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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Could Romo's quietest season be his best?

By Dan Graziano

Tony Romo
Cowboys QB Tony Romo, usually known for losing games in December, is 3-0 so far this month.
How odd it must feel for Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, walking around these days without everybody on his back. It's nearly Christmas, he hasn't lost in a month and he's got his team two wins from an NFC East title, yet you've hardly heard a word about the guy. I guess when one of the most heavily criticized quarterbacks in the league stops giving his detractors material, people move on to other topics. Debating which of the great rookie quarterbacks is the best, agonizing over all the guys the Jets have who can't play, that kind of thing.

No, you don't hear much about Romo these days, which is undoubtedly fine with him. Very quietly, he has moved up to third in the league in passing yards. After throwing 13 interceptions in his first seven games (nine of which were contained in only two games), he has thrown only three in his past seven. Most important, he has won five of his past six, including all three in December, which as anyone can tell you isn't supposed to be his month. His season, like that of his surprise-playoff-contender team, has sneaked up on all of us. Admit it, when you saw him Wednesday in Mike Sando's MVP Watch, your reaction was something like, "Whaaa??? Oh. Yeah. I guess so. Look at that."

Now, a reputation is the last thing to go, of course. Romo could play 25 games in a row without an interception and if he threw one in the fourth quarter of Game 26 everybody would say, "See? Same old Romo." The only way to combat that particular problem is to win a Super Bowl. And while Romo and the Cowboys are still a long way from that, it's worth considering the idea that this season, in which the noise around Romo seems to have dropped to a whisper, has a chance to turn out to be his very best.

Consider the way he's playing, which is downright responsible. Yes, the yardage is in Brees/Brady territory, but the touchdown passes (22, tied for eighth in the league) are not. And the interception total, inflated by a five-pick game against the Bears and a four-pick game against the Giants that he came within a fingertip of winning anyway, is the fifth-worst in the league. Romo has been effective in the second half of the season, but it has not been pretty. The high yardage numbers indicate a QB who has been behind a lot and was playing without a real running game for half the season while DeMarco Murray's foot healed.

But they also indicate a guy who's willing and able to do what it takes to keep his team in games or scramble from behind. And the fact that five of his past seven games have been interception-free indicates that he's not just irresponsibly flinging the ball around because he's behind and desperate. Romo and the Cowboys are playing smart, panic-free football regardless of the situation these days, and that's the main reason they've been able to hang around and pull out so many of these games in the second half.

Romo deserves some credit, too, for the breakout season of Dez Bryant, the troubled/talented wide receiver on whom Romo quite publicly refused to give up when others appeared eager to do so. Bryant adores Romo and trusts him completely, and the reason for that is that Romo has, since the beginning, made it clear that he and Bryant were in this thing together. The loyalty and leadership Romo has displayed in persistently helping Bryant get better is being rewarded as Bryant plays through a broken finger and produces like one of the best wide receivers in the NFL.

There's no way to know how this all turns out from here. The Cowboys are in a three-way tie for first place at 8-6, and they could finish 8-8 or 10-6 or 9-7 and none of those would be a surprise. Drew Brees and the Saints could roll in there Sunday and torch an injury-ravaged Dallas defense, forcing Romo to outscore them to win. And if that happens, and if he comes up short, and if it costs the Cowboys a shot at the playoffs, you can bet the "Same Old Romo" chorus will start up again.

But that's not what has been happening in Dallas, and the Cowboys' sudden presence in the thick of the playoff race is starting to make people notice. What has been happening has been overachieving play from the fill-ins on that defense, improvement on the once-miserable offensive line and consistent leadership, judgment and excellence from the quarterback position in the biggest spots. No one in Dallas is getting rattled. The atmosphere around the Cowboys is one of calm competence. And while that may not make for good headlines or debate-show fodder, the silence from the outside has to be music to Romo's ears. It's entirely possible that we'll look back and say he had his very best year ever once everybody stopped paying attention.