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Tony Romo, Dez Bryant Already Answering Big Questions Facing Dallas Cowboys

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Tony Romo, Dez Bryant Already Answering Big Questions Facing Dallas Cowboys
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It's time to leave Tony Romo alone. 

Mocking the Dallas Cowboys quarterback has become a bit of a national pastime, as the Cowboys have lost a bit of their luster as America's Team in recent years of 8-8 mediocrity. Every interception blows up Twitter, and every hung head gets screencapped and turned into a meme. 

It never made much sense, and it's officially time for it to stop.

Thankfully, Romo and his No. 1 receiver, Dez Bryant, will likely give us plenty of reasons for positivity this season—just as they did in their second preseason game. Yes, the typical preseason disclaimer applies here, but Romo and Bryant combined for three receptions (on three targets, via ESPN.com) for 59 yards and a touchdown. 

Even the fact that he played is a step forward for Romo at this point after season-ending back surgery last December (broken down here by Bleacher Report's Dave Siebert, M.D.). Romo claimed in an in-game sideline interview that he was able to play without thinking about his back (via Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News on Twitter). 

Overall, Romo completed four of five passes for 80 yards, with his only misstep being a botched handoff returned by Baltimore Ravens defender Courtney Upshaw for a touchdown. Romo finished the game with a 158.3 QB rating and 16 yards per attempt—the first number is perfect; the second is ridiculously good. 

While the outcome (a 37-30 Ravens victory) might not mean much, the play of Dallas' star tandem gave the viewing public a great reminder that the Cowboys aren't going to have many problems on this side of the ball. 

 

Remember, Romo Hasn't Been the Biggest Issue in Dallas

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

Romo hasn't been perfect the last few years, but he's hardly been the issue in Dallas. 

For most of Romo's career, it was as if the Cowboys were completely ambivalent about offensive-line help. Last year was really one of the first times in eight seasons as a starter that Romo had capable pass-blocking, as the Cowboys have addressed the position numerous times in recent drafts. 

Now, it seems as if the defensive side of the ball trades off between being understaffed and completely snakebit, while the Cowboys have doubled down on the old Tampa 2 defense and suffered an incredible spate of free-agency and injury losses.

The defense isn't just bad, it's historically bad, and although fans and analysts seem to recognize that, they're still convinced of the notion that Romo is a big part of the problem as well. He just isn't. There's no real way to make the case that he has been. It's lazy to think otherwise. 

The bottom line on Romo is this: Maybe Romo takes chances and gets burned, but he's saved the Cowboys in games far more than he's been the reason they've lost.

The Cowboys live with the mistakes he makes because the chances he takes pan out far more often than many casual observers think. In fact, current Football Outsiders analyst Scott Kacsmar myth-busted some of the Romo-hate for Cold Hard Football Facts before last season:

The facts show Dallas as a competitive, sometimes clutch team in recent seasons. Since the original look at Romo’s history in the clutch from nearly two years ago, all he’s done is the following:

  • Led nine fourth-quarter comeback wins (second behind Eli Manning’s 10) since 2011.
  • Led nine game-winning drives (third behind Eli’s 11 and Matt Ryan’s 10) since 2011.
  • Since 2011, a record of 9-10 (.474) at game-winning drive opportunities (would rank No. 8 among active players with a minimum of 10 games).
  • Dallas had a fourth-quarter lead or tie in eight of those 10 losses.

This isn't bending the facts to fit a narrative around Romo; it's decimating the narrative by adding actual context to some of the mind-numbing idiocy around his play. Romo is the perfect example of one of the downsides to the "SportsCenter-fixation" of the game when we remember (and then debate) every single mistake but then pass over the times he made a fantastic play. 

It doesn't fit the narrative that Romo sits sixth among all active quarterbacks with 20 fourth-quarter comebacks, according to Pro Football Reference. He also ranks ninth among active quarterbacks with 23 game-winning drives. 

Meanwhile, we label him a choker when the evidence just isn't there. 

Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon covered this in a column titled, "Of Course Tony Romo Is Clutch":

Aaron Rodgers has just six career fourth-quarterback comebacks in six seasons. Know why? Because the Packers are always freakin' winning. He doesn't have to stage comebacks and doesn't have to attempt desperate passes in big moments.

Brady hasn't been so lucky lately, and neither has Romo. Since 2010, Rodgers' Packers have given up 21.3 points per game on defense, while Romo's Cowboys have surrendered 25.2. That makes a world of difference.

Frankly, if you have questions about the Cowboys passing attack, you just haven't been paying attention. 


 

Bryant Will Take This Duo to a Whole New Level

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Bryant is, arguably, the best receiver in the NFL

I say arguably because cases can be made for the Detroit Lions' Calvin Johnson, the Cleveland Browns' Josh Gordon, the Atlanta FalconsJulio Jones or the Cincinnati BengalsA.J. Green. I don't know if Bryant being better than all of them is a rhetorical hill I would die on, but I wouldn't argue much—it's almost a matter of personal preference. 

Physical Profile of Top WRs in NFL
Name Team Height Weight 40-Time Vertical
Dez Bryant Cowboys 6'2" 225 4.52 38"
Calvin Johnson Lions 6'5" 239 4.35 43"
Josh Gordon Browns 6'3" 225 4.52 36"
Julio Jones Falcons 6'3" 220 4.39 38.5"
A.J. Green Bengals 6'4" 211 4.50 34.5"

NFL.com Draft Profiles/NFLDraftScout

As good as Bryant has been, he appears to be getting even better, via Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman:

Bryant has been picking fights with the defense all camp. Talking smack, challenging them, pushing them. It's his attempt to get them as tough as he is.

I love this. I. Love. This.

This is the type of thing that if almost any other player were doing it, he'd be lauded. There would be odes written to Andrew Luck if he were firing up his defense like this.

Freeman concludes, rightly, that Bryant's change of mindset—from needing to be led (almost by the nose) early in his Cowboys career to becoming a leader—should be the harbinger of even better play on the field. 

Last season, Romo was the 13th-ranked QB by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), while Bryant ranked 27th among all receivers. Bryant, 25, looks both mentally and physically ready to make huge strides.

Again, it was just a preseason game, but Bryant looked unstoppable both in his routes and with the ball in the air. He outran, outjumped and outmuscled the Ravens defense both on his three catches and when the ball was going elsewhere. He's about to reach the status of "he's always open, even when he's covered," and Romo's TD pass shows that he's recognizing that fact. 

Trusting Bryant more to go up and get the ball should lead to more plays over 20 yards, where Bryant ranked only 22nd last year with 14, and more touchdowns. These aren't things that drastically change the character of the Cowboys offense, which hasn't been that much of an issue, but it improves the efficiency, which could tip the scales in terms of sputtering late in the game. 

An 8-8 record has been the norm for a few years now, but it can't be acceptable in 2014. The Cowboys have had the talent—especially on offense—to be better than just .500, and if Romo and Bryant link up like they are capable of this season, the Cowboys could exceed some expectations. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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