The Cowboys have their hearts in the right place in trying to put quarterback Tony Romo in the best position to succeed. They just don’t have any clue how to make it happen.
They’ve already given him generational wealth, in part because they’ve never truly attempted to draft and develop his replacement. The Cowboys have drafted offensive linemen in the first round in two of the past three drafts, which is not a bad idea. But they always seem to neglect key areas of their roster while trying to make Romo more comfortable.
Romo put up remarkable numbers in 2011 (31 TDs, 10 INTs) because he wasn’t trying to do something remarkable on every possession. Jon Kitna, the backup at the time, explained to me then that Romo had realized it was OK to punt the ball away every now and then. But in 2012, the Cowboys’ running game was non-existent, and the offensive line was among the worst in the league. Romo was asked to shoulder an enormous load, and he eventually went back to his old ways of trying to make too much happen.
The Cowboys responded by selecting a center, tight end and wide receiver with their first three picks in April’s draft. On the surface, it seems like a smart thing to surround Romo with more talent. But in doing so, the Cowboys abandoned the tried and true “best player available” strategy. Even when one of the most heralded defensive tackles in the draft, Sharrif Floyd, fell into their laps, the Cowboys decided not to pull the trigger. Jones crowed about the team’s depth along the defensive line and said Floyd was not a “quick-twitch” player. I think it’s already becoming clear the Cowboys did Romo a disservice with that decision. Barely a week into training camp, versatile defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is out for the year with a torn Achilles’ tendon and starting defensive end Anthony Spencer (franchise tag) will miss 2-4 weeks with arthroscopic surgery. Oh, and 31-year-old defensive tackle Jay Ratliff tweaked his hamstring during the conditioning test at the start of camp.
You now have the likes of Ben Bass lining up as the starter across from DeMarcus Ware. Bass couldn’t win a starting job with the pre-Johnny Football Aggies, so it’s a lot to ask of him to start in the NFC East. I think hiring Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli to coach this defense was a solid decision, but you sort of need to load up on defensive linemen when making the switch to a 4-3 scheme.
The Cowboys want to give Romo more say in the week-to-week game-planning process, and he’ll likely be able to call more plays on his own during games. But he’s going to slip right back into that gunslinger mentality if the Cowboys defense is giving up points at an alarming rate. Quite honestly, Jerry’s never been able to assemble a roster that can play up to the level of its quarterback.
“If you look at different quarterbacks — great ones, first-ballot Hall of Fame QBs — when they’ve been in different environments, the better the environment they’re in, the more they play within themselves,” Garrett told reporters in Oxnard, Calif. “When the environment puts more pressure on them to make all the plays, maybe they don’t play as well on a consistent basis.
“I don’t think this is a unique thing. We just have to make sure we get better around our quarterback so he can play his best all the time.”
To be clear, having inferior teammates doesn’t excuse amassing 15 of your 19 interceptions in just four games. A few of those came when the Cowboys were in desperation mode, but we know three of them came in a win-or-go-home game against the Redskins. Romo apologists can make the argument (quite well) that Romo’s actually a clutch quarterback. But what happened in Washington last season is indefensible. You can’t pin that loss on Rob Ryan’s defense.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch the dynamic between new playcaller Bill Callahan and Garrett. I don’t think the change would’ve been made without Romo’s consent. There’s a belief that Callahan will give Romo more freedom to do as he pleases in the no-huddle offense. The quarterback has been tremendous in situations where the Cowboys are forced to score quickly. And that needs to be a mentality earlier in games.
For whatever reason, the Cowboys tend to come out in a plodding manner at the start of games. Garrett’s never been able to provide a good explanation for that. Perhaps giving up the play-calling duties will allow Garrett to have a better feel for overall tempo.
But the problem you really can’t solve is that no one on the staff seems willing to lay down the law with Romo. Parcells and Tony Sparano were the last guys who could truly get Romo’s attention. And now Jerry has moved Romo ahead of son Stephen as the second-most powerful person in the organization.
The Cowboys have a chance to make some noise in a wide open division. But for now, it appears the organization still struggles when it comes to putting Romo in the best position to succeed.
In so many ways, everything’s still on his shoulders. If only Floyd had been more of a quick-twitch guy.