It you watched the closing moments of last week’s football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, you may have felt like you had seen it before, like it was a scene out of Groundhog Day. For those who missed it, the plotline went something like this. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo led his team to the brink of victory, only to gamble it away with a series of ill-conceived, unnecessarily risky passes that resulted in game altering interceptions. Specifically here, all Dallas really had to do in the closing minutes of the game was simply run the ball and run the clock. But Romo, forever the gunslinger, threw wildly into defensive traffic. Green Bay picked it off, scored the go-ahead touchdown, and revived a narrative that’s older than the Cowboys’ stadium itself.
Tony Romo, Cowboys quarterback, is both hero and villain. He’ll throw for 500 yards only to blow it on pass that looks like it was conceived by a six year old. He is both magnificent an atrocious, doing so in a position where superlatives are often a product of the job itself. In the NFL, there are few average quarterbacks making average plays. In the end, quarterbacks either win games or lose them. There’s not a lot of middle managers here.
The same has been said for New York Giants QB Eli Manning at times. While he’s largely credited for leading his team to two Super Bowl victories, this year he’s taken the brunt of deep criticism, especially for his propensity for throwing the ball to players on the other team. That’s kept the Giants out of the playoff race and made post-game press conferences more inquisition than informational. The opposite narrative is true up the road in New England, where Patriots QB Tom Brady has furthered his argument towards inclusion in the NFL’s Mount Rushmore, along with the Montanas and Staubachs and Elways. He’s taken what many consider a rag-tag group of also rans to the top of the AFC, despite the fact that half his team is either injured or in jail. Brady has been perfect, or nearly so in the measurement of the profession, only furthering the myth that is his professional life story.
Such is the narrative of the American NFL quarterback. Hero or zero. Legend or cautionary tale. Perhaps the most romanticized and persecuted position in the history of American sports, minus only perhaps the heavyweight boxer of past generations.
This week’s Marist Poll done with the Marist College Center for Sports Communication only confirmed that idea. When Americans were asked to pick this year’s most influential athlete, the public overwhelmingly chose Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, picked by 55% and far ahead of second place LeBron James, who was picked by only 20%. This is the second year Manning took this distinction in our poll, and the second year James finished a distant second. That’s despite the fact that, by all measurable accounts, James had a superior season, winning both the NBA MVP award and leading his team to an NBA title both seasons. His performances of these past two seasons have ignited talk of greatest ever, which in basketball means going through the vaunted Michael Jordan. And he’s forced other teams to completely dismantle their own rosters to try and catch up. With all respect to Peyton Manning, who is spectacular, the Indianapolis Colts replaced him with a rookie quarterback two years ago and the team has rebounded quite well. The same would not happen with the Miami Heat, mind you, who would probably be feeling quite mid-pack if you replaced James with, say, Anthony Davis.
In sports, we need heroes and villains. We need leaders and losers. We need all the things we don’t get in our mundane lives of project managers and paper pushers, where most of us simply need to get from A to B without too much collateral damage. Sports brings us everything we are not, which is why a serviceable quarterback is about as exciting as celebrating your birthday in a library.
Tony Romo is no library. Right now, he’s no Superman either, although at least according out our poll, Peyton Manning certainly is. That’s the risk reward of being a quarterback in the NFL. Your either great or you’re not, with little in-between. Fortunately for Romo, that’s a space with which he’s all too familiar.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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