Cowboys young WRs have earned Romo’s trust

ARLINGTON, Texas — With a date with the defending Super Bowl champs looming, Tony Romo led the first-team offense through its final dress rehearsal Saturday. He carved up a St. Louis Rams secondary that looked lost for much of the first quarter.

And the most important thing is that Romo exited the game just in time to let his backup, Kyle Orton, take the most punishing hit of the evening. The Cowboys won’t have the luxury of seeing their starting offensive line play together before their trip to the Meadowlands, but Romo was able to operate behind four-fifths of that group in a 20-19 win over the Rams.

The Cowboys were able to overwhelm the Rams’ first-team defense without starters Miles Austin (hamstring), Jason Witten (spleen) and Dez Bryant (knee). Austin and Bryant will definitely be ready to go against the Giants, but Witten’s probably a longshot at this point.

The upshot to his absence is that backup tight ends John Phillips and rookie James Hanna have flourished with more playing time. The Cowboys knew that Hanna could eventually help them in the passing game, but his blocking has been a pleasant surprise. Phillips caught a 21-yard pass from Romo in the first quarter that would’ve put the ball at the Rams 3, but he picked up a highly questionable offensive pass interference penalty.

On the Cowboys’ first drive, Romo had plenty of time to deliver a 25-yard pass to Kevin Ogletree, who has secured the third-receiver role over the past couple weeks. Ogletree dropped a pass on a quick slant on third-and-6 from the Rams 20 on that first drive, but he still had a solid game.

The offense provided Jason Garrett with a perfect-case scenario. The Cowboys led 17-3 at the end of the first quarter and held the ball for more than 10 minutes. Garrett didn’t think twice about removing Romo from the game at that point, clearing the way for poor Orton to get rocked by Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar early in the second quarter.

Romo was 9 of 13 for 198 yards and two touchdowns during his brief appearance. And if you’re into passer ratings, 151.4 seems like a good number. He dumped the ball off to DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones quite it a bit on the Cowboys’ first drive. But on the second drive, Romo found second-year receiver Dwayne Harris running alone for a 61-yard touchdown. Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis was the only defender in the vicinity, which seems like a pretty good indicator there was a bust.

Harris followed that up with a 38-yard touchdown on the next drive. The former East Carolina star caught the ball across the middle and then somehow sliced through safety Craig Dahl and cornerback Janoris Jenkins near the sideline before diving into the end zone. It’s safe to say that Harris has probably claimed a roster spot at this point.

He finished with three catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. By the time he checked his cellphone late Saturday, he had 30 new text messages from friends and family. Harris was released last October and signed to the Cowboys’ practice squad for the next couple months. He was promoted to the active roster Dec. 14 and he intends to stay. The biggest thing for him has been earning Romo’s trust.

“Tony used to say, ‘Harris, you have great ability, but you have to eliminate the mental mistakes,'” the wide receiver told FOXSportsSouthwest.com. “I would mess up a formation or run the wrong route, and he would be pretty upset. But I feel like he’s gained confidence in me now.”

Early in training camp, Romo became so impatient with his young receivers that he would spike the football during drills and shout at them. Head coach Jason Garrett admired his quarterback’s passion, but he talked to him about needing to show more poise. Now it appears some of that tough love is paying off for the young receivers.

“He’s a passionate guy. He’s a passionate about football,” Garrett said of Romo. “He’s passionate about life. He wants things to go well. He works very hard to make sure they go well for our football team. When they don’t go well, sometimes you show your emotion. That’s a natural reaction for somebody who puts so much into things.”

Ogletree finished with five catches for 75 yards against the Rams. He’s fortunate to still be on the roster because he’s been so unreliable in the past. But it appears that he’s finally putting everything together. Garrett is partial to Ogletree because he has the ability to play outside or inside equally well. He’s become a more physical player in this preseason, although he did appear to hear footsteps on his one drop Saturday. The Cowboys would’ve preferred to have Austin and Bryant play together in the preseason, but they’ve made the best of the situation.

“Sometimes it can help your football team depth-wise for some young guys to get in the first group to play and get a chance to see what it’s like with the talent level and the competition you have to go against,” said Romo. “It can be a bonus.

“You never want your [starters] to be out. But when they come back, it’ll provide us with an incredible boost we’re looking forward to.”

Despite all the injuries, Romo was extremely pleased with how things went during training camp. The depth at receiver was a huge question mark just a couple of weeks ago, but the last two preseason games have provided some answers. Even 5-foot-8 Cole Beasley, a rookie who left camp at one point to apparently gather his thoughts, has returned with a vengeance. The former SMU wide receiver had three catches for 40 yards Saturday, including a nifty one-handed grab.

Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones, a man who recently said he would use something called the “Ben Franklin procedure” to choose a third wide receiver, talked about the possibility of keeping seven wide receivers on the final 53-man roster.

“You could do that, but a lot of it has to do with where we end up injury-wise after the game Wednesday night,” Jones said. “But still, we’ve got room.”

Having to create room for wide receivers on this roster is an unexpected – and pleasant – surprise.