IRVING, Texas -- We spent the majority of training camp talking about how this was a different Cowboys team. And it was a rather obvious point when you considered that polarizing personalities such as Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones had been banished from the locker room.
Unfortunately, though, they don't hand out Lombardi trophies based on improved locker room chemistry. For the '09 Cowboys to be truly different from the teams that have spent the past 13 years dealing with playoff futility, we knew they had to exorcise their December demons and then win a couple of games in January. The arrival of blue-collar players such as linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive end Igor Olshansky via free agency seemed to suggest a different approach. From the start of training camp, the sense of entitlement that was captured on film by HBO's "Hard Knocks" heading into the '08 season seemed to disappear.
The Sultans of September seemed better equipped to hold up during the harsh winter months (I know it's Dallas, but just go with me). Brooking, whose successful run with the Falcons came to an abrupt halt, bristled at any mention of the Cowboys' past failures and seemed to convince his teammates to focus only on the present. But a team that surged into December with an 8-3 record suffered back-to-back losses to the Giants and Chargers, and once again they were hounded by questions. What happened next could end up being the turning point in this organization's dubious playoff winless streak.
Special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who has become the hammer that the cuddly Wade Phillips so desperately needed, showed the team a clip of Tony Dungy saying the Cowboys had "no chance" of beating the Saints in New Orleans. For whatever reason, the thought that a former NFL head coach would show them absolutely no respect angered the Cowboys to the point where they wanted to shut everyone up. The Cowboys scored 14 points on the previously unbeaten Saints before Sean Payton knew what hit him, and their confidence began to grow. It was certainly the biggest win of the Phillips era and it sent a message that the Cowboys might be a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs.
In trying to identify what makes this Cowboys team better-equipped for a successful playoff run than some of the talented teams of the past ('07), I think you have to point first to quarterback Tony Romo and then to Phillips' defense. Romo is playing as well if not better than any quarterback in the NFC right now. And it's a good sign that he elevated his game when the stakes became higher in December.
For all his gaudy numbers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has fallen off over the past month. And the same goes for Brett Favre, though he certainly made some huge plays in the second half of the loss against the Bears. Donovan McNabb and Aaron Rodgers are also operating at a high level, but neither of those quarterbacks has protected the ball as well as Romo.
You could attribute Romo's December failures in '06 and '07 to a lack of experience, but last season he simply didn't give his team a chance to win games down the stretch. And his infamous postgame news conference following a season-ending 44-6 loss to the Eagles made some Cowboys fans wonder whether he truly hated losing enough to make some much-needed changes.
When he threw three interceptions in a Week 2 loss to the Giants this season, Romo became the symbol for all that was wrong with the team. But while he took heavy criticism from both the media and fans, Romo stuck with a plan that he brought into the season.
He focused on becoming a better game manager and the following week he didn't have a turnover in a 21-7 win over the Panthers. Had we just met Tony the bus driver? But as his numbers reflect, Romo never stopped using his rare improvisational skills to create big plays. Heading into Sunday's NFC East showdown with the Eagles, Romo has played nine games in which he hasn't thrown an interception, and he's lost only four fumbles.
In '08, he threw at least one interception in 10 of the 13 games he started and lost seven fumbles. He did not trust offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and he felt the need to take unnecessary chances because the Cowboys' defense gave up too many points. Bill Parcells had left word that Romo needed to be coached all the way through games because of his habit of trying to do too much on his own. Although I don't think Romo would admit this publicly, I think he stopped listening to the coaches once Parcells and former quarterbacks coach David Lee left the building.
Honestly, I'm not sure it was a coach who finally got through to Romo this season. I think he finally came to the conclusion that the only way the Cowboys could be successful was for him to strike a proper balance between protecting the football and using his ability to make big plays in the passing game. Romo has been coy about the actual changes that he made heading into this season, but backup quarterback Jon Kitna has his own opinions.
"I think he came to the understanding that with every decision he makes, 52 other guys on the roster have to live with that decision," Kitna said Wednesday. "I think that's why he's been more willing to take a sack this season and not try to do everything on his own."
And here's where the defense ties into Romo's development as a quarterback. His willingness to throw the ball away or take the occasional sack has a lot to do with his trust that Phillips' defense will do its job. Earlier in the season, the Cowboys' defense played well for three quarters and then surrendered late leads. That hasn't been the case in recent games -- as evidenced by the defense's ability to end the Saints' frantic rally in a 24-17 win.
Only the Jets and Ravens have surrendered fewer points than the Cowboys (250), and remember that those teams don't face as many high-powered offenses on a regular basis. I remember late in '06, Romo felt like he had to make a play on every possession in order to give the Cowboys a chance to win. That Cowboys defense was getting lit up by teams such as the Lions who already had been eliminated from the playoffs. Now the quarterback of that Lions team is watching Romo take some very important steps.
"He's done a great job protecting the football," said Kitna. "His ball-handling skills in the pocket are excellent and you can see him tucking it away a lot more. More than anything, he doesn't feel the pressure to constantly make a play."
And that's why I think the Cowboys are poised to win their first playoff game in 13 seasons.