, but the quarterback Romo reminds me of most — in terms of size, mobility and arm strength — is Matt Hasselbeck. Which doesn’t mean, a year from now, Cowboys fans won’t be filing him under “Gary Hogeboom.” The early returns are promising, though. I mean, a 25-point fourth quarter in your first start (a team record, by the way)? On the road? On national TV? Against a Super Bowl contender? Name another QB who has done that.

Besides, six of the eight quarterbacks who started in the Super Bowl the last five years (Hasselbeck, Tom Brady, Jake Delhomme, Brad Johnson, Rich Gannon, Kurt Warner) were drafted in the fourth round or later — or not at all. And now we have Romo taking over for Bledsoe in Dallas. Welcome to your nightmare, Coach Joe.

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