Monday, November 09, 2009

Tony Romo Is All Grown Up Ladies and Gentlemen, Whether You Like It or Not

by Mike Carley


What a win.

The collective breath let out in relief by thousands upon thousands of Cowboys faithful, after the Cowboys' thrilling 20-16 win versus the hated Philadelphia Eagles Friday night, affected weather patterns as far east as Turkmenistan.

Sure, the Cowboys had been rolling.

Sure, the Cowboys had strung together three straight wins (albeit over only one impressive team).

Sure, the Cowboys seemed to have caught lightening in a bottle in Miles Austin, the un-drafted fourth year phenom out of Monmouth.

But this was the Eagles. This was a Sunday Night game. This was Philadelphia.

Enough had been written about the embarrassment the 'Boys suffered there the previous season, to emblazon that horrific outing in the memory of Dallas fans forever.

I guarantee you no single Cowboys fan would have been shocked had the Eagles come out and blown the Cowboys off the field Sunday. Not because we were disregarding the successes of previous weeks, but because we have seen Philadelphia do it to the 'Boys time and time again, where and when it hurts most.

Tony Romo took it upon himself to make sure history didn't repeat itself.

Now this isn't taking anything away from a phenomenal defensive performance

In the battle of former high-round picks, the Cowboys came away on top.

Former first-rounder Mike Jenkins failed to bite on a double move by first round rookie Jeremy Maclin in the third quarter, that led to a single-coverage interception that would have made any Madden junkie proud. On the other side, Terrence Newman completely shut down big play threat Desean Jackson.

Meanwhile, Jay Ratliff and Demarcus Ware sent Donovan McNabb running for his life so often that he looked like an extra in a Godzilla movie.

However, it was Romo's 21-34 for 307 yards and a touchdown that solidified a Dallas victory that ended in the 'Boys gleefully kneeling out the final two minutes of the clock in front of a bunch of inhumanly enraged Philadelphia fans (a beautiful site for the Cowboys' faithful).

(Quick aside: Has nobody explained to Andy Reid how important time-outs are in a close game? To run out of time-outs in a one score game with over 10 minutes remaining in the fourth is inexcusable.

My solution? Make him play 12 games of Madden a day until he learns the importance of clock management. This strategy is fail safe.

One can only take so much losing to a squealing 13-year-old on Xbox Live, as they run out the final four minutes of clock, before one starts questioning the decision to risk a time out on a third quarter challenge that would have resulted in a difference of seven total yards of field position.)

Aside from one interception (his first one in the last four games, and his second in his last six), Romo consistently put the ball on the money and put his team in the best position to win instead of being concerned with trying to make the 50 yard touchdown pass, every time he dropped back.

The play that embodied his overall effort perfectly was the game winner to Miles Austin. Romo set it up with a beautifully timed pump fake in conjunction with a crisp double-move from Austin, who proceeded to leave Sheldon Brown in the dust and catch a ball that Romo laid beautifully in his bread basket.

Romo also showed his new-found maturity by how calm and collected he was under the relentless pressure of the Eagles blitz schemes.

When the Eagles brought five or more defenders on Sunday, Romo was 15-22 for 256 yards, with 11.6 yards per completion and a 103.6 passer rating.

Romo also stepped up huge when it mattered most: third down.

On third down conversions Sunday night, Romo was a cool 9-11 with a 149.1 passer rating. That, folks, is how big time quarterbacks win big time games. And it appears more and more that Romo is morphing into a big time quarterback.

However, this crisp, efficient play has been emblematic of Romo for a vast majority of the 2009 season, and is a huge reason why the Cowboys now sit atop the NFC East at 6-2.

The biggest explanation? Romo, in only his third full season as a starter, finally started to mature into the wildly skilled NFL quarterback that most Cowboys faithful knew he could be (and into the quarterback everybody in the world swore he would never be).

After a shaky start to the season, in which Romo looked far too reserved to take the stereotypical chances that led to his typical high-risk-high-reward style of play, Romo seemingly found a happy medium between the "gunslinger" and the "game manager."

Through eight games, Tony Romo has thrown a total of five interceptions.

To contrast, Romo had thrown seven picks through eight starts in 2008, and (gulp) 10 through eight starts in 2007, including the Monday Night game at Buffalo in which Romo threw five picks in one game.

Keep in mind that one of those five interceptions was the Looney-Toons-esque bounce off of Witten's heel debacle against the Giants.

To put that number further in perspective, here are just a few of the quarterbacks in the league who have thrown more picks than Romo through week 9:

Jay Cutler (12), Matt Ryan (10), Kurt Warner (10), Eli Manning (8), Drew Brees (7), Carson Palmer (7), golden child Joe Flacco (7), Ben Roethlisberger (6), and Phillip Rivers (6).

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are both tied with Romo with five interceptions.

Romo is finally showing the vastly improved decision making that Cowboys fans have been dying to see. However, this has not come at the cost of Romo's elite level of production.

He remains seventh overall in passing yardage, fourth overall in yards per attempt, 12th in passing touchdowns (mostly due to an overpowering run game in the redzone), and eighth in the league in quarterback rating at 95.8.

It should come as no surprise that with time comes experience.

However, maybe the biggest indicator of Romo's new found maturity shown through in the days leading up to the game in Philadelphia.

The scene was one many Cowboys fan have become far too familiar with: Ed Werder standing smugly outside of Valley Ranch claiming the sky is falling in Dallas due to an upset receiver.

The media's treatment of the situation was hilarious. Here is the quote that was played on ESPN 1000 times.

"I'm not a T.O. or I'm not trying to be a T.O. I don't know why people are trying to put me in that category, because I'm happy to win. I've said that 100 times. I don't understand why people won't just say Ok and leave it alone."

However, IMMEDIATELY after the clip concluded, the analyst would always qualify the quote with things like, "But, remember he still thinks he's the number one receiver!?!?!"

I guess it comes with the territory when one dawns a Dallas uniform, but regardless of what Roy actually said, I don't believe we got an objective portrayal of the issue from the media in the days leading up to the game.

Nobody recognized that more than Tony Romo."We've been through this before with people trying to divide a football team, " Romo said.

Romo stated mass media outlets tried desperately to keep this non-story alive. "We're too strong for that. I know the media is going to try to make certain things appear what they may not have actually been, things of that nature."

"This team is too committed to win and too committed to improve to let anything divide this team."

Re-read that last sentence.

That doesn't much sound like the happy-go-lucky kid from Wisconsin who was able to shrug off the 44-6 whupping in Philadelphia last year with an "ah shucks, well life goes on" attitude.

That sounds a lot more like the face of one of the marquee franchises in the NFL finally stepping out into the spot light, and declaring that he is the face of a unified locker room with a common goal and a sense of solidarity not found in Dallas last year, where numerous "sources" couldn't wait to feed Ed Werder any piece of gossip about the alleged Romo-T.O. feud.

This team feels like a team.

And recognize that Romo wasn't simply coming to the defense of an embattled receiver, something he did for T.O. regularly.

He is now demonstrating an unyielding "it's this locker room against the world" approach that have been forged in Romo through the years of turmoil and scrutiny he has endured as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys

Believe me, a lot of the old Romo is there.

The smirks and good natured sarcastic comments during press conferences.

The Brett Favre-esque touchdown celebrations.

The wide and seemingly carefree grin that seems to appear once every 5-10 minutes, regardless of the circumstances.

However, these symbolic Romo-isms, while I assume are just as frequent behind closed doors, are much less frequently caught in front of the eyes of the public or the cameras.

More often than not, reporters are greeted with a far more stoic, far more guarded Tony Romo than the one they met in season's past.

This is Tony Romo's team now, and he is stepping up and owning it. Declaring and driving a sense of unity that has been lacking in Dallas since the days of Aikman, Emmitt, and Irvin.

Now December and January will be the true test of Romo's grit and merit, but since I can't write about what happens in December and January without the use of an '85 Delorean, all I can view is what he has done through the season's first half.

That being said, one thing is for sure: if the second half of the season is anywhere near as great as the first, I doubt the "Dallas Cowboys Playoff Victory Drought" will be a story in 2010.

One other thing is for sure.

That will come as no surprise to Tony Romo.