- Todd Archer, ESPN Staff Writer
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Coming off a second back surgery last December, Romo has not taken every training camp snap with the first team as he did coming off the first back surgery in the spring of 2013. It has led to confusion and speculation as to how much the 34-year-old quarterback has left.
What has been lost in the interpretations is how Romo has played when he has practiced. He has looked very much like the same quarterback who threw 31 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions last year.
Much has been made about Wade Wilson's comments about Romo's inconsistency on the deep ball in camp, but two of his noticeable throws have led to a deep completion and a touchdown. Romo threw 16 passes last year that traveled more than 31 yards. He had 25 in 2012. The Cowboys' passing game is not about go routes. It's about the intermediate game and Romo has no problems with those throws.
There should be natural concern as to whether Romo can make it through a season. Back injuries ended Troy Aikman's career at 34. Romo said he has another four, five or six years left in him. He has to follow a detailed protocol each day to make sure the back is strong. He takes multiple trips to the ice tub a day. He does specific hamstring, gluteus and abdominal exercises to strengthen his core and take the stress off his back.
Romo does not doubt he will be the same guy, but there are skeptics; just as there have been since he took over for Drew Bledsoe in 2006.
"Not everyone knows but once you have back surgery you kind of have to change the way you do things," Romo said. "You have to constantly work on your glutes, your hamstrings, your abs and strengthen everything around that area and so life will be different after that. But that doesn't mean you can't do the things that it takes to be successful on the field or whatever you want to do. There's been plenty of people who've done it. You just got to go do it. It just takes work."
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The Cowboys have their best offensive line since 2007 when Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode made the Pro Bowl. They have rebuilt the line over the past four years with three first-round picks in Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014). They are big-school, prototype players and will give Romo time to throw the ball, Dez Bryant time to get down the field and DeMarco Murray space to run it. It will also give the defense plenty of time on the sideline. The commitment to the run by new playcaller Scott Linehan must be on display to truly believe the Cowboys will change their ways, but the line gives them a dynamic they have not had since Romo's first full year as a starting quarterback when they went 13-3.
2. Last year, Bryant became the first Cowboys wide receiver with back-to-back 90-catch seasons. He also earned his first Pro Bowl spot. Over the past two years he has 25 touchdowns. In training camp he has been just as good if not better. Bryant can do things athletically that only a few receivers in the NFL can do with his size, speed and athleticism. He can run through and by corners. He can jump over and around them. He gives Romo the ability to throw a bad pass and turn it into a long completion. He still has to fine-tune his route-running, but he is taking the role of leader in the receivers' room seriously now that he is the most experienced Cowboy. Linehan's past with Calvin Johnson should also help shake Bryant free from certain double-teams.
3. Not since 2002 have expectations been so low for the Cowboys, and that is a good thing. After missing their window for success from 2007 to 2010, the Cowboys have been overhyped for most of the past four playoff-less seasons. Because they have a visible owner, play on national television a ton and have recognizable names, many have kept calling the Cowboys one of the most talented teams in the NFL even if that wasn't true. After three straight 8-8 seasons and the losses of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee on defense, calls for 6-10 or worse have been heard more than calls for anything better than 8-8. The Cowboys went 5-1 in the NFC East last year with the worst defense in franchise history. With just a tad better play defensively, the Cowboys believe they can make the postseason.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Jerry Jones said more than once that the defense will be better in 2014 because it can't be worse than it was in 2013. Well, he's right. They can't be 33rd in a 32-team league, but the numbers can be worse. Without Ware and Hatcher, with Henry Melton coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament and with Anthony Spencer doubtful to be ready for Week 1, the Cowboys do not have a proven pass-rusher. Losing second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence was crushing. When Rod Marinelli's scheme has worked best, it's been because of the four-man pass rush. Without a dynamic rusher, the Cowboys will rely on waves of rushers but that is based more on hope than reality. With no pass rush, the secondary, which has concerns, could be exposed again.
2. Jason Garrett is in the final year of his deal and Jones is in no rush to offer an extension. Nor should he be with Garrett posting a 29-27 record in three-plus seasons. Garrett has fended off questions about his future over the past year and Jones has expressed optimism that Garrett could be his long-term coach. If the Cowboys get off to a slow start, then Garrett's future could be an almost daily topic and become a distraction. Jones has said there is no playoff mandate for Garrett to keep his job. Garrett has done a good job re-tooling the roster and has had the Cowboys within a Week 17 win of making the postseason in each of the previous three seasons but hasn't gotten the job done. If he doesn't get it done in 2014, it's hard to imagine he will be around in 2015.
3. If the Cowboys do not get off to a decent start with six of their first nine games at AT&T Stadium, then it could be a long year -- and the $1.2 billion stadium has not been much of a home-field advantage. Two of the first four opponents are San Francisco and New Orleans, among the favorites in the NFC. The Cowboys have a trip to Seattle and host Arizona, which was a 10-win team a year ago. Three of the last four games are on the road and December games have not been kind to the Cowboys.
Murray looks primed for another 1,000-yard season. Health will be an issue until he proves he can get through a 16-game season, but he has been strong and decisive in camp. Something clicked in him late last season and he stopped leaving yards on the field. The last time the Cowboys had a runner with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons was Emmitt Smith in 2000-01.
Losing Lee was a major blow. He was by far their best defender. Justin Durant has done decently as Lee's successor, but it looks as if the Cowboys want Rolando McClain to win the middle linebacker job. He was about to get a lot of looks with the first team before minor leg injuries slowed him down. The interesting part of McClain at the Mike is that Durant was about to move to the weakside spot, which would put Bruce Carter on the bench. Carter has yet to turn it on enough at camp.
Losing Lawrence for at least the first three regular-season games is a tough blow. He was developing quickly and was ready to supplant Jeremy Mincey as the starting right defensive end. Without Lawrence, the Cowboys don't have a pure right end. They have solid left defensive ends and solid inside rushers, but not that 10-sack guy. Mincey, however, has some juice as an interior rusher in nickel situations, as does Tyrone Crawford. Melton will have to return to his Pro Bowl form for the pass rush to take hold.
The Cowboys could make things interesting at cornerback if they truly start the best two players. Orlando Scandrick has had a good camp and was the best corner last year. Morris Claiborne has been more competitive this year but has given up plays. Brandon Carr missed the first two weeks of camp to be with his ailing mother. The Cowboys made Claiborne the sixth pick of the 2012 draft and gave Carr $50 million the same year. Could one of them be the third corner?
There should be no worry about Terrance Williams as the No. 2 receiver. He has done everything asked of him. The No. 3 job has the look of a committee with Cole Beasley serving as the leader on it, followed by Gavin Escobar, Dwayne Harris and rookie Devin Street.
With a defense that needs all kinds of help, the Cowboys will need their special teams to come through with short fields. Harris is an adept returner but there is a drop-off after him in the punt and kickoff game, with Beasley and Street on punts or Lance Dunbar or Joseph Randle on kickoffs.