Romo haters will be singing new tune

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IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo makes a lot of plays on the field that leaves us shaking our heads.

Sometimes, it's because he made a perfect throw after evading a blitzing linebacker that impresses us with his athleticism. Other times, it's because he made the dumbest decision you've ever seen a good player make, resulting in an interception.

It's among the reasons no NFL quarterback is as loved or loathed Romo, who has a legion of fans known as Romo Apologists and an equal number of critics known as Romo Haters.

Well, the Romo Haters are about to get a glimpse of life without a difference-maker at quarterback. Perhaps then they'll decide Romo isn't that bad after all.

Sources have told ESPN that Romo has a herniated disk in his back that will require surgery and force him to miss the rest of the season.

Jason Garrett said the Cowboys haven't ruled Romo out yet. Then again, what's the Dallas head coach supposed to say?

It does no good for Garrett to let the Philadelphia Eagles know this early in the week that backup Kyle Orton will be starting Sunday's win-and-get-in-the-playoffs game to end the season. Besides, Garrett wants to give Romo every opportunity to see every specialist possible and examine every treatment option before ruling him out.

Orton has started 69 NFL games. He's no novice. He's a $3 million insurance policy that owner Jerry Jones purchased to win a game like this.

The Cowboys need Orton to be Clint Longley filling in for an injured Roger Staubach in 1974 leading the Cowboys over the Washington Redskins 24-23. Or Bernie Kosar helping close out the San Francisco 49ers for Troy Aikman in the 1993 NFC Championship Game. Or Garrett himself leading the Cowboys to a 42-31 win over the Green Bay Packers in 1994 with an injured Aikman watching.

Good luck with all of that.

Whether you like Romo or not, the man was having a terrific season, with 3,828 yards passing. He had 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Only Denver's Peyton Manning (plus-41), New Orleans' Drew Brees (plus-23) and Philadelphia's Nick Foles (plus-23) have a better TD:INT differential.

Romo is clearly maturing as a player, which has resulted in considerably fewer indiscriminate throws and poor decisions this season. He's taken more sacks and thrown more passes away, but it's never enough for the legion of Romo Haters.

They're still consumed with his 1-6 record in win-or-go-home games. They're still obsessed with his fumbled snap against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2006 playoffs and his ill-fated trip to Cabo San Lucas before a 2007 divisional playoff game against the New York Giants.

And he contributed to the narrative about his inability to perform in big games last season with a three-interception performance in the final game against Washington when a playoff berth was on the line.

For the Cowboys, losing Romo makes the task of beating the Eagles to secure a playoff spot considerably more difficult -- all while robbing Romo of another opportunity to change his personal narrative.

Too many folks see Romo strictly in black or white: You're either a Romo Hater or Romo Apologist.

To me, he has operated in shades of gray for years.

You can't watch him week after week and not marvel at his talent and creativity on the field. He'll also drive you crazy with critical mistakes, like the interceptions he threw this season against Green Bay and the Denver Broncos.

He shouldn't be grouped with the game's top quarterbacks, such as Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron RodgersBut he's certainly in that next group with players such as Ben Roethlisberger , Joe Flacco , Eli Manning and even Foles, Russell Wilson , Cam Newton and Matt Ryan .

You can put Romo at the top of the second tier. Or the bottom. It doesn't matter, as long as he's in the group.

He's that good.

You'll be reminded of that Sunday, when Orton gets sacked or throws a ball away because he lacks Romo's ability to elude defenders in the pocket.

The biggest difference between Romo and Orton is that Romo is capable of beating the Eagles by himself, so to speak. He could make everyone else better with his athleticism.

Orton's not that kind of player.

Orton will need Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and Terrance Williams to make plays for him. He'll need the offensive line to keep the pocket clean and give him a chance to succeed. He'll need playcaller Bill Callahan to be stubborn with a running game that has been one of the league's best over the past month.

Orton needs a lot of help to add his name to Cowboys lore.

Whatever happens Sunday, Romo Haters will have a much greater appreciation for the missing starter.

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