Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Dallas Cowboys

(Random note of no significance: I really should have gotten my glasses adjusted when I was home for the winter break. My prescription dates from the Mesolithic and now I can barely read Starbucks menu boards. Yes, well, moving on -- if I abruptly stop blogging, it won't be due to a sudden slovenly nature but rather an inability to see).

Anyway, onto the NFC East. This was the strongest division in football this year, supplying three of the NFC's six playoff participants -- the Cowboys, the Redskins, and the Giants, one of whom will be playing for the Super Bowl title in Glendale a few weeks from now. (Three guesses as to which this one is). Still, the Beast of the East was the Cowboys, who went 13-3 behind coach Wade Phillips, QB and Simpson-shagger Tony Romo, and freak of nature Terrell Owens. It's the middle entrant that we'll be examining today, and since he got a six-year, $67.5 million contract to call the signals for Dallas (especially if they've all had their Diet Pepsi Max lately and don't go for 60 Stretch Far -- aaaaaah) it's likely that he'll be there for quite a bit longer. Still, with an 0-2 record and two flops in the playoffs, what might Dallas fans have to fear from their 27-year-old Texas star? Let's examine.

Dallas Cowboys (13-3): Tony Romo

Unfortunately, Mr. Romo is getting himself a reputation more for what he does off the field than what he does on it, which is somewhat unfair. True, if you date Jessica Simpson (and her attention-whoring father) you ask for it, but Romo is a very good quarterback, if not yet a great one. The playoff bugaboos are a problem, of course, but look how long it took Peyton Manning to win his first Super Bowl and he's probably a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The problem with Romo, of course, is that he hasn't won any playoff games yet, but that's due just as much to the vagaries of chance and the rest of the team as it is to him. If a wide-open Patrick Crayton had caught that pass instead of dropping it and given the Cowboys a first down inside the 20, the Cowboys might have been the one facing the Packers, but Romo was also the one who threw the last Hail Mary that ended up in the hands of New York's R.W. McQuarters to end the game. He'll have time to refine it over the offseason and see if he can get off the playoff-game-winning schneid. Then again, ever since the departure of Aikman, the Cowboys have tried such illustrious NFL stars as Quincy Carter, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson, and Drew Bledsoe; needless to say, Romo is a significant step up from any of these options. He went undrafted out of Eastern Illinois University and was signed by the club in 2003 as a rookie free agent to serve as the third-stringer behind Carter and Chad Hutchinson. Romo was almost cut from the roster due to a surfeit of quarterbacks until Carter was popped for substance abuse -- it's a decision that Cowboys fans are now relieved didn't go the other way.

Romo spent a few years in obscurity behind the Cowboys' musical chairs of starting QBs (eight in all since 2000, Aikman's last year) and finally got his break in 2006 when Bledsoe went down with an injury. Romo's first pass was a 33-yard completion against the Texans, and it went generally well from there. On November 19, 2006, the new starter helped the Cowboys beat the Colts, 21-14, and then against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, recorded a 38-10 victory while throwing five touchdown passes with no picks. In his first real season, he garnered a 95.1 QB rating in 10 starts, and improved this year -- 36 TD passes against 19 picks, 4,211 yards, and a 97.4 rating while leading the Cowboys to the NFC East division title. He completed 335 of 520 passes for a 64.4 percentage, averaging 8.1 yards an attempt and 263 passing yards a game, and holds an impressive slew of franchise records: a Pro Bowler in 2006 and again in 2007, he is the owner of the most 300-yard games (and only three short of Aikman's career-total 13) and most TD passes, most passing yards, most completions, and most TDs thrown in a game by a Dallas QB. All of this was done while the high-octane Dallas offense averaged 28.4 points a game (second behind you-know-who), 365.7 total yards a game (third) 256.6 pass yards a game (fourth) and 109.1 rush yards a game (17th).

So why isn't Romo a great quarterback yet? (And no, it isn't because of Simpsongate). And you can debate until you're Dallas-deep-blue in the face about the meaning of "grittiness" and "clutchness" come playoff time; it's hard to quantify intangibles because they're, well, intangible. Still, fairly or unfairly, Romo will still be only very good until he wins in the playoffs and breaks Dallas's 11-years-and-counting streak while not doing something boneheaded, be it fumbling the snap or yelling at his All-Pro offensive line (Jason Witten, Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis, and Andre Gurode -- aka most of his protection -- are going to Hawaii along with Romo himself and T.O.) Also, he still has an unfortunate propensity to have really terrible games, especially when his newest blonde love-interest is in the crowd. (Aside from the much ballyhooed 10-6 loss to the Eagles that started the Anti-Simpson hysteria in Dallas, he had four games in 2006 with a lower-than-60 QB rating, and three in 2007). The talent surrounding him can also occasionally save his skin -- he threw five interceptions against Buffalo and the Cowboys still pulled it out, 25-24, on a last-second Nick Folk field goal -- and he has a tendency to fade down the stretch in December after starting the season with ratings regularly well over 100. Once he learns to pace himself and perform as well at the end of the season as he does at the beginning, not to mention learn when not to set himself up for ridicule (Jessica Simpson bouncing her boobs and cavorting in that pink jersey made me ill) and win some playoff games, Romo will finally enter the great echelon instead of just very good.

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