As a young starter at the game's most-important and most-hyped position, Romo's ad-libbing ability and playmaking skills gave him the air of a rising star at quarterback. Playing for the love-them-or-hate-them Cowboys put a huge spotlight on Romo. The stats were glittering, and his dating life was a tabloid sensation.
It's a story not unlike that of Aaron Rodgers.
As a young starter at the game's most-important and most-hyped position, Rodgers' ad-libbing ability and playmaking skills gave him the air of a rising star at quarterback. Playing for the love-them-or-hate-them Packers while replacing the legendary Brett Favre put a huge spotlight on Rodgers. The stats were glittering, and while his dating life has stayed out of the tabloids, he has been linked to a supermodel.
But as tends to happen, the raves turn into rants without big-time success.
Thus, the notion that neither Romo nor Rodgers can win a big game.
Entering Sunday's showdown at Lambeau Field, Romo boasts an impressive regular-season record of 33-14 as Dallas' starter, but he's 0-2 in the playoffs and failed to win either of two games to end last season that would have gotten the Cowboys back into the postseason.
Rodgers is merely 10-14 and the playoffs seem to be a mile away after last week. Rodgers, coming off a three-interception performance as the Packers fell to previously winless Tampa Bay, is only beginning to hear criticism. Romo has heard it for a couple of years, but with his Cowboys coming off a huge victory at Philadelphia and riding high with a four-game winning streak, those critics have been silenced for the moment.
"No. 1, the way to silence the criticism is go out and win and play well. I mean, that's the bottom line," Romo said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "You can say and do and have all the right words and you can do all the right things, but the bottom line comes down to production and winning. That's all that people really care about. They don't want to hear excuses, they want to hear why. And at our position it's really a pretty clear-cut case that you just go out and you perform and you win, people are going to value you at a high level, and if you don't, then they're going to think you're not very good — whether it's true or not.
Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers talk after the 2007 game.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Something right, indeed. Despite the flaws in his resume, Rodgers has the Packers ranked seventh in the NFL in scoring with 26.9 points per game, their 215 pounds just two behind Dallas, four behind Philadelphia and six behind third-ranked New England. Thus, any criticism of Rodgers was practically news to offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said.
"Somebody said that on the way over," Philbin said. "It's kind of interesting. I wasn't aware of it. I don't know. We think he's playing very well. He's been in some trying situations. I'm not sure. I know offensively, we've all been under criticism, deservedly so, especially the coaching staff. I think he's one guy in the unit, just like everybody else, who wants us to do better and perform better."
Other than last week's game at Tampa Bay, Rodgers' numbers tell the story of a quarterback who is among the game's elite. But he couldn't rally the Packers against Cincinnati, had two key turnovers at Minnesota, played a dismal first half in the rematch against Minnesota and failed to even get a first down on two possessions when trailing by only three points last week at Tampa Bay.
Is it all Rodgers' fault, just like the Cowboys' playoff futility is all Romo's fault? No. But that's how it works at quarterback.
"Each one is different in the sense of depending on how your team is playing," Romo said. "I think if a team is 1-7, it's different than a team that's 8-0, but it's all the same in any city locally. If your team is winning, you're great. If your team is not winning, you're not. In Tennessee, Kerry Collins, the difference in one year, but is he playing all that different than maybe (he did last year?)
"There's a lot of pieces that go along with it. It's all apart of the process. It's simple to say it's just about winning and losing. But the reality is mentally you've just got to think about improving. That's all it comes down to. As an individual that's all you can control is your improvement and the improvement of your unit as a whole. And if you keep maintaining that approach and if you have the ability it will happen. It will turn itself in the right direction."
A must-win game
Rodgers wouldn't go so far as to say this is a must-win game — "I consider World War II a must-win," he said — but it's clear that the Packers' playoff hopes would be practically extinguished with a loss to the Cowboys. Lose, and the Packers are 4-5, including 3-4 in the NFC.
"It's an important two weeks," he said. "We've got two home games. You've got to win (with) your home-field advantage. Anything can happen, though. I remember Detroit was 3-6 back in (1994), won their last seven and made the playoffs. So, anything can happen in this league, but we've got to make the most of our opportunities. We have two good opportunities back-to-back, starting with Dallas this week at home."
The Packers wouldn't be in this position had Rodgers been sacked 20 times rather than 37 times. Without the protection issues, it's hard to argue that the Packers wouldn't have beaten Cincinnati, wouldn't have at least split with Minnesota and wouldn't have beaten Tampa Bay.
The sack-plagued offense aired out the issues after watching film on Monday.
"We're all to blame (for the sacks)," Rodgers said. "You don't want to point fingers at any one person. I think you've got to point the finger at yourself first. There's been times where I've probably held on a little too long, and there's been times where we've had bad communication and times we've had a losing situation in a one-on-one, in a one-on-one matchup. So, we've got to clean up all three of those."
While Rodgers is hearing criticism, it's been nothing like what coach Mike McCarthy has been hearing from the fans. Rodgers, however, tried to deflect some of that blame.
"We've got to be held to a standard of expectation from each other," Rodgers said. "The coaches expect the guys to play well when they get the opportunity. We expect each other to play well. We've got to win those battles. We've got to do better. I think it's a good thing that coach stands up and often takes the blame, but I think probably too much blame. Coaches can only do so much. They lay out the game plan, they get us prepared every week, and it's on us to execute that game plan. We haven't done a good enough job of that."
Make a play or throw it away?
Rodgers spikes the ball after his 12-yard TD run last week.
J Meric/Getty Images
Rodgers, however, has been sacked a league-high 37 times. Romo's never been sacked more than 24 times, though he's on pace to go down 34 times this season.
So, how do you know when to extend a play or when to just throw it away? Romo had some insightful input.
"Well, it's always a learning curve for everybody but, for me, it was just you have to throw the ball away," Romo said. "There's a sense that says sacks are just like holding penalties and we talk about it all the time here and we try not to, just because it's important in the sense of it's hard to come back when the chains are against you. And there's always different reasons as to why quarterbacks were getting sacked. We always hope we have great protection. But sometimes you've got to move around and make a play.
"I know Aaron is pretty good at moving around and doing some things. There's a fine line. You've got to help your teammates out, but at the same point, they've got to help you out and I think the time to make a play is usually when it's time and it's an important possession in the game that you just can't ... you're down seven or 10, it's going into the fourth quarter, you really need to put points on the board. Things of that nature, I've learned that you might want to take a chance in those situations. Otherwise it's just part of learning the position. It's always just the experiences you go through."
The Packers have allowed 38 points in back-to-back games, and while that certainly isn't entirely the fault of the defense, Dom Capers' unit faces a huge challenge against Dallas' high-powered offense.
Romo is on top of his game and hasn't thrown an interception in a career-high 120 attempts. Marion Barber is one of the most-feared runners in the game. Jason Witten is an elite tight end, and Miles Austin is playing like an elite receiver over the last four games. And the offensive line is big and physical.
"This is the best offense we've played against, because they have the ability to run and throw the ball," Capers said. "They're multitalented. They have three excellent running backs (with Felix Jones and Tashard Choice). They'll use three tight ends. They're a big, massive offensive line. And the quarterback has been really hot as of late. He's a guy that can make plays. And their receiving corps, they have four big guys there that can make yards after the catch. There's a reason why they're averaging over 400 yards a game. They make a lot of big plays. So yeah, it's going to be a challenge. This will be our stiffest challenge."
Packers defensive backs Charles Woodson and Nick Collins talked about Romo's penchant for forcing passes into coverage when under pressure. The Packers, however, have only 13 sacks and will be playing without Aaron Kampman.
"He's making good decisions with the ball and he has a real quick release," Woodson said. "He's a guy that can make things happen if things break down for him in the pocket. We have to do a good job this week keeping containment. Hopefully, we'll get pressure on him and make him have to make those decisions. If we can do that, then we'll be all right."
Romo said his team will be in trouble if it looks past the Packers.
"They look good," he said. "I know there's a lot being said about the team in some ways, but they score a lot of points and they might be the fourth-ranked defense in the league. In a lot of ways they are very underrated just because of their record. And I think when you're 4-4, as everybody goes through, you have to hear about all the other things that go along with not being where everyone hopes to be. But to think that this isn't a good football team is wrong. They have good players, they have a good scheme, they play hard, they play together. It's going to be a very big challenge for us to go up there and play well."
Grant and Green
When the Packers re-signed Ahman Green, it smacked of desperation. After all, the record-setting Green had rushed for just 554 yards in two seasons with the Houston Texans.
But after running six times for 45 yards against Tampa Bay last week, the Packers had a glimmer of the type of one-two punch they haven't had during McCarthy's tenure.
"I like it. He broke a couple tackles," Philbin said. "I think he's had a good week of practice. He had a nice run (Thursday) at practice. You watch the film, you're looking for those plays where they — like we always say, if it's blocked for 3, get us 3 more, get us 2 more. Then later in the game, stiff-arm the guy or juke the guy and get us a big play. You had the one big run that he hit in the game. Then he had a run to the left side coming away from that boat, he broke a couple of tackles. That could have been a 1-yard run and I think it was a 9-yard run. Those are big runs. Those help you a lot."
Still, Philbin didn't sound like a guy who thought Green would be stealing carries more than a handful of carries per game from Ryan Grant.
"We'd love to be running the ball 35 times a game and throwing it 40 and having 75 plays," Philbin said.
— The Packers had success running shotgun draw plays last week, especially with Green. "We study ourselves," Philbin said, "and we look at ourselves and we say, ‘OK, when we're in the gun, we're 80 percent pass. Let's mix in a couple gun runs.' It's a little bit of a chess match. Sometimes, you get those situations where the box is, the numbers are advantageous to you."
— Dallas started 2-2 and needed overtime to win at Kansas City. With the vultures starting to circle around coach Wade Phillips — whose contract expires at the end of this season — Dallas has won its last four to enter Sunday's game at 6-2. "It's not me, it's the players," Phillips said. "When I was the head coach at Buffalo, we started out 0-3 and we made the playoffs — the last team to do that, I believe. So, you know, I've been through this before. It's not exactly how you start, it's how you finish."
— Romo has won 13 consecutive starts in November, the longest streak for a quarterback since 1950. He has three-plus touchdowns in eight of those games. "Tony, the thing I've always been impressed about with Tony and it gets better and better each year with his experience," McCarthy said. "Even having the opportunity to be around him for a week at the Pro Bowl, it's his ability to extend plays. He's a slippery, athletic quarterback that can extend plays and then put the ball ... he's cagey as far as with his ball placement and so forth. I think he's a very instinctive quarterback, someone I'd refer to more as a gym rat, very instinctive, feels the game very well. The more and more that you see him with his experience, I think he's definitely playing extremely well here the last month."
— A couple former players, such as LeRoy Butler and Gilbert Brown, ripped the coaching staff this week. Hogwash, Rodgers said: "Honestly, I think it's a convenient criticism there, no disrespect to those guys. But this team believes in our leaders and believes in Ted and Mike and Dom and Joe Philbin and Shawn Slocum. I think if you ask those special teams guys, I think it'd be they're disappointed in the way they've played. If you ask the offense, we're not pointing fingers at Mike or Joe. We're disappointed in the way we've executed. If you ask the defense, I think it's the same thing. They're not pointing fingers at Dom. They need to play better. So, I think it's a convenient criticism or scapegoat to make a coach, to blame a coach, in my opinion. I think we as players need to play better."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.