Romilly Evans previews the NFL's crunch opening game, where he expects Tony Romo to prove he's still an elite quarterback
"In a sport of inches, a fag paper can divide, even polarise, reputation."
Tony Romo often strikes one as the touchy type for a team leader - ranting at teammates, walking out of press conferences. Eli Manning is positively comatose by comparison - diffident to his interceptions and drawling vapid post-match copy. Still, you just know the competitive fires burn brightly beneath both exteriors. They're the same. But different.
Every year, both seem to get their sides in contention for the play-offs, the threshold to the Super Bowl and NFL greatness. But only Manning has crossed that threshold and into the pantheon, leading his New York Giants to the championship firstly in 2007 and then again last year.
His rival's ascent must have been particularly galling for Romo. Not only are the Giants the great divisional foe of the Dallas Cowboys, but both quarter-backs share a style of reckless abandon: racking up the air miles and hoping they outweigh the miscues.
Just take last year when Romo finished the regular season with 346 completions from 522 attempts (66.3%) for 4,184 yards 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Which made for a QB rating of 102.5 in 16 starts, the fourth best in the entire league behind Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Now that's exalted company. Manning, for his part, charted further down the rankings but still posted an awesome 4,933 passing yards, exceeding his previous high by 912 yards.
Manning's rating suffered from throwing fewer touchdowns and more interceptions that his Dallas counterpart. Not that you'd know it. The Cowboys lost twice to Big Blue in 2011, their challenge punctuated by a Week 17 decider with the division title and play-off qualification up for grabs.
And therein lies the rub. Manning has proven himself an elite quarter-back in the crucible of contention. Romo, for all his perennially impressive numbers, is defined by his post-season failures. In a team game, this might sound unfair. The Giants' defense has certainly atoned for Manning's mistakes in the past. But this is a battlefield where one team's Goliath must take the fall. Tony gets pulled down or picked off on the clinching drive. Eli evades the clutches of the Patriots defense and pulls off "The Catch", an outrageous play which instantly became an iconic moment in Super Bowl folklore.
In short, in a sport of inches, a fag paper can divide, even polarise, reputation. So while Manning rests contentedly atop a mountain of good will in NYC, many judges are calling this Romo's make-or-break year in Dallas. And though Cowboys legends like Troy Aikman have subsequently ridden to Romo's defence, it all smacks of the dreaded vote of confidence from the board.
If that's true, then the same must be said of Cowboys coach, Jason Garrett, who has stood by Romo through thick and thin since his early days on the sidelines as offensive co-ordinator. Now in the top job, Garrett seems happy to align his fate intrinsically with his quarterback. "Tony's ability to improvise sets him apart," he stated emphatically. "I think we've finally convinced him that sometimes it's okay to punt, but we won't stifle his ability to improvise this year. We'll give him more freedom."
Garrett may sound like a young film director who just wants Jim Carrey to cut loose in a goofball comedy. But there is method in his madness. Manning has benefitted from similar compassionate handling in the Big Apple - and sometimes if you reverse the curse, you lose the gift.
Ironically, Romo and Manning may well be restricted in their offensive mindset in the small hours of Thursday morning, since both teams are experiencing Week One doubts at receiver. The Cowboys are waiting on tight-end target man, Jason Witten, recovering from a lacerated spleen, and starting wide-receivers, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, also missed much of the preseason with injuries. The Giants, meanwhile, have a longer sick list which their top receiver, Hakeem Nicks.
Nicks and Witten have pledged to take the field come hell or high water. However, they will likely not be at their best. Romo and Manning will still seek to perform their normal aerial acrobatics, but this opening contest may not be the TD-fest many assume (116 points have been scored in the last two meetings between these sides). With that in mind, play the Unders at 45.5 Total Points (available at 1.9310/11 to back). As for the match handicap, side with Dallas and Romo receiving a useful 3.5pts start (odds against at 2.111/10 to back).
It's the battle of the defending champs versus the postseason chumps in the NFC East. But with so little to separate their two lead actors, Romo is overdue a role reversal.