With T.O. gone, time for Tony Romo to shine for Cowboys

From USA Today

There’s no better time for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to prove he can win the big one than now, what with big-drama wideout Terrell Owens gone from Big D.It will bolster Romo’s chances if “The Tailback Triplets” —Marion Barber III, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice— stay healthy and complement the quarterback by establishing ball control and a play-action presence.  

A glitzy, new, $1 billion-plus football palace in Arlington, Texas, called Cowboys Stadium will showcase a remodeled Cowboys team with one unquestioned offensive leader: Romo. Owner Jerry Jones drove home that point when he released Owens in March, saying it was with the intention of making his 2009 offense more “Romo-friendly.”

 One way to make that offense more user-friendly for Romo could entail a more run-oriented attack. That’s where the table-setting tailback trio could spark a championship run the way “The Triplets” — Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, surefire Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith and Hall of Fame wideout Michael Irvin — keyed the franchise’s three Super Bowl titles in the early 1990s.

“We want to do everything we can to have Romo play his best,” Jones said at the March owners’ meetings. “Since I made the decision to release Terrell, I made the call to give Tony the chance to play at the optimum for the Cowboys.”

After a 13-3 finish in 2007, the Cowboys went from being stars of HBO’s Hard Knocks training camp reality series to 9-7 also-rans who collapsed and missed the playoffs.

 It has been 13 years since the Cowboys won a playoff game, but it might prove easier to end that drought now that the circus has left town.

Neither HBO’s cameras nor the T.O. show will be on hand when the Cowboys convene for training camp July 29 in San Antonio.

Owens made accusations to NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders in November that Romo favored tight end Jason Witten with more of his passes. Owens then said on his Twitter account after his release — he has since been signed by the Buffalo Bills — that Romo and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett ran him out of Dallas.

On the day Owens was greeted by cheerleaders at the Buffalo airport and received a key to that city, Romo was surrounded by news reporters at minicamp fielding his thoughts on the Owens-less Cowboys.

“He’s a great player, and it’s always difficult to replace someone who’s had the success and been the dominant player he’s been over the years,” Romo said.

How far the Cowboys ride in 2009 depends on Romo bonding with Owens’ replacement, Roy Williams, acquired last season for a package that included first- and third-round draft picks and a five-year, $45 million extension for Williams.

Romo says he will take a more assertive leadership approach entering his fourth season as a starter.

“Contrary to some, I think he’s a natural leader,” Jones says. “I think his leadership role will naturally foment; his position and his talent at that position, and him exerting leadership is a big ingredient to us winning. … His awareness of his leadership responsibility is encouraging.”

Jones defended Romo from criticism by Aikman, who said that because success has come so quickly for the undrafted Eastern Illinois product that Romo “hasn’t fully grasped what being the Cowboys quarterback is all about.”

“I’ve always been so amused about any talk of Tony and his focus on football and his work ethic,” Jones says. “Tony’s boring. He won’t talk about anything but football and the Cowboys and how to move the ball and what plays we should run.  “I don’t know (that) I’ve been around anybody who’s just that into football. I wish he would talk more about spicy things, but I can’t get him to.”

Jones also parted ways this offseason with cornerback/return man Adam “Pacman” Jones, defensive tackle Tank Johnson, safety Roy Williams and linebacker Greg Ellis.  

Besides Romo, who missed three starts with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand in 2008, injuries to left guard Kyle Kosier, Barber, Felix Jones and punter Mat McBriar hamstrung Dallas a year after the Cowboys became the first-ever NFC top seed to suffer a one-and-done playoff exit since the seeding system was implemented in 1990. 

The Cowboys went 1-3 in December when Romo threw six of his 14 interceptions. A 44-6 drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles in the regular-season finale ensured the Eagles would advance to the playoffs and the Cowboys would stay home for the winter. “More than anything, the expectations are still high in Dallas, never higher than what our own expectations are,” Witten told USA TODAY at the Pro Bowl. “Not to make the playoffs is disappointing. But even more so for us because there’s such a high standard.” 

Critics cite Romo’s 5-10 record (including playoffs) in games played in December or later as a major concern. And though Romo laughed off a report Garrett wants Romo to arrive in better shape in order to help him finish the season stronger, Romo is a diligent worker, always looking to smooth his mechanics and vowing to do everything possible to change his and his team’s fortunes.  “Tony’s a good leader,” Witten says. “He gets criticized sometimes, and I don’t think he deserves it.” 

The Romo-friendly Cowboys will likely go as far as their quarterback takes them. And with Owens gone, there are no excuses. 

“We just have to finish,” Witten says. “You look across the board, we have a lot of talent. But sometimes it’s more than that. 

“We all have to play better. We just have to all come together and play well.  “You can’t just talk about your talent. You have to go show it.”

AROUND THE FIELD IN DALLAS

 

• Quarterback: Tony Romo, a two-time Pro Bowler, must overcome his December/January fade pattern. The offseason trade for former Detroit Lions starter Jon Kitna, who has good chemistry with former Lions receiver Roy Williams, should address a weakness.

 

• Running back: The run game figures to be the offense’s strength. Coordinator Jason Garrett’s challenge will be mixing and matching carries for Marion Barber III, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Look for Garrett to put Jones in motion in an attempt to unleash his home run-hitting speed. One way is a Cowboys version of the “Wildcat” called the “Razorback.”

 

• Wide receiver: Can a receiver-by-committee approach replace Terrell Owens‘ NFL-best 38 touchdown catches the past three years? The answer starts with Williams returning to the 2006 Pro Bowl form he displayed with Detroit. Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Sam Hurd will have to step up.

 

• Tight end: Five-time Pro Bowler Jason Witten has missed one game in six seasons. The rugged playmaker could be a bigger security blanket for Romo until the quarterback becomes comfortable with Williams. Sophomore Martellus Bennett could be a scary red-zone weapon.

 

• Offensive line: The loss of left guard Kyle Kosier to a broken foot after three games in 2008 caused this unit to struggle. Right guard Leonard Davis, center Andre Gurode and right tackle Marc Colombo had decent seasons. But left tackle Flozell Adams struggled with speed rushers when Kosier was lost.

 

• Defensive line: Tackle Jay Ratliff (7½ sacks) had his first Pro Bowl year. Free agent signee Igor Olshansky played for Wade Phillips with the San Diego Chargers and replaces Chris Canty. The defense had an NFL-best 59 sacks.

 

• Linebacker: DeMarcus Ware was unblockable at times as runner-up to Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Bradie James led all inside linebackers with eight sacks and was the team’s leading tackler for the fourth consecutive season. Anthony Spencer is a work in progress who will replace veteran Greg Ellis. Free agent acquisition Keith Brooking played for Phillips in Atlanta.

 

• Secondary: The unit had only eight interceptions, explaining the signing of safety Gerald Sensabaugh and the drafting of three defensive backs. Mike Jenkins or Orlando Scandrick will replace cornerback Anthony Henry. Rookie DeAngelo Smith is working at both safety spots. And fifth-rounder Mike Hamlin will compete for the free-safety job with Ken Hamlin, no relation. Last year’s seventh-round safeties, Alan Ball and Courtney Brown, are also in the mix

 

• Special teams: Joe DeCamillis, a respected veteran of more than 20 years, left the Jacksonville Jaguars to help improve this bunch. Punter Mat McBriar‘s broken foot is healed. Kicker Nick Folk is on schedule for a training camp return from hip surgery. Jones should help jump-start kick returns.

 

• Coaching staff: Phillips is the de facto defensive coordinator after Brian Stewart’s dismissal. Garrett and receivers coach Ray Sherman must get the running backs and young receivers to step up. DeCamillis is a needed upgrade.

 

• Outlook: Are the Cowboys a better team without Owens? To be determined. But they figure to be a tighter team without his distracting drama, and they might go further with a ball-control running attack come December and January. Cohesion, belief and consistency are intangibles that have eluded America’s Team in three consecutive late-season flameouts. Phillips has vowed to run a tougher training camp as he tries to spur this team to its potential. Anything less than a deep playoff run will likely result in his dismissal as he enters the final year of his contract.

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