Dallas Cowboys' next challenge: Maintain
September, 13, 2012
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com
Al Bello/Getty ImagesTony Romo & Co. are under pressure to beat Seattle and prove last week's win was not a fluke."Seattle" is something of a dirty word for Dallas Cowboys fans. A five-year-old playoff loss on a botched field-goal snap is one of the most stubborn barnacles clinging to Tony Romo's legacy as the Cowboys quarterback. To many, that play defines the Romo era as much as anything else that's happened -- moreso than the Cabo trip and the loss to the Giants a year later; much moreso than any of the very good things he's done since. Those who are determined to believe Romo can't get the job done when it matters always bring up Seattle, when the job couldn't have been simpler and still didn't get done.
But while bad memories may well accompany the Cowboys on their trip west, Seattle this week is not about what happened five and a half years ago. This week, it's about a "trap" game, and about the 2012 Cowboys' chance to build their very impressive Week 1 victory into something sustainable.
Beating the Giants last Wednesday was harder for the Cowboys than beating the Seahawks would be this Sunday. The Giants are Super Bowl champions, with stars at quarterback and wide receiver and all across the defensive line. They are the team that beat the Cowboys twice down the stretch last year and stole the NFC East title away from them. Getting up for the Giants game, especially a nationally televised primetime season opener, was not a problem. Playing as well as the Cowboys did in winning that game was an achievement worthy of pride -- an affirmation of all of their offseason work and preparation. They told themselves and anyone who'd listen that they'd fixed the problems they had on defense, that things would be better this year, and the opener offered ample evidence that they may just be right.
But that's only one game's worth of evidence, and as the Cowboys found out last year you need 16. That's why everyone who wants to know just what this year's Cowboys are capable of doing will be watching Sunday's game as closely as they watched last Wednesday's. Seattle has a rookie quarterback in Russell Wilson, very little of note at wide receiver and, while its defensive front is very good against the run, it doesn't present the same kinds of All-Pro challenges the Cowboys' tackles got from Jason Pierre-Paul & Co. If the Cowboys are really going to be a contender this year, this is a take-care-of-business game.
Part of the textbook criticism of Romo is that he's never been a guy to take his responsibilities seriously. The hat on backwards, the goofy grin, the laid-back attitude all conspire to convince Romo's doubters that he's no leader. Inside the Cowboys' locker room, these perceptions are derided as ridiculous, or at the very least outdated. Cowboys players say Romo has grown into a great leader. The younger players in the room respect him without question. The veterans, who have suffered the same disappointments he has, appreciate the path he's taken to where he is now. But none of that matters without success on the field, and it's consistent, weekly maintenance of success for which Romo and the Cowboys are looking.
The Cowboys, in the second full year of Jason Garrett's head coaching tenure, are an organization determined to build for the future. But they're also aware of the perpetual pressure their team faces to contend and win in the present. Their belief is that their combination of veteran leaders (Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, etc.) and young stars (Dez Bryant, Sean Lee, DeMarco Murray, etc.) is good enough to make something special happen. They believe they can have a top defense, that the offensive line issues can either improve or be overcome and that they can put together a balanced, high-powered attack. The Week 1 victory over the Giants offered plenty of fuel for the continuation of those beliefs. But a bad loss to a team they should beat would force everyone to tap the brakes on the early-season excitement. If the Cowboys fly home 1-1 on Sunday night, they'll land in a cloud of the same old doubt.
But if they look as good as they did last Wednesday, and if they fly home 2-0 ... well, then you start to think they might have something. The Cowboys were one of the surprises of Week 1, and the way they beat the champs gave them and their fans a truckload of reasons to feel good and encouraged about the way this season might go after all. Their challenge now is to take what they were in that game and build it into what they are, week in and week out. If they can do that, then you start to think they can hold the lead in December. If they can string together a few performances that look anything like what they did against the Giants, the Cowboys will be giving themselves reason to believe they're capable of big things. This is a team that bears watching over the coming weeks and months. Because if they can add consistency to the potential and the ability they've shown us already, then they're a team to be feared.