At the team Christmas party earlier this week, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo inadvertently was spreading good cheer. In a conversation with team vice president and player personnel director Stephen Jones, Romo explained his football education continues at the age of 33, in his 11th season.
"I still learn every day about the game," Romo told Jones. "The game still slows down for me every year."
Some of Romo's statistics aren't as gaudy this season as they have been in the past. He has thrown for 300 yards only three times. But 2013 could be his best season if he keeps the Cowboys going in the direction they have been. Jones believes Romo is playing at "the highest level he's played."
What Romo has done marvelously is not lose the game. That isn't to say others on his team have not lost the game, because the Cowboys are 7-5. But Romo has held up his end. Among quarterbacks who have started every game, Romo's interception percentage of 1.6 is second best behind caretaking Alex Smith.
The recent Sports Illustrated cover boy has thrown one interception for every 63 passes this year. Previously in his career, he threw one for every 36 passes.
The perception of Romo as a quarterback who doesn't come through under pressure is as outdated as dial-up Internet.
This week, there has been much talk about how he has an 11-15 record in the month of December. There has been less talk about how, in the last four years, his December passer rating of 106.3 is second highest in the NFL to Aaron Rodgers' 109 among players with at least 300 attempts. His five December interceptions over that time period are the fewest, according to STATS LLC.
Jones thinks this about Romo's December win-loss record: "There have been situations surrounding Tony that have been difficult. You win as a team and lose as a team. I don't believe the lack of success in December deserves to be placed on Tony's shoulders. He deserves part of it, as we all do, but not the lion's share."
Romo sometimes is compared to Peyton Manning because the perception is both fade late in the year. He could be compared to Manning in another sense: Both are getting better with age.
As is the case with Manning, much of Romo's success is the result of will, determination and hard work. For players with his kind of commitment, the years can be a friend. Time and money have not made his edge any duller. He remains a first-in, last-out kind of guy.
"He is spending more time in the game than ever," Jones said. "He is very involved in the game planning now. He sits in on more meetings than he used to. That's a good thing because most coaches will tell you they like to do things their quarterbacks are comfortable with."
Given Romo's love of all aspects of the game, including the grind of preparation, Jones says he has no doubt Romo will one day be a great coach. That may well be the case, but for now there are Bears, Packers, Redskins and Eagles to contend with. And if Romo and his teammates keep playing the way they have, there will be a few opponents after that.
Jones walked away from that Christmas party feeling pretty good, maybe even better than you are supposed to feel walking away from a Christmas party. "Quarterbacks can get better with age," he said. "I believe his best football still is ahead of him."
• More than one NFL front-office man thinks the Tennessee Titans' Jurrell Casey is the best-kept secret in the NFL. With nine sacks, Casey has become one of the finest interior rushers in the game, and he may be the best in the league at the moment.
"He is amazingly quick off the ball," one veteran talent evaluator said. "He gets back there with the snap." Casey fell to the third round of the 2011 draft because he lacks ideal height (6'1") and athleticism (his pre-draft workouts impressed no one).
Casey does not have the ideal physique, but scouts say he has extraordinary explosiveness in his hips and feet. But the real reason he has become such a force of late? The word out of Saint Baptist Sports Park is he really, really wants to be great, and that he is highly motivated.
• Maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by Josh Gordon's dominating performances. His talent never has been questioned. The Browns chose him with the seventh pick of the second round in the supplemental draft in the summer of 2012.
If Gordon had stayed in school and entered the 2013 draft, he would have been rated as the top receiver on the Browns' board—ahead of Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, all of whom were chosen before the seventh pick of the second round.
Gordon's draft appeal was diminished by off-the-field concerns, so many teams never considered him seriously. But it wasn't because of a lack of ability.
• When the Bengals drafted Giovani Bernard, they did so with the intention of having him be part of a running back tandem with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So far, they have stuck to that plan. But don't be surprised if the rookie gets more action as time goes on and eventually becomes a featured back.
The Bengals believe he is plenty big enough at 5'9", 208 pounds. What's more, Bernard quickly has shown he can handle everything asked of a running back, including running inside or out, picking up the blitz and catching out of the backfield.
• With 396 receiving yards in his last three games, Michael Floyd has chased away the doubts that followed him during his rookie season. The Cardinals who know him best say his improvement has been the result of his commitment to being the best he can be.
Veteran Larry Fitzgerald clearly has been a positive influence on Floyd in terms of showing him how to work, and Floyd's natural competitiveness has taken over from there. Floyd has improved at getting off the press and is catching the football more consistently—two things he has worked hard at.
• Here is a new draft trend road scouts have been talking about this season: Many college teams now are giving scouts lists of underclassmen who will likely declare themselves eligible for the draft. They also are freely giving the scouts information about underclassmen, whereas in the past they often refused to talk about them.
What's going on? Well, college teams are realizing that getting players drafted, and getting them drafted as high as possible, is good for recruiting. Many college coaches are becoming more accepting of losing a player after three years because it helps them sell the program to the next batch of recruits.
Assistant Coach You Should Know: Steve Wilks
Given that the Panthers defense is thriving with a makeshift secondary, DBs coach Steve Wilks is starting to get looks from head coaches who could be in the market for a defensive coordinator. Wilks, who is believed to be a free agent at season's end, has made do with nine different starters in the secondary, including two undrafted free-agent rookies.
"Steve has done a good job and is growing into a bigger role," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, who brought Wilks to San Diego and Carolina after working with him in Chicago. "You look at what we are going through in terms of development of our secondary, and it's a tribute to him."
Wilks is known for being able to connect with players. "I love Coach Wilks," said veteran safety Quintin Mikell. "He's a great guy. He's fiery, especially on game day. He's ready to go. He wants to suit up. He's been around a lot of good teams over the years. He has a lot of good football acumen."
Draft Tip of the Week: Who's No. 1?
With quarterback Marcus Mariota deciding to stay at Oregon for another year, nobody can say with certainty who the first pick of the draft will be.
In fact, a similar scenario could play out to the one that played out in the last draft, in which an offensive tackle who was considered more safe than spectacular went No. 1 overall. In April, it was Eric Fisher. Next May, it could be Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) or even Taylor Lewan (Michigan).
The front-runner to go first is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. But he is not a slam dunk. Every front-office man you talk to about Clowney will tell you that he's not completely comfortable with Clowney and that he needs to do more homework on him.
Scouts like everything they see in Clowney once the ball is snapped. One thought he could break 4.4 in the 40-yard dash at 270 pounds. Two others said he clearly is the most talented player in the draft.
"There is nothing he can't do when he decides to do it," a national scout said. "The problem is he doesn't always want to do it."
It has been well documented that Clowney plays and practices only when he feels like it. Other red flags with Clowney, according to multiple front-office men, are his unusual family situation, his entourage, his inconsistent work ethic and the fact that some of his antics have gotten old at South Carolina. Some suspect he is motivated strictly by money, and a big payday could leave him too satisfied.
Of the quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville is the most likely to go first at this point. But his lack of ideal size and arm strength gives some teams pause, especially when they consider picking him that high.
Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins may be in the discussion, but teams typically aren't comfortable taking wide receivers first. One exec said he thought Watkins' stock went down this year because his hands looked inconsistent and he failed to improve his routes.
Outside linebacker Anthony Barr of UCLA could be a consideration for a team he fits. But he won't fit every scheme.
That leads us back to a tackle. Teams picking at the top of the draft are looking for can't-miss players, the safer the better. As the draft draws nearer, front-office men find more and more flaws on prospects. There might not be two safer picks than Matthews and Lewan, and that could result in both of them being chosen very high in the first round.
• Put away the pea shooters and rubber band guns. John Fox is back.
• In addition to holding many passing records, the great Peyton Manning also may soon be holding a receiving record: most wedding invitations received.
• Ndamukong Suh said on NFL Radio that he wants a new image. So apparently when he used that throat slash gesture, he was signaling the end of his outlaw ways.
• Mike Tomlin was fined $100,000 for being on the field during a kick return. Now other forms of punishment are being considered, including the forfeiture of a draft choice, waterboarding, denailing and kneecapping.
• According to The Big Lead, television networks are vying to hire Tim Tebow as a game analyst. However, each has been insistent that Tebow never be put in a situation where he has to "throw it back" to the studio.
• On the subject of Tebow, Yahoo! revealed his name was searched more than any athlete's name in 2013. It has been searched even more since he has been out of football.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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