Tony Romo’s long-term future with Cowboys is no sure thing

Associated Press photo

Tony Romo was on the practice field Wednesday with the Dallas Cowboys. The veteran quarterback threw passes but was not in uniform, showing he is making progress toward a possible return this season but is not yet an option for the Cowboys to use in a game.

The question of whether the Cowboys should turn back to Romo, who suffered a compression fracture of a vertebra in his back during the preseason, when he’s ready to play or stick with rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback has been fiercely debated and exhaustively scrutinized in recent weeks. Prescott has led the Cowboys to a record of 5-1 and first place in the NFC East entering their game Sunday night at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Prescott-Romo debate mostly has focused on what will or should happen during what remains of this season. But if the Cowboys go back to Romo this season, as they have vowed to do, they would face another decision about what to do about Romo for next season. He turns 37 in April, and he is to have a salary of $14 million, while counting $24.7 million against the Cowboys’ salary cap next season.

“They’ve got to make a decision next year,” said Joel Corry, a former agent who is now an NFL salary cap and contracts analyst for several media outlets. “You’re not going to pay a backup quarterback $14 million. As long as he doesn’t come back to play [this season] and win a Super Bowl, I think he’s gone.”

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It is not merely a business decision, of course. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has spoken of his admiration for Romo as a player and his desire to see the team win a Super Bowl with Romo at quarterback.

But the business aspects cannot be ignored. The Cowboys would save $5.1 million against next season’s salary cap by releasing or trading Romo, even though he still would count $19.6 million against the cap while not playing for the team.

“To me, the bigger question becomes what they’ll do after this year when contracts and everything else come into play,” former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said recently.

The Cowboys have played 22 games since the start of last season. Romo has played in only four of them, suffering a broken left clavicle twice last season.

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“I don’t think he should play football again,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said Wednesday. “I’ve told Tony this. His collarbone hasn’t been tested yet. He’s had multiple back issues. I care about Tony Romo the person. He doesn’t have anything to prove to anybody. He’s as tough as it gets. He looked like a guy who couldn’t get out of harm’s way. When you can’t protect yourself out there, you’re going to be at risk to get injured again.”

The Cowboys, in Theismann’s view, should stick with Prescott at quarterback and never look back.

“When you have a football team doing what the Cowboys are doing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to disrupt it,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s become a football team where the guys rely on each other. I know Jerry’s loyalty to Tony. It’s admirable. Joe Gibbs was tremendously loyal to us veteran players. But you have to do what’s best for the football team.”

Romo has given no indication he’s ready to walk away from the sport just yet. Theismann said he can understand that, given how difficult it is for players to acknowledge that their bodies have had enough. But the prospect of Romo finishing his NFL career elsewhere is difficult to fathom, in Theismann’s estimation.

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“In his position, I’d probably do the same thing,” Theismann said. “How many teams did Jerry Rice play for after San Francisco? How many teams did Brett Favre play for after Green Bay? Peyton Manning had a neck issue and he didn’t quit. But I worry about guys. You hate to see anyone get hurt in a bad way. I think he’s at a stage in his career when you can’t trade him. I think Tony Romo is a Dallas Cowboy for life. Where is he gonna go? Cleveland? The Jets?

“The way I look at it, if Tony Romo is not going to play for the Cowboys, he’s not going to play football. If I was a general manager, I would not trade for him. He’s been hurt so much. You have a transition period to a new team, to a new offense, and he doesn’t have the luxury of time. Maybe if he was 27. But he’s, what, 36? No. He will be a Dallas Cowboy and should leave the game a Dallas Cowboy.”