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Five Paths to Tony Romo’s Eventual NFL Comeback

The longtime Cowboys star has retired to begin his broadcasting career, but that doesn’t mean he’s really through with football. Here are the scenarios that could lead to his on-field return.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s a bittersweet day. Longtime Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is retiring from football to move to the lucrative and cushy world of sports broadcasting, where he’ll reportedly join Jim Nantz as CBS’s no. 1 color analyst. (Bye, Phil!) While the jump to TV is undoubtedly welcome clarity for Romo after losing his job to rookie Dak Prescott last season and facing the ensuing months of rampant speculation about his future, it robs football fans of the opportunity to witness a few staples of the aging quarterback experience.

Now we won’t get a circus of reckless trade rumors that dominate the offseason. We won’t get Favreian will-he-or-won’t-he updates about Romo possibly joining a former rival. We won’t even get to see Romo quarterback a flailing Jets team desperate for a passer.

Unless, of course, we do: Romo, who turns 37 later this month, could still help a team this season or next. His decision to become a broadcaster doesn’t preclude a future decision to return to the playing field. And that means that we can all, in fact, still spread reckless rumors about his return to the sport. The summer-long bonanza we all anticipated will pause for a bit, but we’re going to get the next best thing: constant innuendo about Romo’s potential return anytime a team faces a quarterback quandary this preseason or season. Here are the five most likely scenarios in which that return could happen:

1. The Cowboys Wind Up Needing Him

This is the most obvious and least dramatic possibility, since it’s clear that the Cowboys would turn to Romo if they wind up needing help at quarterback. The NFL Network already reported that Romo would be open to coming back if the Cowboys “REALLY” needed him. There are two reasons that need could arise.

The first is if Prescott gets hurt and the Cowboys face a chunk of time without him. Romo knows the playbook, the coaches, and the players (even if he previously “distanced himself” from those coaches and teammates during the transition to Prescott, as has been reported). The other is if Prescott suffers a serious sophomore slump. It’s unlikely, but if Dak becomes a turnover machine in September, or if the Cowboys offense fails to get moving behind him, the Romo rumblings will grow. There will be some Romo rumblings regardless: Remember, he’s one of the most beloved figures in franchise history and can still (in theory) play, so there will always be a portion of the fan base that holds out hope for a throwback season. But a bad Prescott performance would turn the Cowboys’ season into a full-blown spectacle of Romo rumors. ROMORS.

2. Another Contender Suffers an Injury at QB

Romo was the top quarterback on the market this spring — and even after retiring, he’ll still be the top option come the fall. In November, when Romo conceded that the Cowboys were no longer his, most of the potential destinations people tossed out were competitive teams with problems at quarterback: the Texans, who at the time still had the biggest problem at quarterback (both literally and figuratively), and the Broncos, who seemed like natural candidates to attempt to recapture their former Peyton Manning–led success.

This broadcasting transition creates some wiggle room, however, because now Romo won’t have to join a team before training camp. Instead of waiting for the Cowboys to trade him or release him so that he can commit to a team desperate for his services, Romo can instead begin his broadcasting career while waiting for an even more appealing football option to develop: joining a Super Bowl contender faced with immediate need at quarterback following an injury. Not every contender wants or needs Romo now, but if there’s a 2017 version of the Teddy Bridgewater injury and a team with a championship-caliber defense suddenly has a hole at quarterback, its first call this year won’t be to Sam Bradford or a Sam Bradford equivalent. It will be to Romo.

3. A Bad Team Tries to Make Romo the NFL’s Roger Clemens

Contending for a Super Bowl as an injury replacement is cool, but so is getting $25 million. Remember when Clemens returned to the Yankees a couple of months into the 2007 season, standing in George Steinbrenner’s box and sparking this legendary radio call?

Clemens returned to competition after a brief hiatus because the Yankees gave him a prorated $28 million deal and basically let him do whatever he wanted when he wasn’t pitching. Football is slightly different: Romo won’t be able to miss a Wednesday practice to golf. But some struggling team could try to tempt him back into action with a bunch of cash as the season nears — or even once it’s already underway. Maybe the Niners will look at their team and say, “We need a shot in the arm and a distraction from our sincere lack of talent; let’s give Romo all of the money.” He would surely prefer to play for a contender if he returns, but never rule out the possibility of an athlete cashing in at the end.

4. Romo Realizes That Broadcasting Is Not That Cool

Privately, players who transition to TV sometimes grumble that broadcasting is a bit of a letdown because it can’t provide the competition to which they were accustomed during their playing days. It’s not impossible that after enjoying years of unreplicable on-field competition, Romo finds broadcasting boring and decides to take any NFL gig — the Cowboys’ backup job, the Texans’ starting job, an assistant quarterback coach job with the Rams, whatever — that allows him to recapture some of that.

It’s also not impossible that Romo could enjoy broadcasting but be bad at it. As Bryan Curtis points out, Romo has been a dull public figure for some time now, and being bland on TV rarely works. If Romo struggles to find a TV persona, could he pull the parachute and link up with a team for the rest of the year? Could he join the Jets?

5. He Wants to Play for the Jets

Oh, wait, this is supposed to be a piece about scenarios that could actually unfold. Never mind.