The Cowboys’ rebirth lasted all of one week. Unfortunately, their Thanksgiving afternoon clash with the Panthers was marred by an all-too-familiar sight: Tony Romo lying prone on the ground, grabbing for his left shoulder after taking a hit.
The outcome was decided long before that moment, though. The Panthers set the tone on the second play, when Josh Norman swatted a pass from Dez Bryant and then jumped in the receiver’s face, and cruised to a 33–14 win.
Carolina is now 11–0 and seemingly getting stronger by the week (playing two straight games against the NFC East helps). This was supposed to be a huge test, on a short week against a confident team. Nope. The Panthers led 23–3 at halftime on the strength of two pick-sixes and coasted home.
The stories would have been simple enough had these two teams merely played out the string: the Panthers taking an emphatic step toward an undefeated season, led by their remarkable linebacking corps; the Cowboys serving up a reminder that their issues run deeper than simply the quarterback position.
But then Thomas Davis buried Romo on the final play of the third quarter, and Romo stayed down.
The tackle was similar to the one on which Philadelphia’s Jordan Hicks injured Romo back in Week 2. Hicks landed on Romo, who had his arm extended, and all of both players’ weight landed on Romo’s left shoulder. The same thing happened Thursday, as Romo tried to spin away from pressure.
Romo grabbed for the injured shoulder immediately, then slammed his right hand on the turf. He broke his clavicle in 2010, as well as on that Hicks hit, so he seemed to know it had happened again. ESPN’s Ed Werder reported later on Thursday night that Romo is done for the season.
Another broken collarbone would end his season and the Cowboys’ chances along with it. His team already was on life support headed into Week 11, when Romo returned from injured reserve to lead a 24–14 win at Miami. Dallas’s record sat at just 3–7 after the victory, but that still was enough to keep hope alive in the downtrodden NFC East.
The Cowboys can forget all that now, likely even if Romo is able to play again in 2015.
They’ve believed since the preseason that they have a legitimate contender, and that may even be true on defense. However, the Panthers provided a first-hand glimpse at what a Super Bowl-caliber team really looks like.
If there is an easy way to attack this Carolina defense, no one has found it yet. When the Cowboys tried to run up the middle, the D-line plugged up all potential gaps. When they went wide, the Panthers’ versatile linebacking corps rolled wide and buried any ball-carriers. And, somehow, things got even worse for Dallas when it tried to throw.
Not only did Norman completely clamp down Bryant (he finished with two catches for 26 yards, including a 20-yarder coming against linebacker Thomas Davis in zone coverage), but Luke Kuechly lived in Romo’s head. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate picked off two passes—he took one back for a touchdown. His other interception was an over-the-shoulder job on a throw up the seam for tight end Jason Witten, and he even at one point covered Bryant on a deep incompletion up the sideline.
“[Davis and Kuechly] are great football players and have been since they entered the NFL,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said earlier in the week. “They’re so active. They’re fast sideline-to-sideline. They’re physical. They make plays on the ball and it just seems like they’re everywhere. Their defensive line does a good job giving them opportunities, letting them run free and they certainly take advantage of it.”
Kurt Coleman had the Panthers’ first defensive touchdown, jumping a Witten route and nabbing an ill-advised, underthrown effort from Romo.
Romo was downright awful Thursday, combining missed reads with poor throws. He looked every bit a rusty quarterback still trying to find his timing after missing upwards of two months. Carolina’s defense is not one to be going through the motions against.
The performance would have been demoralizing enough for the Cowboys without Romo heading in for medical attention. There was a genuine belief coming out of Week 11 that Romo’s return gave them enough to leapfrog Philadelphia, Washington and New York in the long run—three teams that mostly had squandered opportunities to pull away when Romo was sidelined.
Heck, Dallas even opened as a favorite on Thanksgiving Day, in spite of Carolina’s perfect record. That line and the expectations for a Cowboys turnaround both proved misguided.
Romo’s latest injury all but guarantees that no one will make the same mistake in sizing up Carolina again in 2015. The Panthers’ utter domination Thursday would have done the trick, too, whether Romo had finished the game or not.