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Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Updated: August 21, 11:23 AM ET
Tony Romo must be better early

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Tony Romo threw 638 passes last season. Only 83 occurred with the Dallas Cowboys leading.

For a team that finished 8-8, that's hard to do.

Seriously.

Highland Park graduate Matthew Stafford threw 727 passes and the Detroit Lions finished 4-12. Even he threw 117 passes with a lead.

Some of you, notably the "Romo Apologists," will blame the quarterback's low number of pass attempts with a lead on Jason Garrett's play selection or game plans. That's if you're not blaming it on the offensive line, the receivers or global warming.

Here's a novel concept: Blame the quarterback, a least a little, since Romo threw six interceptions and one touchdown in the first quarter last season. His 61.3 first-quarter passer rating was his worst by more than 25 points. His 6.08 yards per attempt in the first quarter was his worst by more than a yard and a half.

Tony Romo
Tony Romo and the Cowboys have had a tendency to dig early holes and abandon the run game, a trend that can't continue.

As the $108 million quarterback and offensive coordinator -- technically Bill Callahan has the title, but we know who's running the offense -- Romo is positioned to make the Cowboys a better first-quarter team.

If the Cowboys play better in the first quarter, then they'll have better offensive balance. The hope is that more balance leads to more wins. The reality is the game plan gets tossed out when you trail by two or three touchdowns in the first half.

This is Jason Garrett's offense, a multifaceted hodgepodge of things he learned from Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Jon Gruden and others over the years, but Romo is running it. And this season, more than any other, Romo will influence the Cowboys' offense.

He has more authority than ever to call an audible, and the Cowboys will be using the plays Romo likes the best, especially since he's spending a chunk of Tuesdays -- typically an off day for players -- with Garrett, Callahan and the offensive staff putting the game plan together. The route combinations used on pass plays and the overall offensive philosophy inside the 20 and on third downs will, for the most part, belong to Romo.

There's nothing wrong with that.

Romo, entering his seventh season season as a full-time starter, wanted the added responsibility and demanded it when negotiating his six-year contract extension in the offseason. So he'll get the credit or the blame, as he should, for much of the offense's success or failure this season.

It starts with him playing better from the start. We're talking about a team that didn't take a 7-0 lead until Week 17 against Washington.

Ridiculous.

The Cowboys scored just two touchdowns on their 16 opening drives. Only Oakland had fewer. Atlanta and Cincinnati led the NFL with seven touchdowns on their first possession.

The offense's overall first-quarter performance wasn't much better. The Cowboys ranked 30th in first-quarter scoring with 36 points. Only Philadelphia and Oakland scored less.

You would think spending countless hours studying video and charting defensive tendencies would allow the Cowboys to have more first-quarter success.

"So many different ways it comes down to execution, and execution starts with the coaching staff and trickles down to the players," Garrett said during training camp. "I don't know that you can pinpoint one thing. I certainly don't think we weren't emotionally ready. In some cases, we were too hyped up to play. I don't know that there's on overarching theme. It comes down to we didn't execute well enough for a lot of different reasons."

When Garrett talks about execution, he's talking about reducing the first-quarter turnovers, penalties and missed assignments that ruin drives.

Playing better in the first quarter ranks high on Garrett's priority list.

We all know these Cowboys aren't nearly talented enough to spot their opponents huge leads then  consistently come back to win.

At home last season, the Cowboys trailed the Chicago Bears 27-10, the New York Giants 23-0, the Washington Redskins 28-3, the Cleveland Browns 13-0, the Philadelphia Eagles 14-3 and the New Orleans Saints 31-17.

The Cowboys won only two of those games. rallying to defeat Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Romo is at the epicenter for any first-quarter improvement the Cowboys make. It's his offense and game plan. Now, all he has to do is play better early.

Do that, and the wins will follow.