Monday, May 17, 2010

Could This Be the Year for Romo?

By Steve Hunt

The start of Cowboys training camp is still a few months away, but the NFL being in the off-season doesn’t preclude fans from talking about America’s Team. With Dallas hosting the 2010 Super Bowl, one storyline that will be discussed ad nauseam is the possibility of the Cowboys becoming the first team in NFL history to host the Super Bowl. Last year’s team went 11-5, shook off the stigma of not being able to win in December and won the franchise’s first playoff game since 1996, a drought that began just one year after they won their last Super Bowl.

And if the ‘Boys are to make it to the NFL’s biggest stage this year, many pin their hopes squarely on the shoulders of one Tony Romo. Sure, that’s a lot of expectation to heap on one man’s shoulders but such is the life when you quarterback the most high-profile team in pro football if not the entire sports world. And when predecessors like Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach led the Cowboys to championship glory before you, it’s only logical that fans and media alike expect Romo to follow suit. This could very well be the year he does so for a number of reasons:

Better Decision Making

Last year, Romo threw just nine interceptions, a career low for the 30-year-old signal caller. In fact, of NFL starters who played all 16 games, his nine picks were the third-lowest in the league behind just Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre of Minnesota, both of whom were intercepted seven times in 2009. Romo also had just one game with multiple INTs last fall, the Week Two loss to the Giants, where he threw three picks and the Cowboys were still in position to win. In 2009, he had 10 games where he threw no interceptions, including in the first-round playoff win over Philadelphia. That’s another career high.

Just looking at the numbers, Romo’s numbers have been trending upward since 2007, his first full season as a starter. In ’07, he had two multiple-interception games, including a five-pick performance on Monday night at Buffalo with just three games with no interceptions. The following year, he had three games with multiple picks and three with no picks. However, those numbers changed considerably last year. He still shows the gunslinger mentality at times but has clearly learned to pick his spots to just sling it around.

The Current Receiving Corps

There’s no doubt that Miles Austin’s breakout season last fall, where he caught 81 balls for 1,320 yards to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl was a surprise to some. However, it wasn’t a complete shock to his teammates, who had seen flashes from the Garden State native since the Cowboys had signed him as a free agent in 2006. Some naysayers might state that last year was a fluke for Austin and that this year, he will come back down to earth but Romo and Austin have a good understanding of one another and what each will do in certain situations. Look for that connection to strengthen even further this year.

While much has been made about what a disappointment Roy Williams has been since he arrived in Dallas, maybe the drafting of Dez Bryant might be just what could light a fire under the ex-Longhorn to step things up. Maybe Williams can realize that having some competition isn’t a bad thing and can step in and become the receiver everyone expected him to be when the Cowboys traded for him in 2008. However, Bryant might just surpass Williams on the depth chart and become the clear No. 2 behind Austin.

And the departure of Patrick Crayton could likely lead to more playing time for Kevin Ogletree. As a rookie, the Virginia product caught seven passes for 96 yards but with Crayton and Sam Hurd likely leaving town, that should open up some more playing time for the ex-Cavalier.

The tight end situation remains pretty solid. Jason Witten continues to be old reliable and comes off a season where he led the team with 94 catches and was second in receiving yards with 1,030 yards. Witten will remain a big component of the passing aspect of this offense but what can we expect from Martellus Bennett this year? Not a ton of balls were thrown Marty B’s way last year but he did manage 15 catches for 159 yards. However, late in the year, some felt like rookie John Phillips had already surpassed him. Maybe a little competition will make Bennett shine this year while Phillips could continue to improve after a solid rookie campaign.

Romo will again have three solid targets out of the backfield in running backs Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. There has been talk of Jones becoming the No. 1 back and Barber going to second on the depth chart, but no matter who gets the bulk of work, all three of these guys are solid pass catchers. Barber was the top receiver last year with 26 catches for 221 yards but Jones wasn’t far behind with 19 grabs for 119 yards. Continued improvement in their receiving makes this group collectively even more formidable out of the backfield.

Familiar Faces Up Front

Of course, the departure of five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams leaves a big void at left tackle but his likely replacement, Doug Free, looks up to the task. Free filled in nicely at right tackle last fall after Mark Columbo suffered a broken leg and impressed the Cowboy coaches so much that right after the team released Adams in early April, they didn’t hesitate in naming Free as his replacement. That statement was a big vote of confidence and says a lot in exactly how much the Dallas brass values Free and what they feel he can do as a full-time starter.

Besides Adams, the rest of the line returns intact. Kyle Kosier is back at left guard and should once again be a dependable blocker. At center, mainstay Andre Gurode, a four-time Pro Bowler heads into his ninth season of anchoring the middle of the Cowboy o-line. On the right side, Leonard Davis returns at right guard with Columbo, who returned for the playoffs, joining him at right tackle.

While there isn’t much depth on the Cowboy o-line and an injury to a starter or two could make it tough, that is also the case around the league. Few teams have much depth up front thanks to the salary cap. Dallas did look to shore up their depth by signing guard Montrae Holland to a multiple-year extension but Holland hasn’t played a ton since arriving in August 2008. He has appeared in a total of seven games, including three starts in ’08.

Tackle Pat McQuistan and center Cory Procter also remain in the mix. McQuistan has played mostly on special teams in his four seasons with the Cowboys. Procter filled in for Kosier at left guard and made 11 starts in his place in 2008. Another name to consider is second-year tackle Robert Brewster, who was a third-round pick in 2009 but missed the entire season due to a torn pectoral muscle. It will be interesting to see how much he can contribute in 2010.

On the Same Page

Like Romo, Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has often been maligned during his first few years in Big D. However, it’s pretty hard to deny the numbers. Since Garrett became the coordinator, the Dallas offense has become one of the most prolific units in the NFL. Last year’s offense averaged 399.4 yards per game, which was second in the league and the unit ranked sixth in passing and seventh in rushing. Their 22.6 points per game was only 14th best, which clearly leaves some room for improvement. However, since Garrett and Romo have now been working together for several years, this is clearly a partnership where the two feel very comfortable with one another and a pairing where the Cowboy QB feels his coordinator is in his corner and vice versa. If Bryant is as good as many think he can be as a rookie, then this could be another record-setting year for the Cowboy offense.

What Lack of Focus?

The old saying goes that winning is good for the soul and also that it cures all. Well, after the Cowboys won in December and finally ended their epic playoff victory draught by dispatching the Eagles, we didn’t hear much talk about Romo’s alleged lack of focus any more, did we? Everyone remembers that talk, especially after the Cowboys lost in the first round of the 2007 playoffs to the Giants after Romo and some teammates took an off-weekend trip to Mexico.

And then after the blowout loss to the Eagles to end the ’08 campaign, a year that ended without a trip to the playoffs, there was considerable backlash when Romo opted to keep the loss in proper perspective. His statement about if losing a playoff game was the worst thing to ever happen to him, then life wasn’t so bad might not have set well with some people but it still didn’t mean he didn’t care.

Being the Cowboy QB means you’re in a high-profile position and also means every move, whether it’s on or off the field, will be strongly scrutinized. Romo has handled himself pretty well in this respect and now appears to be taking all of this in stride. More than anything, this guy wants to win a Super Bowl. In the past, he’s taken heat because many said he wasn’t a vocal leader but in 2009, Romo showed he wasn’t afraid to get on a teammate and said that he felt like he’d finally earned the right to do so.

After throwing 14 picks in 2008, he resolved last spring to not make so many mistakes in 2009. He did exactly that, cutting his interceptions down to just nine. If his commitment to making himself better doesn’t show focus, then what else can one call it?

It looks like Jon Kitna will remain Romo’s backup for 2010. About all Kitna did last fall was hold a clipboard, which if that trend continues this season bodes well for the Cowboys chances. Fourth-round pick Stephen McGee was the No. 3 QB but didn’t really get a chance to show much. This spring shapes up as a pretty important time for the former Aggie as many will look to him to possibly prove if he is an NFL quarterback and if he can possibly challenge Kitna for the backup role in just his second professional season.

While Romo might get a lot of heat when the Cowboys lose, which is sometimes undeserved, he also gets a great deal of credit when they win. Such is the life of being the starting quarterback for America’s Team. In his first three full seasons as starter, Romo has improved each and every year, giving Cowboy fans a great amount of hope that 2010 just might be the year he makes that leap to championship quarterback. What a story that would be considering how far the undrafted free agent has come since arriving in Big D.