Dallas Cowboys: High 5

High 5: Can Tony Romo finish strong?

July, 12, 2013
The last in ESPNDallas.com's five-part series looking at factors that must go Dallas’ way in a big way for the Cowboys to be contenders this season.

It’s simplistic and silly to just slap the choker label on Tony Romo.

Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the stress and pressure that NFL players experience heading into training camp.

Listen Listen
ColdHardFootballFacts.com’s Scott Kacsmar provides all sorts of statistical ammo to illustrate just how unfair and inaccurate it is to assume that Romo is incapable of performing in the clutch. The most impressive number: Romo’s passer rating in fourth quarters and overtime (100.7) is the highest among all quarterbacks since 2000.

Of course, that’s not the most commonly cited stat when it comes to Romo. He might as well replace the No. 9 on his jersey with 1-6, his record in win-or-go-home games.

Those losses obviously aren’t all on the quarterback. The holder, who just happened to be Romo, cost the Cowboys in the 2006 playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks. Pathetic offensive line play made Romo’s life miserable – and winning impossible – in the 2008 Philly Flop and the blowout loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the 2009 playoffs. The defense was dreadful in the de facto 2011 NFC East title game against the New York Giants.

ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss Sean Lee, Gavin Escobar, Dez Bryant and more as Cowboys training camp nears.

Listen Listen
But Romo has consistently failed to play up to his standard with the season at stake. That was especially true with a chance to win the NFC East title in last year’s regular-season finale, when his three interceptions were the primary reason the Cowboys lost to the Washington Redskins.

Romo’s passer rating in those seven win-or-go-home games: 77.0.

To put that passer rating in perspective, it would have ranked 26th in the NFL last season. It’s 18.6 points lower than his career passer rating of 95.6, which ranks fifth all-time, behind only Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.

There are examples of Romo performing well in big games. He was 23-of-35 for 244 yards and two touchdowns in his lone playoff win. In 2007, with the NFC’s top seed at stake and Romo’s boyhood idol Brett Favre on the other sideline, Romo was spectacular, throwing for 309 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Cowboys to a win. He threw for 312 yards and a touchdown in a turnover-free performance to help the Cowboys upset the previously undefeated Saints in December 2009.

For a variety of reasons, Romo just hasn’t been good enough often enough with the season on the line. If that trend ends this year, anything is possible for the Cowboys.

High 5: How badly will injury bug bite?

July, 11, 2013
The fourth in ESPNDallas.com's five-part series looking at factors that must go Dallas’ way in a big way for the Cowboys to be contenders this season.

Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray talks about how good he can be when completely healthy and discusses what the Cowboys need to do to improve in 2013.

Listen Listen
If Monte Kiffin’s defense in 2002 lost Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Dexter Jackson to injured reserve and had Simeon Rice playing with one arm, do you think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have won the Super Bowl that season?

Of course not.

That’s not to make excuses for Rob Ryan last season, but the simple fact is that no defensive coordinator is going to succeed if hit with that many key injuries. The collective wisdom of Kiffin and Rod Marinelli wouldn’t be enough to overcome the losses of Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Barry Church, as well as DeMarcus Ware being forced to play with one arm.

Ed Werder joins Ian Fitzsimmons and Tim MacMahon to discuss Jason Garrett's grasp on the locker room, Tony Romo's status for the start of training camp and the latest on Josh Brent.

Listen Listen
And it was awfully tough for the Cowboys’ offense to overcome DeMarco Murray missing six games and Miles Austin spending the entire season nursing nagging hamstring issues.

The injury bug took a Jaws-like chomp out of the Cowboys last season. To put a positive spin on it, the difference between 8-8 and a double-digit win campaign and NFC East championship could just be a little luck.

Of course, the durability concern with several of the key Cowboys – Lee, Carter, Murray, Austin – dates to well before last season. But they all enter training camp with a clean bill of health, giving the Cowboys hope that this season can be different.

High 5: Can first-rounder lift the O-line?

July, 10, 2013
The third in ESPNDallas.com's five-part series looking at factors that must go Dallas’ way in a big way for the Cowboys to be contenders this season.

Travis Frederick was too important to the Cowboys’ plans for them to take any chances.

Maybe he would have been available when they got on the clock with the 47th overall pick, but the Cowboys weren’t willing to risk it. Some considered selecting Frederick with the 31st overall pick, but the Cowboys had him as the No. 22 player on their board – and there was a steep drop to the next best interior offensive lineman still available.

The Cowboys were committed to addressing the interior line, which they rightfully determined was their most glaring need. After Frederick, Dallas didn’t have another center on their board until the fourth round. He was the only player at the position in the draft class that they were confident could be a walk-in starter.

How much of an impact can Frederick make as a rookie?

Jerry Jones declared during draft weekend that Frederick would be an “anchor” on the offensive line for a decade. The owner/GM gushed about the value of giving Tony Romo an “extra half-second of time” and the impact that having a center with Frederick’s physical strength could have on the guards.

The Cowboys aren’t just counting on Frederick to upgrade the center position. They expect his presence to make the guards better, whether incumbent starters Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau keep their jobs or Ronald Leary beats out one of them.

The poor performance of the interior offensive line was one of the primary reasons the Cowboys had the worst rushing attack in franchise history last season. The Cowboys believe Frederick can help fix that while also improving the protection of Romo.

That’s a lot to ask of a rookie, but if the Cowboys are right, the results ought to be especially noticeable in the red zone.
The second in ESPNDallas.com's five-part series looking at factors that must go Dallas’ way in a big way for the Cowboys to be contenders this season.

The way the offseason coaching changes played out was a PR nightmare for Jason Garrett, but the Cowboys made significant upgrades at both coordinator spots.

All due respect to Rob Ryan, but the Cowboys hired two defensive coordinators with much more impressive credentials than him. Monte Kiffin’s run in Tampa Bay ranks among the best by any defensive coordinator in NFL history. Rod Marinelli, the most overqualified position coach in the league, might as well be the co-defensive coordinator after choosing to leave Chicago following a season in which the Bears were No. 5 in total defense and led the league in turnovers forced.

Bill Callahan’s offensive coordinator title is no longer ceremonial. It took five months and some Jerry Jones meddling to get Garrett to admit it, but Callahan will be calling plays for the Cowboys.

It’s fair to wonder whether Callahan earned what amounts to be a promotion after the his offensive line’s struggles last season, but he’s a more accomplished NFL playcaller than Garrett, whose units regularly racked up a lot of yards and sputtered in the red zone. Callahan’s 2002 Oakland Raiders ranked first in yards and second in scoring en route to the Super Bowl.

The hope is that Garrett will also benefit from being relieved of the play-calling duties, allowing him to focus on the big-picture responsibilities of being a head coach. To put it bluntly, it eliminates any excuses for the Cowboys to continue to have critical, late-game clock-management malfunctions.

The primary reason for Garrett losing power is that the Cowboys haven’t scored enough point under his watch. They’ve ranked in the teens in scoring offense in four of the last five years – not coincidentally making the playoffs only once in that span.

The most obvious way to fix that is for Callahan to improve the Cowboys’ red-zone efficiency. But Kiffin and Marinelli could make an even bigger impact if their defense can give the Cowboys the ball in scoring territory a lot more often.

Marinelli’s Chicago defense led the league with 44 turnovers forced last season, a stunning 28 more than the Cowboys. Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defenses ranked top 10 in turnovers forced in six of his last nine seasons with the Bucs.

If the coordinators have the kind of impact the Cowboys hope, Garrett should be in the playoffs for the first time as a head coach, regardless of how much credit he’d get.

High 5: Does Dez build on 2012 success?

July, 8, 2013
The first in ESPNDallas.com's five-part series looking at factors that must go Dallas’ way in a big way for the Cowboys to be contenders this season.

Dez Bryant’s last eight games of 2012 were just an appetizer.

He’s not satisfied after blowing up for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in the second half of the season, when the Cowboys averaged 28.3 points per game. That just got Bryant’s stomach growling. He’s determined to make sure that success is a springboard to bigger things.

Who knows how good Bryant can be? He’s always been a physical freak blessed with a jaw-dropping blend of explosiveness, strength and the ability to make all kinds of circus catches. He’s made tremendous strides with his maturation and the mental aspects of the game, putting himself in position to tap into that immense potential.

Bryant believes he’s capable of reaching 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in a season. The odds are definitely against that, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the most talented receivers in the league.

Actually, he’s one of the NFL’s most talented playmakers, period.

It’s certainly reasonable to believe that Bryant can put up the best statistical season by a receiver in Cowboys history. Would anybody be surprised if he lights it up for 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns?

Not that it’s all about the numbers for Bryant. His job is to consistently be a dominant force who forces defenses to focus on him and comes up with big plays in clutch situations.

The Cowboys need Bryant to play up to his potential from the beginning of the season. If that happens, this offense ought to score a lot of points.