NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
PHILADELPHIA -- Ah, the good old NFC East, where up is down, black is white and you can trade your starting quarterback a week before the season and still find yourself in first place when October dawns.
Yeah, those are the Philadelphia Eagles undefeated and leading the division through three weeks. Yes, that's defending champion Washington, 1-2 by the skin of its teeth and the generosity of Eli Manning, sitting in last place. And in the middle we find the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, each of whom entered the year with major questions but have managed to start 2-1. The Giants hold the tiebreaker right now for second place because they won by a point in Dallas in Week 1, but Dallas beat Washington, Washington beat the Giants and the Eagles haven't played anyone in the division yet.
In other words, as always seems to be the case in the NFC East, nobody knows anything.
The Eagles look fantastic right now, coming off a 34-3 throttling of popular preseason favorite Pittsburgh on Sunday. They have yet to lose a game or turn the ball over. At some point (likely on the same day), they will do both. It won't be this week, since they're on bye, but tougher times do loom for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and this squad. Four of their next five games are on the road, the one home game in that stretch is against fellow unbeaten Minnesota and the second half of the Eagles' season features road games in Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Add in the looming 10-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, and it's fair to assume the Eagles will struggle at some point.
Which is fine. Philadelphia was prepared for a bit of a rebuilding year, given the state of the roster post-Chip Kelly. The Eagles are pleasantly stunned to be 3-0, and they're head over heels for Wentz, who looks like the real deal. You'd much rather go into an offseason believing you have your quarterback and needing to fill in around him with surer-handed wide receivers and younger offensive linemen than wondering who your quarterback is. So even if the Eagles' hot start fades, things look sunny there long term, and the early season success is a huge part of that.
But the rules clearly state that the NFC East must have a champion and field a playoff team this season. And if the Eagles turn out not to be as good as they look right now, the question of which team that will be is wide open.
The Cowboys already have won more games without Tony Romo this season than they did in 12 tries last year. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are keeping the offense afloat. In the whole NFL, they trail only the Eagles in time of possession, which means the plan to grind out clock and keep the undermanned defense off the field is holding up so far. Pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence returns from suspension in Week 5. They're still expecting Romo back around midseason. And while out-of-division trips to Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota don't look fun, it doesn't appear as if Romo's absence will crush this season the way it did the last. That's some reason for hope in Big D.
The Giants just had their best September in four years, but my goodness are they sloppy. They've turned the ball over seven times, only taken it away once and just committed 11 penalties for 128 yards in Sunday's loss to Washington. That was a game that could have stamped them as division favorites and sunk Washington into an 0-3 hole. Instead, they face October road trips to Minnesota, Green Bay and London -- and legitimate questions about the sustainability of their hot start. The Giants were 3-8 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, so being 2-1 in such games so far is encouraging in the grand scheme. And at least until Romo returns (and possibly after), they still have the division's best quarterback. But things are about to get tougher, and Ben McAdoo's bunch needs to tighten up in a hurry.
In our nation's capital, the division's defending champ wonders whether Kirk Cousins can be the sharp decision-maker he was last year and in Sunday's second half or the scatter-armed mess he was for the season's first two and a half games. Cousins is going to have to carry Washington's offense, which can't run at all and doesn't look like it really wants to try. The only two teams in the league averaging more passing yards per game than Washington are the two that hook up in the Superdome on Monday night, Atlanta and New Orleans. If Cousins' team turns it around, he's going to have the stats to warrant that big contract extension the Redskins didn't want to give him this offseason.
There's a long way to go in this and every other division, but the only thing we ever know about the NFC East is that we have no idea what will happen. The division hasn't had a repeat winner since 2003-04, and only once in the past six years has one of its teams won more than 10 games in a season. You can make the case that the Eagles already are a third of the way home if you want to. And even if they win it with the North Dakota State rookie, it couldn't be viewed as a major surprise. But there are sure to be more surprises between now and then in the always wild and wacky NFC East.
Last Season: 4-12
Fourth place, NFC East
Preseason power ranking: 23
The Cowboys are 15-4 over the last two seasons with Tony Romo as the starting quarterback. They are 1-12 without him during that span. Now that he will open the season on the bench because of a compression fracture in his back, the Cowboys will have to rely on rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott to run the offense. They won’t need Prescott to do everything because of the pieces in place throughout the offense. Dez Bryant is looking more like the receiver who led the NFL in touchdown catches in 2014 than the one who was limited in nine games last year with a broken right foot. The addition of Ezekiel Elliott gives the Cowboys a true threat at running back. And then there’s that offensive line that can give Prescott time and Elliott holes.
Go reread the Cowboys' record without Romo in 2014 and ’15. But if you want to move away from the worry of not having the franchise leader in touchdown passes on the field, look at the defense. It is built for a complementary role, not to dominate games. If the offense is scoring points, the Cowboys will have an opportunistic defense. If the offense scuffles a little bit, which is more likely now with a rookie quarterback, there are just not enough defensive playmakers to carry the day. They are relying on career years or unseen development from low-price free agents or draft picks to carry the pass rush. This is not a scheme that is difficult to figure. They mostly just line up and play. Without premier playmakers at every level of the defense, they can be had in close games when it matters most.
Cowboys' percentage chance to win each game
Sept. 11 vs. New York Giants: 61.2
Sept. 18 @ Washington: 35.0
Sept. 25 vs. Chicago: 64.8
Oct. 2 @ San Francisco: 41.1
Oct. 9 vs. Cincinnati: 49.1
Oct. 16 @ Green Bay: 20.4
Oct. 30 vs. Philadelphia: 76.3
Nov. 6 @ Cleveland: 56.9
Nov. 13 @ Pittsburgh: 27.7
Nov. 20 vs. Baltimore: 65.0
Nov. 24 vs. Washington: 74.5
Dec. 1 @ Minnesota: 30.0
Dec. 11 vs. New York Giants: 41.8
Dec. 18 vs. Tampa Bay: 72.8
Dec. 26 vs. Detroit: 75.2
Jan. 1 @ Philadelphia: 43.3
The Cowboys would be really freaked out if Prescott hadn’t had so much success in the preseason. Coaches think he’ll do fine, but they can’t be that confident. -- Dan Graziano
The Cowboys picked Elliott No. 4 overall to be their difference-maker. They ran the ball just fine in 2015 with Darren McFadden, but Elliott can bring power, speed and big-play potential while also wearing on defenses. The Cowboys believe Elliott will do for them in 2016 what DeMarco Murray did of them in 2014.
Cole Beasley has seen his production increase in each of his first four seasons. He is a favorite target of Romo’s and Prescott will have to learn Beasley’s quickness underneath means he wins routes early. On an offense with Bryant, Jason Witten and Elliott, his touchdown numbers might not grow much, but he could easily surpass last year’s totals of 52 catches for 536 yards.
The Cowboys’ success has largely been built on Romo’s shoulders. They will have to prove they can win without him. When he returns, he has to play at a high level, but he can’t be put in a situation where feels like he has to do everything. There is enough talent to win offensively. The defense is the bigger question, even without Romo. At different points over the summer, the defense showed some unexpected promise. They don’t have to be the third-coming of “Doomsday,” but if they can crack the top 12 and take the ball away the Cowboys could run away with the NFC East.
IRVING, Texas -- The high-pitch whistle is out of place on a football field. Is it coming from a television camera? Is old age creeping in, and you are just hearing things?
Then you look over to the Dallas Cowboys' running back drills. The whistle is coming from the footballs as the running backs go through rope drills with the balls pinned to their chests.
"Yeah, it's a good technique," coach Jason Garrett said. "It's a good technology. The idea is that you want to hold the ball high and tight, and you want to have the point of the ball be up. We talk about five points of contact. Oftentimes, the ball gets down, and it gets loose.
"You don't want it low and loose. You want it high and tight. It's a good mechanism to have. [Running back coach Gary Brown] says, 'I want that ball singing.' So if he has the ball up, it's going to sing. That's a different way to reinforce the importance of ball security."
In February at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, Tom Creguer, the inventor of High and Tight and an assistant coach at Northwood University, sought out NFL running back coaches to pitch his product.
He first met Ollie Wilson of the San Diego Chargers to talk fumble statistics and the importance of holding onto the ball. Then he met with Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown. The two exchanged cards, and the Cowboys were among the four teams to purchase the HnTv1 training football.
The footballs debuted at the Cowboys’ rookie minicamp. The veterans finally got their hands on them during the on-field teaching sessions. The Cowboys have ordered more.
“They love it,” Brown said of his backs. “The first time they did it, it was kind of hard on them because they had to keep it nice and tight. Their arms got a little sore. That’s OK. They’ll get over it.”
In 2010, Creguer decided he had enough of his team fumbling. He was coaching at Shepherd [Michigan] High School at the time. The team lost seven games because of second-half fumbles and finished 1-8.
“I’m not a gambling man,” Creguer said, “but I would’ve bet we’d at worst be opposite of that.”
After that season, he went about designing a football to help prevent fumbling. He went to a sensors convention, “listening to all these engineers and brainiacs. You ever think a coach stepped into these rooms?”
He was a coach, not a scientist, but he learned about surface area compression. He also learned the proper way to hold a football.
“You cannot compress a regulation football on the seams,” Creguer said. “The seams rotate, and the ball moves within your grip because you’re squeezing down.”
After seven prototypes in five years, Creguer went to market in January. The High and Tight ball has a sensor on the panels. As long as it maintains contact to the body and the ball is angled properly, tight to the chest, it whistles. If it loses contact, the ball is quiet.
In 2014, Northwood running backs had 11 of the team’s 14 fumbles. When using High and Tight’s HnTv1 training football, the running backs had four of the team’s seven fumbles.
Creguer said his players could tell when the ball wasn’t set right in their arms, and they began to instinctively cover up before defenders would hit them.
“It created awareness,” Creguer said.
Inside the Cowboys’ meeting room is a sign that reads "The Ball, The Ball, The Ball." Garrett often tells his team that the most important statistic in football is turnovers. Teams that hold onto the ball win more games.
On a wall outside the locker room, coaches post weekly pictures of players using proper ball security techniques. They also show pictures of opponents using improper technique.
“It’s not about brute strength,” Creguer said. “It’s constant pressure and closing the gap. ... You’ve got to have muscle memory.”
Fumbling has not been a big problem for the Cowboys’ running backs. In 2015, Darren McFadden lost three, and Joseph Randle lost one. In 2014, DeMarco Murray lost five, and Randle lost two. Alfred Morris has lost seven fumbles in four seasons but did not have a fumble in 2015.
Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ first-round pick, lost four fumbles in his college career.
“We want to make sure our No. 1 goal is ball security this year," Brown said. "We don’t want to fumble the ball, not one time."
At the combine, Creguer ran into Elliott and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and showed them High and Tight.
“He lit up when he saw it,” Creguer said.
A little more than two months later, the Cowboys drafted Elliott in the first round.
“When you have the football in the perfect position with all the points covered and tight to your body, it sings to you,” Elliott said. “When it stops singing, you know you’re doing something wrong. So you want to make sure it’s singing the whole time. Those balls just came out this year, so it’s a new ball that I’ve never worked with. At Ohio State, they had bats instead. They used to hit us with bats, so I like this better.”
"The overwhelming response and the overwhelming mentality is for him, if we're involved in any way, to help and encourage him to get it together, to get his issue improved because those issues, in my mind, not talent, are why he is free today," Jones said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. "It's those issues, and those issues are the overriding consideration here, and how and what basis that those can be dealt with and addressed."
After a troubling rookie season, Manziel spent 10 weeks in rehab. In 2015, he spent the final week of the season in Vegas and missed a medical test for a concussion. A Dallas grand jury is now deciding whether Manziel should be charged for allegedly abusing his ex-girlfriend.
Jones said he has not spoken to Manziel since the Cleveland Browns released the QB. Jones also has not spoken to Manziel's new agent, Drew Rosenhaus. According to sources, at a personnel meeting at the end of the 2015 season, Manziel's name was mentioned as a possible quarterback candidate, and the thought was rejected.
Jones looked to draft Manziel in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he stuck with his scouting department, and the Cowboys took Zack Martin. Jones, however, has lamented missing out on Manziel on numerous occasions, even as the quarterback struggled in Cleveland.
Jones spoke deliberately when addressing Manziel. In the past, Jones has helped players who had off-the-field troubles. Josh Brent worked in a warehouse during his suspension from the NFL and last year worked in the team's scouting department after he retired from football.
"I would in any way offer to help him work to be where we all are rooting for him to be, which is having a successful life and football career," Jones said. "I would do that. You say, 'Well, is that because of football?' Well, I might not have been aware of this, had it not been for football. I'm aware of it.
"With that, with me, comes a motivation, if it's appropriate within the rules or within the guidelines of the NFL, if we can be of help in the promise of being a part of the NFL through the Cowboys, I certainly look to that. But … I don't even dare, right now, go into picturing him in a training camp or an OTA or him in a ballgame. You don't go there."
INDIANAPOLIS -- On a day in which the top quarterbacks available in the draft -- Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Paxton Lynch -- worked out at the NFL scouting combine, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones reaffirmed his faith in Tony Romo.
"What is the one unequivocable fact that you can count on relative to the preparation of this draft and on draft day is that I'm planning on Romo being the quarterback for the next four or five years," Jones said during a more than one-hour long interview on the team's luxury bus from the scouting combine on Saturday. "That's a fact. You won't see a decision on draft day that will fly in the face of not believing, from our standpoint, that he'll be our quarterback for four or five years."
Romo said Saturday he will likely have a plate surgically-implanted to help fortify a left collarbone that was broken twice in 2015 and three times since 2010 pending the results of a CT scan in the upcoming week. Romo, who turns 36 in April, missed 12 games in 2015 because of the collarbone injuries and a game each in 2013 and '14 because of back injuries.
Jones said he believes Romo "will be doing the heavy lifting for us at quarterback and for the team for the next four or five years."
The timeframe would indicate the team would rather have more impactful help in 2016 from their early picks in the draft to help return them to the playoffs after a 4-12 finish in 2015. A first-round pick signs a fully guaranteed, four-year contract and the team holds a fifth-year option as well. By the time the team would need to make a decision on the option in 2019, it could cost as much as $20 million.
The Cowboys have needs all across their defense as well as at running back and wide receiver. When asked if he thought there was a quarterback worthy of the fourth overall pick, Jones said, "I don't know."
Wentz and Goff are considered by most to be top-10 picks, followed by Lynch. The Cowboys could look in the second and third round for help.
Since Troy Aikman's retirement in 2000, the Cowboys have drafted only two quarterbacks: Quincy Carter in the second round in 2001 and Stephen McGee in the fourth round in 2009. Since Jones took over the team in 1989, they have drafted only five quarterbacks: Aikman, Steve Walsh (1990 supplemental) and Billy Musgrave (1991). The Cowboys landed Romo as an undrafted free agent in 2003.
Jones admitted there is some temptation.
"When you've got this high a pick and you have the circumstances we're in right now with where we are as a team and with the quarterback, you've got to look at what's available to us for sure and knowing that with these qualities of picks you can get some contributions, immediate contributions and should be significant with where that is," Jones said. "I couldn't tell you today at all how we might make the decision. This is one of those that might not be made until we're down to the last 10 seconds on the clock."
As for the potential impending surgery, Jones said the communication between he, Romo and the medical staff has been great.
"There is no angst on my part," Jones said.
Draft plans are always fluid, but Jones continues to back Romo.
"There's no one breathing that has any idea at this time what we're going to do with that first pick because I don't," Jones said. "And there's nobody you could talk to that thinks they're leaning that way to do that because I'm giving you the lean right now. I think Romo is going to be our quarterback for four or five years and we'll make all decisions accordingly."
In 2014, he had a discectomy performed on his lower back that kept him out of the entire offseason. This offseason, Romo is planning to have a plate inserted to secure his left collarbone, sources told ESPN Insider Ed Werder. In addition, Romo is expected to have a portion of the collarbone shaved down.
Unlike 2014, however, Romo is expected to be healthy for the bulk of the offseason program.
Last Saturday Romo said he would be "ready to rock" for the organized team activities. By Romo's timeline, that puts him back on the field in May.
Romo turns 36 in April, which has many wondering how much longer he can play at a high level, although Romo and the team aren't too worried.
Romo seemed to trigger his inner Matthew McConaughey when he spoke Saturday at the re-opening of Bowlmor Dallas in Addison, Texas. Romo would have been the youngest quarterback in the conference championships behind Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer on Sunday had the Cowboys made it that far.
"The joke is -- and I've said it before -- as everyone else is getting older, I'm getting younger," said Romo, who turns 36 in April. "You just go out and do it and prove it and I think next year you'll see a little bit different Dallas Cowboys team."
Romo has viewed his collarbone injuries -- three times it has been fractured since 2010 -- as a nuisance rather than something career threatening.
"I'll be able to play for a while," Romo said. "It's really just about playing. If I play I'm going to play at a certain level. I know that. I just have to do the things to ensure that I'll be out on the field."
Two offseasons ago, Romo had real concerns about his future because of the back surgeries even if at the time he put a brave face on his return.
"When you go through the back troubles early on and have surgery you don't know how it's going to come out," Romo said. "But it's come out. I'm seeing a very strong side to it now where I'm able to do things I wasn't able to do even last year."
In 15 games in 2014, Romo completed 69.9 percent of his passes and had 34 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. The Cowboys went 12-4, won the NFC East and a playoff game.
Romo missed 12 games in 2015 because of the collarbone injuries. The impending surgery is expected to make the area more secure. He broke it first in 2010, missed 10 games and did not have surgery. He broke it in Weeks 2 and 12 in 2015 and did not have immediate surgery.
The recent delay has allowed the bone to heal more so that the plate will allow for more strength to the area. Is it foolproof? No, but it can't hurt.
"My back is not going to keep me out," Romo said. "That was a struggle a couple years ago where I thought that. That part is getting less and less every month that goes by. I think the collarbone was a freak thing and that happens. But I think we're going to do things that will probably allow us to make sure that doesn't happen again. The fact that I can work the way I'm working now is exciting."
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will have a CT scan on his left collarbone within the next week, and while surgery remains a possibility Romo said the bone is getting "stronger and stronger."
"I think we know which way we're siding and we've had exhaustive discussions about it," Romo said Saturday at the re-opening of Bowlmor Dallas in Addison, Texas, where he signed autographs for fans. "Really it's just about being there for your teammates. If I play, I know what I mean to our team. I just need to do everything in my power to make sure I'm on the football field."
The day after the 2015 season ended, Romo said he was looking at different options for his collarbone either through surgery or without an operation. If he had surgery, he would likely have a plate inserted into his collarbone to protect it from a re-break.
Since 2010, Romo has broken the collarbone three times, including twice last season. The initial break came Sept. 20 against the Philadelphia Eagles and then after missing seven games he suffered a hairline fracture after a hit in the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Carolina Panthers.
Romo said he is ahead on his offseason conditioning and football work than in past years at this time.
"That's about the only positive that comes from being out," Romo said.
The Cowboys went 3-1 in Romo's four starts. He finished the season with five touchdown passes and seven interceptions while completing 83-of-121 passes for 884 yards. The Cowboys kept him on the active roster until they were officially eliminated from the playoffs. He went on injured reserve on Dec. 25.
"With some of the workouts, I've been able to go harder in the last three weeks than I have in the previous six months," Romo said. "I'm getting excited about that. Kind of wish training camp was coming up. For me, I already had an offseason almost during the year, so I'll be ready to rock for the [organized team activities]."
ARLINGTON, Texas – Say this for the Dallas Cowboys: They follow Jason Garrett’s fight mantra.
So far, the change to Matt Cassel at quarterback has not brought the boost the Cowboys needed when he replaced Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys were held without a touchdown for the second time in three weeks.
The comedy of errors offensively came to a head on the final drive. Cassel had a first-down pass knocked out of his hands, his second-down pass to Darren McFadden was too high, and he was sacked for 6 yards on third down because he was unaware Bruce Irvin was tracking him down from behind. The Cowboys had two cracks at fourth-down success, but their hope evaporated when Cassel’s sideline throw fell incomplete.
Without that play, the Cowboys would be winless at home this year. As it stands, they have lost three in a row at home and welcome the Philadelphia Eagles to AT&T Stadium next week. At 2-5, the Cowboys are beyond desperate for a win.
Slow welcome back: Dez Bryant’s return brought energy to the crowd, but that didn’t translate to the stat column. Bryant finished with two catches for 12 yards, with Richard Sherman shadowing him regardless of which side Bryant lined up on. The only time Sherman wasn’t on Bryant was in the slot. Bryant’s first catch came on a rocket screen in the slot, but Sherman was able to stop Bryant for a 2-yard loss. Sherman drew offensive pass interference on a deep ball, but it was a smart play by Bryant to break up a sure interception. This was just the seventh time since Garrett took over as coach that Bryant had two or fewer catches.
What were they thinking? Like they did against the Atlanta Falcons in the first game without Romo, the Cowboys were unable to attack through the air down the field. They took only a couple shots against the Seahawks. Before the Cowboys’ final drive, Cassel had thrown for 97 yards. Bryant and Terrance Williams had a pair of 15-yard catches, but Cole Beasley was shut out for the second straight game.
One reason to get excited: The Cowboys had an honest-to-goodness takeaway Sunday. They had not had one since Week 2; that's a span of nearly 300 plays. Greg Hardy was able to tip a Russell Wilson pass to himself for a turnover. It was an extremely athletic play that Hardy seemed to time up a few plays earlier when reading Wilson’s eyes. It was the first interception of Hardy’s career and the first takeaway for the Cowboys in what felt like forever.
One reason to panic: For the second time in three games, the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown. They also did not reach the end zone in their 30-6 loss to the New England Patriots. After Hardy’s interception, the Cowboys had to settle for a field goal after taking over at the Seattle 16. Even the return of Bryant was unable to spark much change. The good news? Romo can practice this week for the first time since breaking his left collarbone.
Carry the load: For the third time in his career, McFadden has had 20 carries in back-to-back games. Even so, he wasn’t as explosive Sunday as he was in last week’s loss to the Giants, in which he gained 152 yards on 29 carries. McFadden finished with 20 carries for 64 yards. The last time McFadden was called on this much was in the first two games of the 2011 season with the Oakland Raiders, when he had 22 and 20 carries to open the season.
“Yes,” Garrett said.
The Cowboys failed to score a touchdown in a game for the first time since Week 3 of the 2011 season, when they beat the Washington Redskins on six Dan Bailey field goals. The Cowboys also put up season lows in yards (264) and first downs (18) in Sunday's 30-6 loss to the New England Patriots.
Weeden completed 26 of 39 passes for 188 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked three times.
“Brandon didn’t play well enough,” Garrett said. “We didn’t play well enough. We’re going to watch the tape and evaluate each guy and each unit to see how we can play better. That’s just the process we go through each week. Ultimately, we didn’t score enough points. Brandon was a part of that, but everybody else was a part of it too.”
The Cowboys do not play again until Oct. 25. They will practice Wednesday and Thursday and then be off through the weekend.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he believed Cassel would be ready if the team turned to him but added, “I think we’re a long way from being able to decide to do that. I don’t in any way want to imply that we will consider that or do that.”
But Jones also acknowledged the Cowboys have time before they start preparing for the Giants.
The offensive issues are not Weeden’s alone, but the quarterback is forced to accept the bulk of the blame in a three-game losing streak, as much as he would get the bulk of the credit for a three-game win streak.
“It sucks, to be honest, but you can't control that,” Weeden said. “I can only control going out there and executing. I don’t know. It's frustrating. Like I said, I feel like I came in against Philly, I was prepared, I was ready. I thought I played well against Atlanta. We just couldn't get it down offensively in the second half. [Against] New Orleans, I made a drive at the end of the game to give us a chance to win. We never got the ball back."
Weeden continued and lamented his typical bad luck.
“Norv Turner [Weeden's offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns] told me a long time ago when we were sitting in the quarterback meeting, he said, ‘Brandon, I don't know what you have done to whoever, but you've got the worst luck of any player I have been around.’ I have, ever since I was a little kid. I don't know what I did. But it is what it is. I'm never going to lose confidence in my ability. I wouldn't be here and put in this position if I couldn't play this position.”
Not just offensively but everywhere. For years, he has carried the burden of the franchise. Even last year, when the Cowboys were running the ball so well, Romo made the crucial plays at the big moments.
For all that DeMarco Murray did, Romo was the most valuable. When there were cracks, Romo filled them. When there were shortcomings, Romo compensated.
Romo has the ability to mask the offensive shortcomings and maximize what the defense can be. He was able to fix things so well that people didn't know they needed fixing. Playing quarterback is not just about running the play called. It's about getting the offense into good plays and out of bad plays.
The Cowboys aren't paying for being too reliant on Romo, but they are seeing what life without Romo will be like in the next two, three or four years. Whoever replaces him in 2017, 2018 or 2019 cannot be expected to do all Romo does.
The Cowboys have put up a respectable 48 points in two games without Romo. Scoring 28 in the first half against Atlanta should have been enough for the Cowboys to win. Scoring 20 versus the Saints wasn't great but was good enough. Asking for more from Brandon Weeden would not be prudent. He has played about as well as can be expected, whether fans want to accept that or not.
But Weeden can only do so much.
What makes Romo elite -- yes, elite -- is how he can get the Cowboys into the right plays. His experience makes everybody else better, from the receivers -- regardless of whether Dez Bryant is playing -- to the offensive line. Remember the game-winning drive against the New York Giants in the opener? It came with Bryant hurt.
It's not about how magical Romo is when things break down. That is the easy stuff to see -- the highlight plays that make everybody's jaws drop. That’s offense almost by accident.
Romo likes to say his greatest gift is his ability to process information quickly and act. Early on in his career, he processed things so quickly that he would get himself into trouble. He would make the great play and also the poor play.
Now he can process things and almost always make the correct decision.
It's checking to the right run or right pass, depending on the defensive look. That helps the offensive line get angles on the front in the run game and helps them get an edge in pass protection. Although Romo does not predetermine where he goes with the ball before the snap, he can anticipate coverages and blitzes that allows him to get the ball out more quickly.
All of that makes the defense better because the offense can sustain drives. In the past two weeks, the Cowboys have converted just four of 18 third-down attempts. With Romo, the Cowboys converted 10 of 23 third-down tries.
Weeden does not have that ability, and that's not a knock on him. There are maybe 10 starting quarterbacks in the NFL who have that ability. Teams are paying kingly sums for just potentially princely quarterbacks.
Cam Newton has superhuman abilities but will make silly decisions. Is Ryan Tannehill "the guy" or just a guy for the Miami Dolphins? Colin Kaepernick appears to be more style than substance. Andy Dalton is off to a great start, but the true judgment for him will be in the playoffs.
Romo must feel helpless on the sideline with his left arm in a sling because of a broken collarbone. He is 35 and understands there are only so many realistic chances left to define his career with a Super Bowl.
The season is by no means over for the Cowboys. Romo could possibly be back for the final seven games of the regular season.
In the meantime, the Cowboys must somehow make sure those games will matter. If they can't, Romo might not be able to save them.
All involved should appreciate Romo even more than they already did. The past two games certainly demonstrated Romo's value.
IRVING, Texas -- If all that mattered were stats, then we would have been fawning all over quarterback Brandon Weeden’s performance Sunday against Atlanta.
Instead, we're scrutinizing it.
The problem with Weeden’s performance is that you can tell from his decision-making that he didn’t trust himself to put the ball into tight windows or not turn it over.
If Weeden doesn’t trust himself after more than a year in this offensive system, then he should bench himself. You can’t win playing scared.
He played tentatively, which is not the way to earn respect from opposing defensive coordinators who will study his performance against Atlanta. The reality is Weeden won’t earn respect from opposing defensive coordinators until he starts throwing downfield and threatening opposing secondaries with passes to Terrance Williams, Brice Butler, Jason Witten or Lance Dunbar.
Until that happens, defenses will continue to play a safety close to the line of scrimmage to shut down the Cowboys’ running game. They will continue to attack the line of scrimmage with no fear of reprisal.
Atlanta’s defense, like the Seattle Seahawks' defense the Cowboys will face in a few weeks, plays a scheme that gives the quarterback few opportunities to effectively throw the ball downfield. When those opportunities present themselves, the quarterback must recognize them and let the ball fly.
“We’ll evaluate the quarterback decision-making, but there were opportunities to throw the ball out there and he made some different decisions to throw the ball inside and was effective,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “The guy threw four incompletions the whole game, so he did a good job helping us move the football."
Weeden played scared. We shouldn’t be surprised.
We’re talking about a player with 27 career touchdown passes and 29 interceptions who has lost 12 consecutive starts. Sports at any level is all about confidence. None of us should be surprised if Weeden lacks confidence.
The Cowboys have at least one deep route built into virtually every passing play. In the Cowboys’ system, the coverage dictates where the quarterback goes with the ball unless he decides it’s safer to take the underneath throw instead of forcing the ball downfield.
In the second half, the coaching staff asked Weeden to throw downfield, but he wouldn’t do it for whatever reason. What Weeden must understand is good things can happen when he throws the ball long, especially when virtually all of the rules are designed to help the offense.
Weeden threw deep to Terrance Williams on the game’s second play. The pass fell incomplete, but Williams drew a face-mask penalty; the drive ended with a 37-yard touchdown run by Joseph Randle.
Weeden didn’t throw another pass longer than 20 yards until 39 plays later, when he missed Witten on a seam route.
That’s way too long between deep shots. The more shots downfield the Cowboys take, the more safeties have to at least respect the threat of going deep, making all the underneath throws to Witten, Cole Beasley and the running backs more effective.
In the second quarter, Weeden threw an angle route to Williams, who didn’t run a great pattern, and the ball was tipped into the air. It fell incomplete, but seemingly made Weeden shy away from throwing those types of passes because he didn’t want to throw an interception.
History suggests Weeden can’t play much better than he did Sunday. In 22 starts, he has led an offense to 28 points or more just four times. His 8.92 yards per attempt Sunday was the third highest of his career and the 232 yards was the 11th best of his career.
Sure his interception before the end of the half was an egregious decision, but most quarterbacks make at least one dumb throw each week.
He positioned the Cowboys to win, and if the defense had played anything close to the way it did in the first two games, then that’s what would’ve happened. You have delusions of grandeur if you believe Matt Cassel can spend a week with the Cowboys’ playbook and play at a vastly superior level.
Cassel has been a better player than Weeden in their careers, but since 2011 he’s 10-17 as a starter with 30 touchdowns, 34 interceptions and a 74.0 passer rating.
This is life without Tony Romo for the next seven weeks. Unless Weeden begins trusting himself little will change for the Cowboys’ offense.
Witten suffered sprains to both ankles and sprained his left knee in last week’s victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, but managed to play in 82 of 85 snaps and lead the team with seven catches.
Coach Jason Garrett said Witten would be limited in practice and could be for the rest of the week as the team looks to get him his healthiest by Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Witten has played in 189 straight games, the longest active streak among non-kickers and punters, and started 133 games.
While the Cowboys don’t want to think about life without Witten for even a week, the topic has to be discussed.
“It’s always day by day with everybody and as you get into the NFL season, there is a lot of different scenarios that come up with the guys who go to practice on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or what you project for the week and his availability during the game,” Garrett said. “ … You’re always creating those hypothetical situations to be ready and you’re practicing that way. But the biggest thing is the communication throughout the week so that you can make the necessary adjustments as you go.”
Witten’s history plays a factor in what the Cowboys do. In 2012, he missed most of training camp with a lacerated spleen but was able to play in the season opener. There have been other times where he has needed to rest in practice because of ankle, knee and hamstring issues.
“You’re certainly more trusting of a guy like that because he’s shown you many times in the past that he’s going to be there,” Garrett said. “. He has a great credibility with us.”
Tight end James Hanna had knee surgery last Saturday, but hopes to be able to practice by the end of the week. With Witten banged up and Hanna less-than-certain to be available, how the Cowboys attack could change because they rely on so many multi-tight end snaps. Hanna was in full pads for rehab work Wednesday.
Left guard Ronald Leary was not on the practice field as he works back from a groin injury that kept him out of the Eagles’ game. The Cowboys hope he will be able to return this week. La’el Collins took the first-team snaps in the portion of practice open to the media.
Defensive end Randy Gregory (ankle) is not practicing.
IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant's return to the field has been a much debated topic since it was learned the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver broke his right foot in the season-opening win against the New York Giants.
The Cowboys have used a four-to-six week recovery time but have acknowledged it could be a little bit longer. Because of the $70 million investment they have made in Bryant in July, they will not rush him back to the field.
Others have wondered if Bryant is looking at a long absence, referencing the injury suffered by NBA star Kevin Durant.
Speaking on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio Tuesday, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White isn't sure Bryant will return at all in 2015. He cited the recovery needed for Julio Jones, who had a similar surgery in 2013. Jones played in only five games and missed the rest of the season.
"Me and Julio were talking about the whole situation and he was like, when he heard that he broke his foot he was like, 'He's got the same injury I got,'" White said. "And, you know, we had to shut him [Julio] down for the whole entire year. So I just don't see him making it back this year. Or if he does make it back it will probably be late in the playoffs, so it'll probably be around January. But it's still a risk. Anytime you are coming off a foot injury, you know, he's not going to be running or anything like that. It'll be weeks before he can actually apply any kind of pressure onto it or even start walking around. So he's got a long haul ahead of him, so he's got to be patient with this thing. Plus he just signed a new contract so he's got to be as patient as possible and just kind of take it easy."
Hakeem Nicks, who worked out for the Cowboys on Tuesday, has not been the same receiver since he had his fifth metatarsal repaired in 2012.
But Jones has recovered just fine. He caught 104 passes for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns last season and caught nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday.
IRVING, Texas -- Dez Bryant will be back in 2015. The question is when.
At best, Bryant can return Oct. 25 for the rematch against the New York Giants thanks in part to the Cowboys' bye week coming Oct. 18. Perhaps the more likely return will be Nov. 1 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Without Bryant, the Cowboys' offense will change. It has to. He is too good. While no player is irreplaceable, this is not a case in which the Cowboys can simply go next-man-up and expect the offense to be the same.
As coach Jason Garrett likes to say, when No. 88 breaks the huddle, opposing defenses know exactly where he is. With No. 88 no longer in the huddle for at least five games, that puts more pressure on Tony Romo, more pressure on the offensive line, more pressure on the running backs, more pressure on Jason Witten, more pressure on Terrance Williams and more pressure on the defense.
The loss of Bryant ratchets up the pressure on everybody with the Cowboys.
But it's not an impossible task.
Romo has a history of winning without top receivers such as Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, Roy Williams, Miles Austin and even Bryant.
In 2007, Patrick Crayton filled in for an injured Glenn, starting 13 games and catching 50 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns. Austin had 23 career catches before replacing an injured Williams on Oct. 11, 2009, at Kansas City before establishing a franchise record with 250 yards on 10 catches and two touchdowns in an overtime win against the Chiefs. In 2011, Laurent Robinson came out of nowhere to lead the Cowboys with 11 touchdown catches, finishing the season with 54 catches for 858 yards.
In Sunday's win against the Giants, Terrance Williams moved to Bryant's receiver spot and caught three of his five passes for 45 of his 60 yards. With Bryant missing the offseason program while waiting on a new contract, Williams became the Cowboys' de facto No. 1 receiver.
Devin Street moved into the No. 2 role and had a solid spring but an ankle injury suffered in training camp lingered and affected his work as the summer wore on. He has just two catches for 18 yards in his career, and on his lone target Sunday, the Giants came up with an interception.
Witten remains the standard of the passing game.
The Cowboys will miss Bryant in a ton of ways, but Romo has shown he can elevate the play of others.
He will need to do it again in 2015.
He's not just playing the game of hiding information from the other team before kickoff.
"It doesn't matter," Garrett said. "The only thing that matters is everybody getting ready to play and when their number is called upon, be ready to go out there and be their best."
Since the spring, Joseph Randle has taken almost all of the first-team snaps when he and Darren McFadden were healthy. During the brief open period of practice to the media on Wednesday, Randle took the first-team snaps again, but be careful reading too much into those instances.
What appears clear is the Cowboys will go with a committee approach at running back with Randle, McFadden and Lance Dunbar getting some work. The division of labor is something that could change game to game, half to half, quarter to quarter and series to series.
"Sometimes you have one guy who's a featured back and sometimes you have more than one guy doing it," Garrett said. "When you have a couple or three different guys involved running the football over the course of a game, I think the benefits are many. There's a freshness that each of those guys has. Maybe they have different styles. They can attack defenses in different ways and maybe over the course of three of them, they're just more versatile than one guy might be."
The Cowboys were a one-man running game show last season with DeMarco Murray. He carried 392 times for 1,845 yards, setting team marks in both statistical categories.
Randle has 105 carries in two years. McFadden has had more than 215 carries in a season just twice in his seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Dunbar has 80 carries in three seasons.
Entering last season, the Cowboys had no idea Murray could withstand the amount of work he received. He was slowed by injuries in his first three seasons.
"I think with any young player before they get an opportunity to be a strong contributor or a starter, you're always betting on what you've seen up to that point," Garrett said. "That happens with our team every year, playing a young guy, playing a rookie, maybe you're playing a second- or third-year guy who hasn't played before. When those roles change you're basing it on evaluation you've had up to that point. Joe's done a lot of good things to give us confidence to think he can do a good job for us."