When Tony Romo is good, he can be very, very good.
Historically good, like having the fifth-best passer rating ever, second-best in fourth quarters alone.
Dramatically good, like overcoming the pain from a cracked rib to rally for an overtime win on the road, then less than a week later pull out another late victory against a top division rival.
When Tony Romo is bad, he can be very, very bad.
Historically bad, like making the mistakes that trash a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter for the first time in Cowboys' history, and a 24-point lead in the third quarter, another franchise-worst.
Dramatically bad, like fumbling the hold of a short field goal to blow his first career playoff start, then losing at home as a No. 1 seed -- following a quick vacation to Cabo -- in his next postseason chance; and blowing symbolically important games like the finale at Texas Stadium and the opener at Cowboys Stadium.
Four games into this season, the Cowboys have seen each side of Romo -- twice. It might be great for ratings, but the extremes give everyone else whiplash.
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With the Cowboys having their bye this weekend, Romo can let his cracked rib heal and perhaps figure out a way to be more consistent. As for team owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett, this is no time to consider other options. They remain committed to Romo, for better or worse.
"We've got an outstanding quarterback and one that gives us a chance to really win a lot of important ballgames," Jones said. "I feel very strongly about that. ... We all should and do have a reservoir of past mistakes that we've made, and I think that we can improve as we go along. But the most important thing, the very individual, Tony Romo, that we are criticizing this week gives us our very best chance to have a championship."
Tight end Jason Witten is one of Romo's closest friends and a respected voice in the locker room. He's seen Romo bounce back from blowing the opener to win the next two games, and he's counting on another bounceback from his latest meltdown, throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and another that set up Detroit's winning touchdown last Sunday.
"He needs to get better in those situations, but he's made a lot of plays for us," Witten said. "There's not a mindset of questioning him in any way. I think we all know he's our guy."
Another Romo loyalist is someone who understands the burden the quarterback faces: Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki and Romo have long been considered great talents who've underachieved as leaders. That changed in June when Nowitzki lifted Dallas to an NBA title. A popular subject locally since then has been whether Romo can do the same. The big German thinks so. The day after the Detroit debacle, he tweeted, "Dear tony romo. Don't worry abt all the critics. I heard that same garbage for a long time. Keep working hard and keep improving."
Fans, however, are getting tired of riding the Romo roller coaster. The idea that he will learn from his mistakes is wearing thin; just listen to a few minutes of talk radio or click around to a few websites for proof.
This is Romo's sixth full season since his spectacular rise from unknown backup to Pro Bowler and gossip-rag cover boy. He's won two division titles, but just one playoff game. On his watch, Dallas has hit 15 straight seasons without a Super Bowl, the longest drought in franchise history.
At 31, Romo is no longer growing up on the job. He's older than Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach were when they won their first Super Bowls. Aikman had his third and final Super Bowl title by 29.
As Aikman, Staubach and Nowitzki know, it takes more than talent to guide a team to a championship.
Toughness is part of the formula, and Romo showed that with his performance the last three weeks, especially by returning to play, and play well, in the game he broke the rib. It's even possible he led the comeback with oxygen leaking from a lung.
Dedication is a factor, too, and for all those who claim he's more interested in golf and pickup basketball, few within the organization question his desire. He shows up early, stays late and was praised by teammates for organizing and running offseason workouts during the lockout.
Leadership is a touchy subject. Romo's ability to take command has been questioned since his infamous trip to Mexico. Those lockout practices were supposed to be an indication of him accepting the responsibility to lead, and it can be argued that playing through pain the last few weeks was the ultimate display of recognizing he belongs at the controls.
Then there's the big bugaboo: Decision-making.
Romo is a gunslinger, which only makes sense considering he grew up in Wisconsin during Brett Favre's heyday and was a big fan of John Elway, too. He believes he can make any throw at any time, always valuing the reward more than fearing the risk. Yet he's playing in an era where there's an emphasis on not making mistakes.
Bill Parcells used to warn Romo about avoiding "impulse throws," and taking better care of the ball. His erratic start this season shows he hasn't completely gotten over it.
Romo got this whole season out of whack by fumbling on a run he never should've tried to make late in the opener. Had he just fallen down, the Cowboys probably would've kicked a field goal to stretch their lead; instead, that turnover started the Jets' winning rally. It was reminiscent of the crazy play at the end of the first half of last year's opener, when a short pass he never should've thrown turned into a game-changing touchdown for Washington.
Parcells also recently said that Romo's blessing is his curse, meaning that his ability to pull off those plays sometimes is what makes him think he can do it all the time.
After all, he did pull off those big comebacks against the 49ers and Redskins in Weeks 2 and 3, giving him 12 game-winning drives among his 39 career wins. And his throws were what gave the Cowboys a 14-point lead over the Jets in the opener, and a 27-3 lead on the Lions last Sunday.
Garrett could have helped Romo nurse that lead into a victory by calling for more runs, or demanding safe passes. As Jones said, "if you run the ball a few times and punt it, run the ball a few times and punt it, the stats show that you can't lose it."
But Garrett let Romo keep throwing, and Detroit players kept catching them. Since then, Garrett and Romo have studied the tape and discussed what could've and should've been done differently.
It's a conversation they've had a lot over the past 4½ years.
Romo cut way down on turnovers in 2009, throwing 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. That looks more like an aberration than a change of direction.
Romo has thrown 18 TDs and 12 interceptions since then, and Dallas is 3-7 in that span. He's missed the same number of games, and the Cowboys have gone 5-5 with Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee starting.
"(Romo) needs to improve in a ton of different areas just as everyone on our football team needs to improve," Garrett said. "I played next to a Hall of Fame quarterback in this organization for a long time and each and every day he came in to learn and get better. That's what the best ones do in football and do in life. I'd expect Tony to continue to do that."