Tony Romo's season officially ended on an operating table Friday morning. The Cowboys' season is now in the hands of Kyle Orton, the only man ever to lose an NFL starting job to Tim Tebow.
Having back surgery to repair the herniated disk he either suffered or aggravated at Washington last Sunday makes Romo all the more heroic for his final appearance of 2013. "He might have had his finest hour against the Redskins last week," head coach Jason Garrett said Friday morning.
"He's devastated," Garrett said. "These are the kinds of games that everybody lives to play in."
To have performed as Romo did, completing 9 of 12 fourth-quarter passes for 146 yards on a pair of scoring drives - both scores coming after the play in which he twisted away from a Washington defender and wrenched his back - seems remarkable given that he needed a major surgical procedure this soon after the Cowboys' season-saving victory.
When Romo spoke to reporters in the cramped interview room shortly after Dallas' 24-23 victory, we had no idea that was the last we would see of him for a while. The Cowboys maintained hope of a curtain call this week, and whether that was wishful thinking on their part or an ineffective smoke screen directed at the Eagles is irrelevant now.
The next pass Romo throws for the Cowboys will be as a 34-year-old quarterback. That's the age at which Troy Aikman called it quits, and Aikman said Friday it was his back injuries and not concussions that drove him from the game.
While these things are by no means equal - Peyton Manning is capturing athlete or sportsman of the year honors at age 37 two years removed from even more serious surgery - Romo's surgery has to be a major Cowboys concern.
The club is heavily invested in Romo. The Cowboys are not anywhere near the point where they could afford to say goodbye to him without paying a crippling penalty under the salary cap. Besides, they have no ready replacement, and Romo is still performing at a high level.
While he won't achieve that elusive second postseason win or first NFC championship game appearance next month, he and wide receiver Dez Bryant and linebacker Sean Lee are the three players who give this team the best chance to win games. That they will be without two of those players Sunday night (actually, Bryant is slowed as well by a back injury but says he will play) illustrates what a long shot this team is facing against the Eagles.
Garrett maintains the stiff upper lip and espouses the club's "next man up" philosophy. Simply put, the Cowboys were running short on the kind of men you can win with long ago. To expect Orton in his first start since 2011 to pick apart an Eagles team that just buried Chicago, 54-11, seems a little much.
"Since the start of the week, Kyle has been operating as if he would be our starting quarterback," Garrett said. "I think the guys understood Tony wasn't going to be here."
Actually, how Orton replaces Romo might not prove to be any more significant than how sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman performs as Lee's replacement. When the Cowboys beat the Eagles in Philadelphia, 17-3, stopping NFL yardage leader LeSean McCoy was key. Lee was everywhere. But he will remain unavailable Sunday night after suffering a neck injury in Chicago.
It's not inconceivable that the Cowboys capture enough breaks that they find a way to upset the Eagles and win the East. Weird things happen in the NFL. But it's beyond the "merely improbable" category that this is the start of the Kyle Orton Era for Dallas.
While Friday's news that Romo would not play came as no great shock to the Cowboys or their fans, the surgical aspect is something else. This is the second procedure on Romo's back in less than a year.
The days of asking whether it's time to draft a future replacement or begin grooming a younger backup are officially gone. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may love Romo, and he said on his radio show Friday that it's too early to be thinking about spending money on a quarterback in the early rounds of the draft.
But Jones also knows he made a crushing mistake for this franchise when he overestimated how long Aikman would stick around.
Romo's career is not over. But the finish line is starting to come into focus on the horizon.
For now, the scramble away from pressure to hit DeMarco Murray for a fourth-down, game-winning touchdown stands not only as his final pass but, as Garrett indicated, his "finest hour."
And those types of plays - Romo on the run, scrambling away from pass rushers to find the target - are looking more and more like a part of the quarterback's unappreciated past.