LANDOVER, Md. – In the winner-take-all NFC East showdown Sunday, Cowboy fans were painfully reminded of the formula that will define the 2012 season:
1. Make mistakes to dig a hole.
2. Fight like heck to overcome adversity and make things interesting.
3. In the end, fall short.
Face it. It's the Cowboy way nowadays.
It describes the stinging season finale against the Redskins as well as the season as a whole; Tony Romo's season, especially.
The Cowboys' 28-18 loss to the Redskins was microcosmic –– the entire season in a 60-minute shell.
The Cowboys somehow found themselves within three points of the Redskins with 3:35 left in the game at their own 15 yard line. The Cowboys defense had given up more than 250 yards rushing, but the team still had a chance to pull out an improbable victory. When Alfred Morris broke loose for a 32 yard touchdown to put the Redskins up 21-10, things looked bleak.
But it should have come as no surprise to Cowboy fans that their team would continue to fight and rally. Romo hurled a touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree and the subsequent two-point conversion gave Cowboy nation hope.
Then Romo reverted to the signal caller we've seen too often in critical moments. He tried to beat the blitz by lofting a pass to DeMarco Murray in the flat. Redskins linebacker Rob Jackson stopped his rush, and retreated to make a leaping interception.
"I feel as though I've let the team down," said Romo afterwards.
Before the game, Romo said if his team is good enough, they would prevail. As we've seen too many times with this particular Cowboy core group, they're not.
As always, there's room to rationalize. Was is fair the the defense was a shell of itself, down four starters and with DeMarcus Ware nursing his arm? That really doesn't matter. Was it fair that Romo had a broken rib and his top two receivers were out with injury for that final drive? Matters not.
Tony Romo is judged by the harsh light that comes with playing for an organization with five Super Bowl titles and signal callers with the last names Staubach and Aikman in its proud lineage. In win-or-go-home games, like the one Sunday night, Troy Aikman was 12-6. Roger Staubach was 12-4 in similar situations. Now Romo is 1-6 in those games.
And now Romo is 0-for-3 in week 17 showdowns against NFC East foes, collecting losses to each division opponent: Philadelphia ('08), New York ('11) and now Washington ('12).
Staubach defends Romo regularly and we can all agree with the legend when he says he and Aikman were surrounded with were better teams than the one Romo has had to work with now.
But that doesn't change the fact that in the last two games of the 2012 season the offense had opportunities to drive and close out those games. And in those situations, Romo and company couldn't make it work. Against the Saints, Romo couldn't convert a third-down pass to Dez Bryant.
Against the Redskins, it was another head-scratcher from Romo. The decision wasn't awful, but the execution certainly was. It was Romo's third interception of the game; the same number of interceptions he had in his previous eight games.
After an awful start to the season, he rebounded and was playing as well as any quarterback in the league over the last eight games with 17 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions.
We didn't see that Romo enough against the Redskins, though. His first pick of the night was questionable and receiver Kevin Ogletree could deserve some blame. But the second one was all Romo. With Miles Austin streaking down the sideline, Romo threw it the only place he couldn't: short and toward the middle of the field. It was the type of mistake that reminded you of how badly Romo played in the first half of the season.
It was the kind that dug the hole the Cowboys rallied from this season. But in the end, it's the kind of mistake that proved this team simply isn't good enough.