At the end of the 2010-2011 NBA regular season, Dirk Nowitzki’s resume was phenomenal but distinctly lacking. He had scored nearly 23,000 points in his career and pulled down more than 8,000 rebounds. He had won an MVP. He was a seven footer with a deadly three point shot, well into the process of revolutionizing his position and the NBA. Yet Nowitzki’s Mavericks had nothing to show for his ten trips to the postseason. They had lost in the first round as both a one and two seed. In 2006, they built up a 2-0 NBA Finals lead over the Wade-Shaq Heat, only to see it slip away.
A 2011 playoff run changed that. Nowitzki’s performance, which included averaging at least 25 points in every series and knocking down 45 of 46 free throws in the finals, was distinctly in character. Since his second year, he had never really not been a dominant player. But when the Mavericks finally won a title, earning their redemption over a very different looking Heat team, Nowitzki earned something else: legend status. An objective fan would have considered him a future Hall of Famer on June 11, 2011. On June 12, the question would have been silly to ask.
Yesterday, we realized that a different Dallas athlete will never get to his June 12. The retiring Tony Romo never quite had a Dirk-like impact, but at his best, he wasn’t far off. In ten years as the starter for the Cowboys, he put up the fourth best passer rating of all-time, the fifth best completion percentage, and the sixth best yards for attempt. He led fourth quarter comebacks on 25 occasions.
Of course, he also singlehandedly lost a 2007 playoff game when he fumbled the snap on the game winning field goal attempt, and that play came to define Romo’s legacy more than any other. Through all the statistical achievements, he was the guy who just couldn’t win when it mattered most, who was distracted by his celebrity girlfriends, constantly injured, outplayed by a rookie. But Romo the meme never really meshed with Romo the quarterback.
Championships matter. They reveal performance under the toughest of circumstances. Besides, in many ways, sports are about uniting communities around a cause, however superficial it may be. There aren’t many better boosters of civic pride than a championship parade. But distinctly championship-less Tony Romo was nonetheless one of the best quarterbacks of the 21st century. With even just one Super Bowl ring, one anomalous playoff run, we might take his Hall of Fame worthiness for granted.
Images courtesy of Inquisitr, Tom Fox/Dallas News and Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images