Romo and Garrett must be clutch
Jason Garrett and Tony Romo have at least one thing in common: They have to prove that they are clutch. Can they win consistently when it matters, and can they win in the postseason?
More than any other coach-quarterback tandem in the NFL, Garrett and Romo have the most to prove in 2011, and their fates almost assuredly will be intrinsically linked. Expectations will be high in Dallas. If the Cowboys fall flat for a second consecutive season, Jerry Jones could change quarterbacks or coaches -- again -- or both.
Jones fired Wade Phillips midway through last season after the Cowboys lost seven of their first eight games, and he handed the team to Garrett, who immediately instituted stricter rules. Players practiced in full pads on Wednesdays. There was more urgency in practice and a business-like atmosphere. Tardiness was not tolerated.
The result was that the Cowboys won five of their last eight games, and the losses were by a combined seven points. With nothing to lose, Dallas won, and it did so with Romo on the sideline with a broken collarbone.
Now Garrett has to show he can lead a team to victory when the expectations are high. He kept the Cowboys from quitting last season. Now he has to get them winning for a full season.
Although Garrett has said that every position will be up for grabs, Romo will be the starting quarterback, not Jon Kitna or Stephen McGee. Romo missed the final 10 games of the season, but he was cleared to practice shortly thereafter and he led player-organized workouts this offseason.
This will be Romo's ninth season in Dallas and sixth as the starter. In 2007, Jones rewarded Romo, an undrafted free agent out Eastern Illinois, with a six-year, $67.5 million contract extension. Since then, Romo has led the Cowboys to only one playoff victory, in 2009 over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Garrett will need Romo to be crisp, decisive, and clutch. He will need him to execute the offense, lead by example and make plays. Garrett will need Romo to put up the kind of numbers he did in 2009, when he threw for more than 4,400 yards and had 26 touchdown passes and only nine interceptions.
And Garrett will need Romo to not only get the Cowboys into the playoffs, but to win, because if he does not, Jones might be looking for more than a new quarterback.
Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Schaub, Kubiak need to progress
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has what he's been angling for since starting this expansion team. He has a coach he respects in Gary Kubiak and a quarterback who can throw for 4,700 yards in Matt Schaub.
But nothing is forever in the NFL, and that's why both are on the hot seat. Though Schaub isn't in jeopardy of losing his job if the Texans don't have a winning season or make the playoffs, he's under pressure to win this season. Kubiak's in a tougher position. It's hard to imagine Kubiak staying if the Texans don't win.
This is Year Six for Kubiak, who is 37-43 but has not been to the playoffs. McNair loves Kubiak's ability to build an offense. He loves the way he's developed Schaub. The rise of Arian Foster in the backfield and the presence of Andre Johnson at wide receiver have raised the expectation level.
As great as Schaub was throwing last season, he couldn't compensate for a pass defense that was one of the worst in NFL history.
McNair turned to Wade Phillips, who is a master of turning bad defenses good in his first season with a team. Phillips is transforming the Texans from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4. There was some thought of bringing him in last season within days of his firing in Dallas.
The problem facing Houston fans isn't new. In the late 1970s, Bum Phillips, Wade's father, assembled great Oilers teams but could never top the Pittsburgh Steelers to get to the Super Bowl. Kubiak and Schaub play in an AFC South that is dominated by the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning, who usually win the division.
Maybe a wild card is all that the Texans can hope for, but Kubiak and Schaub have to get that to get the coach off the hot seat. This would seem to be the year. The Jaguars are rebuilding. The Titans could be in transition mode with Mike Munchak as the new head coach. The Colts are still the Colts, but Manning hasn't done much this offseason because of the lockout and neck surgery.
A bad season could have McNair looking at Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. A new coach might have a different idea about whether Schaub can get this franchise to the playoffs.
McNair loves the Kubiak-Schaub partnership but he's also trying to produce a winner for patient Texans fans.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.