Gil LeBreton: Clock ticking on Cowboys and damaged Romo

If you believed Thursday night that Tony Romo really wasn't all that hurt, then you probably also believed the story in 2013 about the cyst, and also the fairy tale in 2014 about how Tony would be sharp and ready for the opener (he threw three interceptions) against the 49ers despite being shut down for most of training camp.

You believe, too, that Romo is a certain Hall of Famer, that he's really the Easter Bunny, and that the best of Tony is still ahead.

In which case, Saturday must have been a sobering day for you. The MRI exam that Tony and Owner Jones said Thursday night that he wouldn't need revealed that Romo, indeed, has a broken bone in his back.

Initial reports suggested that it might be "six to 10 weeks" before Romo is able to return to the Dallas Cowboys' lineup. Or more like 4-6 weeks, as an informed source corrected.

Either way, what sort of Romo will return?

The swashbuckling, scrambling, Jessica Simpson-wooing Romo? That guy is long gone.

The latter day Romo runs on borrowed time, as Seattle's Cliff Avril reminded us Thursday night.

Romo likes to tell the media that he is getting better with age, and I would rather not dispute that. His grasp of the Cowboys' offensive system and the subtleties of NFL defenses is unmatched. It is Romo's survival skills _ his feel for the oncoming pass rush and the footwork to escape it _ that have ebbed.

Who would dare suggest that a damaged Romo isn't destined to get hurt again?

Romo is 36 years old, and 36-year-old quarterbacks get hit and hurt, especially ones who have experienced back issues.

We have no way of knowing exactly what Romo has been doing each week to earn his $108 million contract. Epidural injections, body armor, industrial strength painkillers _ he's likely done them all.

Instead of internet memes about Romo's recurring injuries, let me suggest that considering everything he's done to stay on the field, the undrafted kid from Eastern Illinois might be one of the toughest NFL quarterbacks around.

When he comes back this season, however _ whether it's October, or maybe November _ we'll probably see a Romo that has lost yet another layer of his frat-boy bravado. And it's understandable _ Romo wants to be able to play with his kids and swing a 9-iron when he's done with football.

Back injuries, even on finely conditioned athletes, tend to be both chronic and recurring. Romo's body is losing its prowess right before our eyes.

For Cowboys fans, it's time to buckle up for the wild ride. The maiden voyages of NFL rookie quarterbacks tend to be filled with adventure, even when you've had a remarkable camp like Dak Prescott has.

Prescott, as the new starter, will be given a room in the honeymoon suite. But remember it was Owner Jones who thrust Prescott into this premature spotlight, because Jerry was too busy building a franchise cocoon around Romo to draft _ or trade for _ a successor.

The current list of possible veteran replacements is both modest and short. We witnessed last season where a rush-job like Matt Cassel can take a needy team.

We'll know soon enough whether or when Romo will play again. When the rosters are trimmed to 53, if the club doesn't put him on the injured reserve/recall list, it means they expect him back in 4-6 weeks, not the required eight.

Don't expect any fairy tales or miracles. It takes time for a 36-year-old's broken bones to heal. And when he does get back, what sort of Romo will we see?

Back problems don't go away. Neither do NFC East pass rushes.

If I were Owner Jones, I wouldn't unplug the MRI machine.

Of course, if you believe Tony is a fast healer and that it won't be long before he makes a triumphant return, go right ahead.

The real Tony Romo, the one with the bad back, runs on borrowed time.

Tick, tick, tick ...