Sunday, September 13, 2009

Cowboys prove their O can flourish without T.O.

By Pete Prisco Senior Writer

TAMPA -- It was the most-asked rhyme in Dallas the past six months: How would the Cowboys offense go without T.O.?

Now we know.
They'll be A--No T.O --K.

The Cowboys came to Tampa's Raymond James Stadium with loads of questions about their passing game, mainly about who would step up without Terrell Owens, the bombastic and combative receiver the team let go last February.

The better question is who didn't step up Sunday.

Quarterback Tony Romo passed for a career-high 353 yards and three touchdowns as the Cowboys beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 34-21 and silenced a lot of doubters in the process.

Romo hit seven receivers and threw touchdown passes of 42 yards to Miles Austin, 66 yards to Roy Williams and 80 yards to Patrick Crayton.

• Cowboys 34, Buccaneers 21

"We have the most talented offensive team in the league," receiver Roy Williams said. "And it showed today."

That's up for debate, but there is plenty of talent. It starts with Romo. He seemed to play as if he wanted to send a message Sunday, a loud one.

Yes, he will be fine without Owens -- and without that Hollywood starlet he dumped this summer.

Asked about his thoughts on his career-best day, Romo was his typical modest self.

"Good," he said. He laughed. "You don't think about yards. You're not judged by yards."

In his case, he's judged by playoff victories, or lack of one. He's been a prolific passer since taking over as the Cowboys starter three years ago, but without a postseason victory and the team's December swoon last season, Romo entered this season as one of the most-scrutinized quarterbacks in the league.

The Cowboys coaches say he did what you'd expect from a self-made player to help stop that. He went to work.

"Nobody worked harder," Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said.

As long as Romo is playing like he did against the Bucs, it might not matter what they do at the receiver spot. He was outstanding, completing 16 of 27 passes and had a passer rating of 140.5.

But more than the numbers, it was the way he got them. Take the 80-yard touchdown toss to Crayton.

I'll call that the check-and-improvise play.

Leading 20-14 early in the fourth quarter, thanks to a Tampa Bay score two plays before his touchdown, Romo faced a second-and-9 at his 20. He looked outside and checked to a play that had Crayton running a slant and tight end Jason Witten running an out.

But when the safety and the corner jumped the routes, Romo sidestepped pressure in the pocket, pumped them both into statues and Crayton took off deep. Romo found him in stride for the big play of the game.

"Fantasy points," Crayton joked after.

The Romo-Owens rift was said to be a major influence on last year's team. With Owens gone, Romo appears more relaxed. There are no force-the-ball issues to a squawking receiver. It's a spread-it-around offense, one that featured big plays against Tampa Bay.

"Career-high passing yards?" Williams said. "Without Terrell Owens?"

Williams was one of few players who would even mention the name. But he and Owens are friendly. He told me this summer Owens taught him a lot.

He also told me he would make people believe he was every bit as good as Owens. Williams and the entire receiving group has come under great scrutiny the past six months. They've heard all the talk about whether they have enough talent. They've even become a little defensive about it.

Make that a lot defensive.

"Yeah, we are," Williams said.

Wouldn't you be if all you heard was that you couldn't get it done? Watching Williams, Crayton and Austin play against Tampa Bay, you'd never have guessed that there were any questions about them.

"We haven't answered anything yet," Crayton said. "It's the same question that you guys will be asking next week. It's just step one."

The Cowboys didn't show much of a big-play offense in the preseason, which led to even more doubts.

"I think everybody was wondering whether we would get the ball downfield, whether it was going to be a dink-and-dunk offense, and it's not," Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said.

Williams, who might be the most scrutinized of all the Cowboys offensive players, seemed to bask in the offense's first-game success, including his three catches for 86 yards and the score.

"You guys don't have a clue what I can do," Williams said.

Hey, he's a poet, too. And he's a big reason why the Cowboys need not worry about the most talked about rhyme in Dallas.

The offense can still go without T.O.