The worst-kept secret of the NFL offseason will (reportedly) become a reality Thursday: The Cowboys plan to release Tony Romo, freeing him up to sign with the team of his choice. So, as the free-agent market welcomes one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, we rounded up our trio of NFL writers and had them try to figure out the perfect destination for the 13-year vet.
Kevin Clark: OK, guys. First of all, let’s assume Romo will get his outright release Thursday, as widely reported. Let’s also, then, assume that Jerry Jones will have some wink-wink strings attached for where Romo should go once he’s free, ruling out rivals like the Redskins. It will be the craziest recruitment period for an individual player since Peyton Manning in 2012, and that ended only with Manning putting together some of the best passing seasons in history and two Super Bowl appearances. Romo is not quite on Manning’s level, but he has the highest career passer rating of any QB to not win a Super Bowl and he’s certainly the best passer available in an offseason when Mike Glennon and Brian freaking Hoyer are sought-after commodities. In your opinion, what is the perfect fit for Romo?
Danny Kelly: I’ve been saying it for a while: Denver would be the best spot. Elite defense. Top-tier pass-catching options in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. A talented, bruising running back in C.J. Anderson. A scheme fit with a focus on run-pass balance and throwing off of play-action. People worry about the viability of the offensive line, and that’s a valid concern, especially for a guy who’s broken his back, but name me a team with a top-tier offensive line that’s just waiting to throw a potential All-Pro quarterback into the mix. Offensive lines are a mess all over the league. There’s no perfect landing spot for Romo, but Denver’s as close as you’re going to get.
Clark: I sort of feel like that’s an outdated destination now. The Broncos lost Wade Phillips. They’ll have a first-year head coach, an inconsistent offensive line, and, aside from all that, their defense wasn’t the dominant force in 2016 that it was in 2015; it dipped from first in yards allowed to fourth. That’s understandable given the depth they lost in free agency after their Super Bowl run, like Malik Jackson, and they didn’t exactly have any young, budding superstars to fill those gaps. Plus, they’ll also have to address the offensive line in the draft and free agency, rather than putting the focus on improving the defense. I think Denver would be less fun than people think.
Robert Mays: I’ve mentioned Denver as the no-brainer spot in the past, but that was always more about money than situation. Its offensive line is an absolute mess, and the idea of Romo playing behind that group frightens me. The Broncos made sense because they have a bunch of cash to play with and they’d be able to slot Romo in at a reasonable number. As we always learn this time of year, though, cap numbers don’t always matter. Teams can get creative, and, in my mind, that means a team that really wants Romo — regardless of its financial constraints — would be able to make it work.
And that team should be the Texans. I don’t love Houston’s offensive line, but with the way Duane Brown played down the stretch, I like it a hell of a lot more than I like Denver’s. Outside of the Brock Osweiler signing (which I know is a ridiculous qualifier), I don’t hate the moves Houston made last offseason. With Romo under center, I think some of those other pieces — Will Fuller, the running game, the DeAndre Hopkins we know and love — can be unlocked. Combined with what Houston can do on defense, that team instantly turns into a contender.
Clark: If we’re doing only obvious candidates, I agree with you, Robert, that it has to be the Texans. Romo’s post-Dallas landing spot is a massive decision. Like Jon Hamm after Mad Men or Bryan Cranston after Breaking Bad, you really get only a little bit of time to prove you’re capable of landing on your feet, so the destination is crucial. The Texans defense is great, Hopkins is incredible, the run game is decent. I’m just concerned with how J.J. Watt is going to deal with having to share camera time with Romo during the national anthem. Could be a locker room problem.
If we’re thinking outside the box, it’s a shame that Kansas City and Arizona are sticking with their respective guys and not rolling the dice on Romo. I know there are tons of risks involved there, be it salary cap, health, locker room dynamic, but both of those teams would get better with Romo. I’m also not sure why the Rams don’t make a run, either. They have some talented pieces on defense, they play in a phenomenal place to live, and they need tons of attention in their market. Spin it as “Hey, Jared Goff needs a little more time!” Now, you may be saying, “Isn’t this admitting that Jared Goff isn’t very good?” To which I would say: “Goff already proved that last season.”
Now, help me out here: What would you consider a successful 2017 season for Romo? Just staying healthy? Winning a playoff game? Getting more MVP votes than Dak Prescott?
Kelly: I don’t know what sort of cap gymnastics the Texans will have to do to get Romo — I’ve been operating under the assumption that Brock Osweiler’s $19 million cap hit limits their ability to make a real play — but they’re definitely another logical landing spot. Two other important factors we didn’t mention yet in favor of Houston are that he’d be playing home games in a dome late in the year (a big plus over freezing-cold Denver) and he’d be in the worst division in football (AFC South) and not one of the best (AFC West).
What constitutes a successful season? I think staying healthy is probably the biggest factor. He’s missed most of the past two years, so proving that he’s still “got it” as a top-tier passer is less of a concern to me than him actually making it through the preseason behind whatever line is protecting him. Past that, even an average year per Romo standards could be a big boost to Denver or Houston, both of which got middling to downright terrible performances from their quarterbacks last year. I think Romo’s ability to challenge defenses vertically (assuming his arm hasn’t turned into a noodle over the past year) would help out either team’s run game. You can’t load up to stop the run quite as confidently when Romo’s back there.
Mays: I’m with you on Kansas City, but not with Arizona. I actually think Carson Palmer was pretty good down the stretch last season, and it just feels like that type of offense would be a huge departure from what Romo’s done well in the past. For the Chiefs — damn, it is fun to think about. If we’re discounting how realistic it might be, that’s my favorite destination on a purely football level. Romo gets the ball out quickly enough to keep the bones of what makes that offense efficient. Travis Kelce would ascend to another plane. I honestly think we might see him levitate. And it’d be fun to actually get Jeremy Maclin back in our lives. Plus, K.C. has one of the best lines in the league. Protection there wouldn’t be an issue whatsoever. The problem is that I just don’t think the Chiefs are moving on from Alex Smith quite yet, and that’s a bummer.
The Rams point is worth considering, but it just seems that for all the PR goodwill signing Romo would bring, it’s too much of a risk after the swing they took at Goff last year. If he was just their first-round pick and they hadn’t moved a mountain to get him, I think that would be a brilliant diversion from the smoldering pile in the background. But it’s hard to give up that much for Goff, see him under center, and then say, “Just kidding! Not yet!”
I do think there are mystery teams out there, though. And no matter where he lands, I’d consider it a success if he can just stay healthy and have an average Romo season. I still think it sucks that after years of carrying the Cowboys offense, he didn’t get one season with the impressive crew they’ve put together there, but it would sting a little less if Romo has a couple of seasons that ensure that him being helped off the field in Seattle last August isn’t our final memory of him. That’s the main reason I’d like to see him with a team close to contention. I feel like this version of Romo — if he can stay on the field — is still good enough to help a team like that get to the playoffs and be a legitimate threat.
Clark: Mays, “Just kidding!” is already the official motto for Goff. But I doubt Romo takes that sort of chance. The mystery teams will emerge, however. Everyone thought Peyton Manning would join the Dolphins or Cardinals, because they had holes at quarterback. Meanwhile, he was secretly working out with the 49ers and was immediately wooed by a Denver team that had just made the playoffs with current New York Mets star Tim Tebow. Teams will make some shocking runs at him. I think Romo has to make the playoffs for this to be considered a success. He’s 36 years old and will turn 37 by the time the season starts, so there’s not enough time for a throwaway year. My only wish is that Romo makes a nice run early in the season so that “Romo vs. Dak” becomes a go-to argument in the HotTakeosphere. Houston and Denver have a chance to win more games with Romo. But the takes are undefeated.