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No Tony Romo, no chance?

Cowboys can win with Kyle Orton, but big-money underachievers must step up

Updated: December 27, 2013, 6:35 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Tony Romo will miss Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Dallas Cowboys can still win with Kyle Orton playing quarterback.

Stop laughing.

Hey, Minnesota scored 48 points against Philadelphia two weeks ago with a backup quarterback and a third-string running back.

Yes, the Cowboys can beat the Eagles, but they need some of the underachieving big-money dudes on the roster to play to their pedigree and their contracts.

You can start with DeMarcus Ware.

Then add Miles Austin, Jerry Jones' $54 million receiver, and cornerback Brandon Carr, the $50 million cornerback, to the list.

In its simplest form, the game is about big-time players making plays.

Let's keep it real. Ware, Carr and Austin have all disappointed this season based on the standard they have established for themselves. If they don't like hearing that, too bad. Play better. Unless, of course, they would prefer we lower our expectations. After all, Ware has been a perennial Pro Bowl performer, Austin has had a couple of 1,000-yard seasons and Carr has been a good player with a knack for making plays.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware has reached double-digit sacks for seven consecutive seasons, but he'll need four sacks in the final three games to keep the streak alive.
AP Photo/James D. SmithThe Cowboys need DeMarcus Ware to finish the regular season on a high note after what has been a subpar campaign by his standards.

Ware counts $8 million against the salary cap -- only Romo counts more. Carr's $5.4 million number and Austin's $3.5 hit rank fourth and seventh, respectively, on the team.

If neither turns in his best game of the season Sunday, no one will be shocked if the Cowboys miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year -- a first since Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989.

It all begins with Ware, who has been one of the NFL's best players since the Cowboys made him the 11th pick in the 2005 draft.

Until now.

According to NFL.com, Ware ranks 68th among defensive linemen, with 36 tackles. He has just 6.5 sacks, which means his streak of consecutive 10-plus-sack seasons will probably end at seven Sunday.

Maybe he's still hampered by the quadriceps injury that forced him to miss three games in the middle of the season. Whatever the case, he hasn't been consistently harassing quarterbacks and forcing them to make decisions under duress.

That can't happen Sunday.

The Cowboys rank 31st in the NFL in sacks and didn't come close to putting Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins on the ground last Sunday, the second time in four games they didn't record a sack.

If they don't consistently pressure Nick Foles, the Eagles quarterback will destroy a Cowboys secondary that has allowed a league-leading 66 completions of more than 20 yards. Philadelphia leads the NFL with 75 completions of more than 20 yards -- eight more than Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos.

Too many of those have come against Carr, who hasn't played well since Calvin Johnson caught the bulk of his 14 receptions and 329 yards against the cornerback when the Lions beat Dallas on Oct. 27. According to Pro Football Focus, in the last eight games, teams have completed 42 of 62 passes against Carr for 596 yards, while he has just three pass deflections and one interception. Washington's Pierre Garcon caught 11 passes for 144 yards last week, and much of that came against Carr.

"It's unrealistic to say a cornerback is going to shut down a receiver every week," coach Jason Garrett said of Carr. "He's played well at different times. At other times, they've caught balls on him. That's the nature of the position he plays. He's been a really really good player for us."

So has Austin. It just seems as if that was a long time ago. This would be a good week for him to be an impact player again.

Austin caught 15 passes for 125 yards in the first three games of the season before suffering yet another hamstring injury that forced him to miss five of the next seven games. Since then, he has caught seven passes for 97 yards in the last five games.

The Cowboys must have players step up.

Dallas held Philadelphia without a touchdown the first time they played. But the Eagles have scored at least 24 points in each of the last seven games. Four times they have scored at least 30 points. Orton and the offense -- based on the Cowboys' raggedy defense -- need at least 28 points to even think about winning.

Dez Bryant and Jason Witten will get plenty of attention. So will running back DeMarco Murray, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Austin will have opportunities to beat man-to-man coverage. We just don't know if he can consistently beat it. That said, Garrett doesn't want any of his players trying to do too much.

"You just want to encourage guys to do their job as well as they can do it," Garrett said. "You get into issues when everyone wants to do someone else's job, so focus on doing your job to best of your ability with all your heart and all your might."

Does that go for his best players like Ware?

"They need to do their jobs really well," Garrett said.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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