Filling the Unforgiving Minute

Social media has been in many ways at its worst this past week because of the election. Lots of man-bites-dog stories, which in all actuality are minimal representations of what a country of 325 million is really about. If only we would report millions of dog-bites-man stories of people being decent to each other, we might realize there are fewer divisions than we think and more ways to resolve those we have.

Yesterday, though, there was a man-bites-dog story about a person acting with class and respect in a situation that many expected would cause strife. Yes, there’s frustration, pain, and anger as you will see, but none of it directed at the only people in reach, people who are not at fault.

What happened? Tony Romo came out and publicly accepted that he would be the backup quarterback to Dak Prescott for the Dallas Cowboys. Here’s the video.

Now, let’s get some perspective. Football is the ultimate team sport, and a failure by any player, coach, or front office guy can be the one thing that prevents a team from winning a Super Bowl. We know mathematically that games decided by 7 points or less are essentially coin tosses. Even the worst team in the NFL consists of talented world-class athletes, and the difference between the top and bottom is simply not much.

Watch  the Immaculate Reception (Google it, it’s a fun play to watch), and tell me if the ball hit the ground. The Steelers don’t win the Super Bowl that year if it did. But the referees said it did not, so Ken Stabler did not get elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame until after his death. An entire legacy hinged on a play that close. This sort of thing happens *every* year again and again.

It’s why we watch sports. The ultimate reality show, where people put everything they have into something and every time someone wins someone else loses.

And it’s why we care about the people, good or bad, justified or not, we care about the players.

Football is a ballet of 11 people moving in an intricate dance. If certain arm angles, foot placements, knee angles, and many other technical details are even an inch incorrect, it can mean the difference between victory and loss. There are a maximum of 20 games that matter in a season, and each one might be the one that shapes a season or a career.

Out of 32 teams, there’s only 1 Super Bowl winner. E pluribus unum, indeed.

Tony Romo will be criminally underrated unless he is the quarterback of a Super Bowl winning team, but for the bulk of Tony Romo’s career, the talent around him has been continually overrated. I can go for hours about that.

I can also talk about bad luck. Many remember the botched snap against the Seahawks in the playoffs, but don’t realize that the NFL had seen that happen a number of times that year and was already planning to change to a different ball for kicks because the ones they were using were too hard to handle. Then there’s the catch by Dez Bryant against the Packers in 2014. I can go on about that too.

I’ve watched him turn bad teams into average teams, average teams into good teams, and good teams into great ones. His results have been especially amazing since he wasn’t even seen as good enough to be drafted. 262 players were drafted in 2003. 13 of them were quarterbacks. 1 of them still plays, Carson Palmer, who is nowhere close to as good as Romo is.

There’s an advanced metric that correlates strongly to winning, it’s called ANY/A, or Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Basically, it penalizes the bad plays, credits the good plays, and comes up with a total. Tony Romo’s *career* ANY/A is 7.02, which is 5th all-time. Now he benefits from the era, but 5th puts him in the elite quarterback range of this era.

But he’s never had a great team around him.

I know the Cowboys went 4-12 last year, but for the first time in a while I had high hopes for this roster.They invested in the offensive line, giving the team the best one in the NFL. Ezekiel Elliot. A plethora of targets. A great offensive identity. They created a defense that was underrated, but more talented than many realize and designed to make up other talent deficiencies with hustle. A great kicker, perhaps the best in NFL history.

Last year was an aberration. Injuries yes, even more than this year, and there have been a ton of injuries this year too. But also a lot of bad luck, like 2-7 in close games and a league-worst fumble recovery rate, which is also a coin toss. A perfect storm of awful.

This year the luck has rebounded and the Cowboys have been a lucky team. The fumble rate is about average, but they’ve been 4-1 in close games. Can that continue? Not in the long term, but an NFL season is *not* long term. Remember it is, at most, 20 games.

This was to be Tony Romo’s year. After hundreds of hits, years of pounding, playing through a punctured lung, ignoring pain you or I cannot imagine, *this* was to be Tony’s year.

I had higher hopes for this year than any in recent memory, and the 8-1 record, though aided by some luck, validates that hope.

But it’s not been Tony’s year. He got hurt on an odd play with an injury medical professionals repeatedly insist had nothing to do with age, only the odd angle and timing of the play. Just a bad luck play for Romo, but it opened the door for Dak Prescott to take his place. To replace Wally Pipp in the sports lexicon with Tony Romo.

Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic when the Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott. I didn’t expect he’d be as good as he’s been so quickly, but I did have high hopes for him. And he’s been good, not as good as Romo as a quarterback, with a number of missed passes and reads and subtle mistakes, but he’s been just as good of a leader. And he’ll help us lift a Lombardi someday, maybe even this year.

Certainly, the Cowboys have played really well this year. 8-1 is a great record, and as Tony said, it’s not easy to do in the NFL. I’m especially pleased with the defense, though things will get tougher in the next few weeks because their strength has been depleted by repeated injuries in the defensive backfield. Still, this is a team that will be favored in most games for the rest of the year and justifiably so. This is a damn good team that can play anywhere.

But. It’s. Not. Been. Tony’s. Year.

As a writer, this is an amazing story. Tony is a tragic figure, one the gods seem to especially love to torture. They put his ultimate goal, a Super Bowl victory just within reach, only to snatch it away time and again. A Prometheus who brought the fire to the Cowboys and has been punished eternally by a vengeful Zeus.

As a fan, I’m watching that tragedy play out. I live and die by the Cowboys each week. I’ve had the pleasure of watching them with 4 Super Bowls, which is more than most fans of any sport can claim. I’ve also watched about 40 years where the didn’t win. I will always want the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl.

Yet I want to see Tony do it before Dak gets his. Tony is a *great* quarterback, better than a number of ones that will get into the Hall of Fame, and in a just world, he should be there eventually.

But it’s not a just world. If he is the quarterback for a Super Bowl winning team, he’ll be seen as one of the greatest ever. Without that Super Bowl win in the ultimate team sport, his legacy will be forgotten.

That would be a great shame.

Now that I’ve said all this stuff, go watch that video again. This is a man whose lifetime dream may elude him once again because of some fluke. *This* is the root of that pain and emotion in that speech. Because he knows. And yet, despite that, despite the eagle eating his liver, Romo stood up and took one for the team. As Mike Fisher, one of the reporters who cover the Cowboys said, “he threw himself on the quarterback controversy grenade.”

After all of this, I leave you with Kipling, the third stanza in particular.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.

Tony has filled his unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run and more.

 

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