There has been much talk recently about the Dallas Cowboys. The discussion has focused primarily on the notion of whether “the window is closing” for this Cowboys team to compete for (and win) a Super Bowl as presently constructed. (Owner Jerry Jones seems to think it is.) This issue becomes more pressing when you remember that Dallas went 8-8 last season in an NFC East division that produced the Super Bowl champion, and maybe more importantly, lost twice to the New York Giants in the final month of the season with the playoffs on the line.
The question “Is the window closing?” is really code for two more basic inquiries:
1. Is the quarterback good enough to win decisive late-season and playoff games?
2. If the answer to the first question is yes, then how many good years does that quarterback have left?
If the quarterback has already won his share of playoff games, even if he has not taken his team to the Super Bowl, then the concept becomes less pronounced because there is a history of postseason success.
This brings us to Tony Romo.
Romo is now 32 years old. The 2012 campaign will be his sixth season as the Cowboys’ starter. (Remember, in 2006 he replaced Drew Bledsoe in an October Monday night game.) For many, it seems as if Romo has been the Dallas quarterback for a decade, but he’s really only played four full seasons. Romo has always generated a lot of debate as to his relative merits as an NFL starter. There are those who like Romo and see him as a determined playmaker with attitude and grit. Others view him as an undisciplined player in the critical moments of important games, prone to mistakes that lead to bad losses. There may have been no better example for the anti-Romo group than the Lions game last season, when Romo threw three second-half interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, as the Cowboys gave away a 27-3 third-quarter lead and lost.
I have watched almost every game Romo has played in the NFL, and there’s a certain profile to his play that has been established over time. There have been instances when Romo has been aggressive and decisive, attacking down the field with confidence and conviction. He’s made plays outside the pocket, showing the ability to avoid pressure, find an open area, re-set and deliver at the intermediate and deeper levels with accuracy. The 27-24 win at Washington in 2011 was a clear snapshot, highlighted by the 59-yard touchdown to Jason Witten in the fourth quarter and the 26-yard completion to Dez Bryant on third-and-15 in overtime.
There have been other times Romo has overreacted to pressure, perceiving/anticipating it when it was not really there. The result is that he moves when he doesn’t need to, abandoning the pocket without allowing the route combination to fully develop. The phrase I often use to describe that is “playing fast,” and when that occurs, you have a tendency to leave plays on the field because you don’t throw the ball to receivers that break open. That speaks to a pattern I have observed studying quarterbacks over the last 20-plus years. Those, like Romo, who can make improvisational plays with their legs, walk a fine line between random playmaker and precise pocket passer. Playing outside of structure is a positive when it’s the only option; doing so before it’s the only option is a negative. Too many plays are missed, and the offense loses sustainability and consistency.
A four-game stretch early in the 2011 season provides a distinct template when evaluating Romo. Against the 49ers on the season’s second Sunday, Romo broke a rib and punctured a lung in the first half. He returned in the second half to lead the Cowboys to an overtime victory. Most impressive was Romo’s toughness in the pocket. He made a number of accurate, tight-window throws under extreme duress, most notably a fourth-and-5 completion to Witten for nine yards in the fourth quarter. The next week, on a Monday night against the Redskins’ blitz-happy defense, Romo was masterful controlling the game at the line of scrimmage. He recognized the pressure schemes before the snap, set the pass protections and used his cadence expertly to minimize the Washington’s aggressiveness. It was a brilliant performance mentally, made more impressive by the fact that a Jim Haslett-coached defense is very difficult to prepare for, and defeat.
The next two games were against the Lions and Patriots. I already mentioned the Detroit loss. It is easy to be critical of Jason Garrett’s second-half play calling with a big lead, but that sidesteps the issue. The first interception returned for a touchdown, by Bobby Carpenter, was most troublesome. It was first-and-10, the first play after a Lions punt. It was 27-3 in the third quarter. There was no reason to be aggressive at that point. If you don’t get a clear picture, check it down, or leave the pocket and throw it away. It was a case of poor game management. Quarterbacks must always understand the situation, and play accordingly.
New England came next, after a bye week. Romo did not play with a lot of pocket precision. He looked tentative and uncertain, not pulling the trigger on some downfield throws that were there. It was a very uneven effort. Again, it is easy to place the blame for the Cowboys’ loss elsewhere. If the defense holds late in the fourth quarter, Dallas leaves Foxborough with a hard-fought road win. The perception of Romo might then be very different, but that misses the point. His play was the same, regardless of the inadequacies of the defense. Romo must be evaluated based on his individual performance, not other factors in a given game.
There’s an inconsistency to Romo’s play that still needs to be cleaned up as he begins his ninth year in the league. An overthrow to Miles Austin late in the fourth quarter against the Giants in Dallas that would have won the game sticks in my mind. (Of course, the defense again failed to hold the lead.) Despite that, Romo is a top-10 NFL quarterback with his overall combination of attributes, both in the pocket and on the move. More often than not, he’s an efficient passer, decisive in his reads and throws with anticipation and excellent ball location. One area in which he truly excels is eye discipline and safety manipulation; he has a great feel for moving safeties with his head. (That shows up every week I watch him on film.)
The question then, for those who want to discuss the Cowboys’ “window,” centers on Romo, and how long he can be a quality NFL starter. There is nothing that suggests he is on the decline, and I would not be surprised if he played at a top-10 level for at least another three years.
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