After Struggles Versus 49ers, Dustin Vaughan Is Down, But Romo’s Own Past Suggests He Is Anything But Out
A patchwork, mangy field of a green substance rumored to be grass made for an especially short evening of work for Tony Romo. Under normal circumstances, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback would have played close to a half in Sunday’s second preseason game of 2015, before yacking it up with teammates on the sideline.
But, alas, nothing these days is normal at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco, where the roots of a perennial Super Bowl contender were officially pulled up this past off-season with all the efficiency of a class-clown, and made a permanent part of the fluffy landmine local Bay citizens surreptitiously refer to as a playing surface.
So in an effort to protect Romo from a freak injury on the 49ers’ freakishly sensitive field, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett opted to play the part of the conservative August tactician by using Romo for only one series. Thanks to a track of artificial turf installed around the borders of the playing field, Garrett wisely discerned that Romo’s chances of turning an ankle while on the sidelines were almost zero.
(How odd. Now embarking upon its second season of hosting 49er games, and roughly five months before welcoming the Super Bowl frenzy inside its doors, Levi’s Stadium is almost completely safe for fans to walk on.)
What turned out to be an unusual night off for Romo turned into an unexpected opportunity for Cowboys No. 3 quarterback Dustin Vaughan. For someone who was close to be playing himself off the team in early August, this was one opportunity that he could not let slip by.
Vaughan did his chances of making the Cowboys roster for a second consecutive year a huge disservice this summer by not throwing a football for an entire month heading into training camp. While the prolonged rest has certainly helped keep Vaughan’s arm fresh during two-a-days, he did struggle early in camp to the point that his future with the team became very much in doubt.
The strong-armed, confident player that coaches and teammates had expected to see in Oxnard was nowhere in sight, and in its place was an erratic, hesitant shell of his former self that impressed no one at practice. Vaughan was rusty, and could only hope that he worked himself through it before time ran out.
After a very unimpressive two weeks of training camp, the former West Texas A&M star appeared to be doing just that, by turning in a strong performance against the San Diego Chargers last Thursday to completely change the vibe surrounding his status on the team. In roughly two quarters of play, Vaughan completed 12-of-18 throws for 106 yards, while leading the Cowboys to their only touchdown drive of the game.
On Sunday evening in San Francisco, Vaughan took to the field looking to prove that his solid outing ten days before was no fluke. And, on a much broader scale, Vaughan was trying to establish himself as the team’s quarterback prospect for the future.
One look at his statistical line from the game suggested he failed miserably in that regard. Vaughan was good on only 7-of-16 pass attempts for 84 yards, and threw two ugly interceptions, one of which was returned for a 49ers touchdown. Only the fact that a 49ers defender dropped a sure-thing interception near the end-zone early in the third quarter prevented Vaughan’s numbers from looking even worse.
There were some good plays that Vaughan made with his arm. Vaughn’s first pass attempt of the game went to tight end Gavin Escobar for an 8-yard gain and provided the Cowboys with their initial first down of the game. And his 22-yard strike to A.J. Jenkins over the middle later in the second quarter put Dallas in 49er territory for the first time.
But the feeling that he may have played himself right off the team has to be omnipresent in the mind of Vaughan who, despite his willingness to push the ball downfield like offensive coordinator Scott Linehan wants him to, was nothing short of his own worst enemy against San Francisco. And he seemed willing to admit as much after the game.
“There are still some new things out there that I’m learning,” Vaughan said. “But I needed to make better decisions. I didn’t make good enough decisions in crucial times when I should have been making good decisions. I need to be able to see what the defense was doing. They were giving us different stuff than what we had gone up against all training camp and the first preseason game. As a quarterback, you’ve got to be ready for whatever they give to you.”
As things stands now, Vaughan will have to be ready for the next time he sees game-action, which figures to be on Saturday when the Minnesota Vikings make a visit to Arlington. That will certainly be his last chance at redemption. Vaughan can take solace in the fact that the same person whose inaction on Sunday night paved the way for his lengthy series of misplays, was in a similar position eleven years ago. Yes, once upon a time, Romo used his own bit of preseason magic to extend his professional career. His is a story that speaks to young quarterbacks about the value of persistence and the necessity to seize opportunities, no matter how late they arrive….
Tony Romo entered his second season at the bottom of a depth chart that ran five-deep. With Quincy Carter and Vinny Testaverde virtually penciled-in as starter and backup, Romo needed to beat out both Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson to make the team out of preseason. With the Cowboys having swapped a third-round pick with Houston for the rights to Henson, that seemed all but impossible for Romo.
But in one of the strangest sequence of events, Romo’s path to NFL stardom became cleared of all obstacles in a hectic three-month span.
First came the release of Hutchinson in May, the result of a poor showing in NFL Europe for the third-year pro. Then, in early August, the story of training camp broke when the Cowboys parted ways with Carter for a myriad of possible reasons, ranging from poor performance to drug abuse.
Now all Romo needed to do was to prove to head coach Bill Parcells that he was worthy of a roster spot. That turned out to be a much harder chore than anyone anticipated.
On a steamy night in Houston, Romo opened the preseason by completing 3-of-11 passes for 37 yards. His pair of fourth-quarter interceptions was further compounded when he was sacked in the end-zone for a safety with 2:58 remaining in what turned out to be an 18-0 defeat at the hands of the Texans.
Romo’s abysmal performance had some in the media questioning why Parcells wasn’t on the lookout for a veteran free-agent to back-up Testaverde.
“Let’s give [Romo] a little more time,” Parcells said during the week leading up to the next game against Oakland. “I think it’s fair to give him a little more time. If it doesn’t work out, if I don’t see some improvement, then obviously we will seek some recourse.”
With his back to the wall, Romo used his only possession of the night to get himself back in Parcells’ good graces, leading the Cowboys on a 17-play, 59-yard game-winning drive that ended when Romo signaled as if to prepare for a spike at the 1-yard line, but instead leaned forward and snuck across the goal-line to give Dallas the 21-20 victory.
Infused with confidence, Romo finished the preseason on a strong note, completing all 4 of his passes versus Tennessee on Monday Night Football, and was superb in the finale against Kansas City, connecting on 12-of-14 attempts to sew up a roster spot.
A year later, Romo was the unquestioned No. 2 quarterback, and well on his way to supplanting Drew Bledsoe as the face of the franchise.