When I’m in a particularly cynical mood and I see him lurking on the fringe of the “Sunday NFL Countdown” set, just waiting to blurt out his next macho inanity, I catch myself wondering whether ESPN keeps Mike Ditka around not for his accomplishments in football or any vague on-camera presence, but as a broadcast partner’s favor to the NFL.
Ditka is a proud relic of a more barbaric time, when the cure-all treatment for a broken bone was a fully-loaded needle and a tourniquet-tight Ace bandage and a concussion was “getting your bell rung,” not a stage in the potential foreshadowing of a player’s premature death.
He is the embodiment of the league’s most antiquated and damaging history — which also, in a strange way, positions him as a reminder of progress. The NFL, which has had no shortage of self-inflicted chaos this season, can point to Ditka and his archaic ilk and say, “See, this is how we used to be! Look how far we’ve come! We even wear pink sometimes! Say, anyone else opt out of the concussion settlement lately?”
I suppose rather than going on a Ditka diatribe every other Sunday it would be easier to simply shrug him off as a relatively harmless ex-jock who is heading toward the sunset stubbornly set in the ways of another generation. Sometimes that approach is doable. This particular Sunday it was not.
The topic of the day in the NFL was the return of quarterback Tony Romo to the Cowboys lineup. Romo, whose season ended last year because of a back injury, was injured again two weeks ago against the Redskins and had to leave the game. He returned during an eventual 20-17 overtime loss, only to be diagnosed with two small broken bones in his back, which kept him out of last week’s loss to Arizona.
The reason he was playing was obvious: The Cowboys had lost two in a row, and their confidence had shriveled to the point that they weren’t certain they could beat the 1-8 Jaguars without Romo.
“A lot of this decision for him to come out here and play today is the result of how they played against Arizona offensively,’’ acknowledged Fox analyst Darryl Johnson, who was on the call from Wembley Stadium in London with Kenny Albert and Tony Siragusa.
Added Siragusa, “He told me his decision to play today was based on back-to-back losses.”
But it was Ditka on “Sunday NFL Countdown” who grunted the most trite and rudimentary response to the question of whether Romo should actually be playing. “It comes down to one thing: It’s his job. He’s the quarterback. If he’s well, he’s gonna play. He should play.”
Well sure, he should play unless, you know, he shouldn’t. While even a cursory mention of the risk involved wasn’t something Ditka chose to address, the NFL Network’s Kurt Warner — a relative contemporary of Romo’s at the position — deserves credit for rising above the rub-some-dirt-on-it-and-get-out-there approach.
“There is cause for concern because it’s a back injury,’’ said Warner. “We’re talking about a guy who had back surgery in the offseason, was coming back from that missed time in preseason and now he has another back injury. How long will it hold up?”
On CBS, while acknowledging the Cowboys’ “sense of urgency,’’ Bill Cowher suggested the team should be trusted in evaluating Romo.
“They’re playing Tony Romo today,” said Cowher, “which I’m not so sure it’s a bad thing because the doctors will make that decision.”
That statement wasn’t quite Ditka-esque in its absurdity. But it was close.
How could Jerry Jones and the Cowboys be trusted to make a decision with a player’s best interests in mind when they conspired to return a damaged Romo back into the game just two weeks ago?
In the end, Romo’s performance muted any concern and consternation, at least until the next time his repaired back absorbs a vicious shot. He threw three touchdown passes and posted his highest passer rating of the season (138.8) in the Cowboys’ 31-17 victory.
Playing him was the winning decision even if it may not have been the conscionably correct one. Even in a reluctantly evolving NFL, the victory still vindicates the callous and justifies just about everything
At least there were further rewards for Romo besides winning praise and the game while appeasing the in-my-day toughness fetishists like Ditka.
Fox named him their Guts and Glory Ram Top Performer of the day.
Sweet award, and from a big-time NFL sponsor, no less. The Cowboys must be thrilled with their quarterback today.
Me, I just wish he’d watch North Dallas Forty on the flight home.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.