The post-Cowboy Tony Romo era...it's really happening.
As of Thursday afternoon, Tony Romo, a Dallas Cowboy for the past 14 years, will become a free agent. As first reported by Adam Schefter and Todd Archer, both of ESPN.com, the Cowboys plan to release the four-time Pro Bowler later today:
Romo leaves the Cowboys as an odd combination of statistical productivity and postseason emptiness, as he is the franchise's all-time leading passer (34,183 yards), and yet has fewer playoff wins (2) than Troy Aikman has Super Bowl wins (3). Above and beyond the numbers, Romo's last few seasons with the Cowboys will probably be remembered more for the injuries than for any yardage or touchdowns.
In 2013, he underwent two back surgeries, including a discectomy before the season finale. He suffered two transverse process fractures in 2014, but still missed only one game in leading the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and NFC East title. In 2015, he sustained a broken left clavicle and missed seven games. Once Romo returned, it took just two games for him to re-break the collarbone, and he missed the final five games. The Cowboys went 1-11 without Romo in 2015, finishing 4-12 (which ironically allowed them to select Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick).
After undergoing collarbone surgery last spring, Romo once again suffered a back injury, on the third play from scrimmage in a preseason game against Seattle. He was awkwardly driven to the turf by Cliff Avril and suffered a compression fracture in his back. Rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott took over, and before Romo could come back from the injury, Prescott had made the team his own.
Had Romo remained a Cowboy on his current deal, he would have carried the largest salary cap hit in the league, at more than $24 million. As it is, he will be cut with a June 1 designation, meaning that on June 1, the Cowboys can spread the $19.6 million dead money cap hit from his release over 2017 and 2018. Romo will count $10.7 million on the 2017 cap and $8.9 million on the 2018 cap. He was slated to make $14 million in salary in 2017, but that will obviously change under whatever deal he signs with his new team.
Which brings us to the big question — who will Romo play for in 2017?
It would appear that, barring a sleeper team lying in the weeds (Kansas City, maybe?), this is a two-horse race, with Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith (and Bob McNair's checkbook) squaring off against John Elway. Like last offseason, it's a Houston-versus-Denver battle for the most noteworthy free agent quarterback. (Unlike last season, said quarterback is actually a proven commodity, capable of completing simple slant routes and back shoulder fades.)
If you believe the experts, it sounds like Denver has a slight edge. If we are listing what each team has to offer, it probably goes like this:
The Broncos had the No. 1 defense in DVOA last season, the Texans had the No. 1 defense in yardage allowed (seventh in DVOA). Both teams are changing coordinators, although the Texans change is more cosmetic than drastic, with Mike Vrabel moving up to DC and Romeo Crennel taking a spot as assistant head coach. J.J. Watt returns for the Texans, hopefully healthy.
SLIGHT EDGE: TEXANS
2. Head coach/offensive coordinator
Bill O'Brien is established, heading into his fourth season. The plan is for him to call plays as well, which may or may not be a good thing. Vance Joseph is a first-time head coach, but Mike McCoy, one of the most respected offensive minds in football, will be the OC.
3. Offensive line
The Texans right side of the offensive line was a train wreck last season, so expect them to upgrade right tackle, at least. Nick Martin's return from injury will help, and Greg Mancz could bump over to a guard spot. Duane Brown played at a Pro Bowl level last season. The Broncos offensive line is in disarray, as center Matt Paradis may be the only returning starter, as they move away from the zone blocking scheme.
EDGE: TEXANS (crazy as that sounds)
4. Offensive weapons
If Romo can get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins, he will have a Pro Bowl go-to guy. Will Fuller should improve in his second season, and Lamar Miller was a 1,000-yard back. The Broncos have a nice pair of receivers in their own right with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
The AFC West is no joke, as the Broncos will have to deal with two 12-4 teams who return all of their key players. The AFC South is improving, but a Romo-led Texans team would be the clear favorite. By the way, the Broncos play the Cowboys in Denver next season.
6. Proximity to Dallas
Tony Romo's family lives in a gigantic mansion in Dallas. He has two young children and a third one on the way. Houston is a 40-minute flight from Dallas, and Bob McNair has a private jet.
HUGE EDGE: TEXANS
Denver's "cold" weather is a little overblown. It's sunny more than 300 days a year there. That said, the weather in NRG Stadium is 72 degrees every day.
John Elway delivering a "You can be next in the Super Bowl lineage, after me and Peyton" sales pitch might be the single strongest thing that either team has going for it in this battle for Romo's services. Elway has proven he can find the necessary pieces to build a Super Bowl team. O'Brien hasn't proven he can coach an offense rated in the upper two-thirds of the league.
GARGANTUAN EDGE: BRONCOS
PREDICTION: I have a sinking feeling I will be writing a "Jay Cutler signs with Houston" post next week.
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