No-T.O. Show Silences Host Of Preseason Doubts About Dallas Passing Game

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No-T.O. Show Silences Host Of Preseason Doubts About Dallas Passing Game
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Due to the departure of, as Bill Parcells would say, "The Player," this offseason, the passing game has unequivocally been the most intriguing question mark out of the many that surrounded this new-look, new-attitude Dallas Cowboys squad coming into the 2009 season.

However, even my ever present optimism couldn't have seen a performance like Tony Romo and crew put on this past Sunday.

Before I get into the analysis, I would like to provide a little "this is only week one" disclaimer.

While a team's performance in week one serves to answer a whole host of questions, by no means does it provide any 100 percent, Miss-Cleo-level guarantees about how a team will perform for the entire season.

Week one can provides answers like, "Wow, Carolina should have invested in a viable backup QB," "Looks like Brad Childress can have the discipline to give AP the carries he needs despite Brett Favre's presence," and "10 out of 10 people wish HBO was running a few extra weeks of Hard Knocks to cover the practices after the Broncos game."

Week one cannot give definitive answers like, "The Eagles have the most dominant defense in the league because they forced seven turnovers," or "Drew Brees and Tony Romo will each throw for 5,000 yards this season."

You see, with such a small sample size of work from each team, one cannot tell the flukes from the real deals, the impressive wins from the non-impressive ones, the "upsets" from the "that team actually was that much better than the other team" judgements we can make after, say, week 12.

That is my feeble attempt to address the elephant in the room surrounding the Cowboys' week one domination: that this offensive explosion was against the "powerhouse" that is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While the Bucs do have a very strong cornerback tandem in Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib, common sense would seem to suggest that this was a superior team playing against an inferior team (albeit on the road).

I will therefore try to avoid focusing on the simple eye-popping aggregate stats (353 yards passing for Romo, 135 receiving for Crayton, etc.) and try more to focus on the effectiveness of the strategy behind the passing attack game plan, which should be a topic far less skewed by talent differentials between teams than would a simple comparison of aggregate stats.

 

Three Things to Love About Week One in the Passing Game

Obviously, one would be hard pressed to write a negative article about a game in which Tony Romo sets a career high in single-game passing yardage (353), completes the longest pass of his career (80 yards to Patrick Crayton), extends his career 300 yard passing games to a franchise-record 17, and completes three touchdown passes over 40 yards in one game (hasn't been done by a Cowboys' signal caller since 1962).

For the sake of brevity, here are the three most exciting aspects of the passing that manifested themselves on the field in Tampa on Sunday:

1. "Favoritism" on Romo's Part? Non-Existent

Many critics wondered how Tony Romo would respond without T.O.'s game breaking ability. 

Would T.O.'s departure free Romo up to read the field objectively and allow him to more fully utilize the weapons he had at his disposal, or would it lead to Romo developing Witten Tunnel Vision on every play, thereby exposing him as a product of T.O.'s ability?

Thankfully for Cowboys fans everywhere, the answer after week one overwhelmingly seems to be the former.

Romo was extremely democratic with his 16 completions, completing a pass to six different receivers at all three positions on the field (wide outs, tight ends, and running backs). 

On top of that, no single player had more than five receptions, and the top three receivers on Sunday were only separated by a single reception (Witten with five, Crayton with four, and Roy Williams with three).

One of the largest things I was looking for on Sunday was Romo's pass distribution among the many weapons he has at his disposal. My biggest fear going into this game was a box score where Witten had 10 catches to Williams' and Crayton's three apiece.

Romo ended up spreading the ball effectively and simply taking what the Bucs gave him on defense. That is something something Romo arguably was not able to do every play in 2008, where, in order to keep the mercurial receiver happy, Romo often felt compelled to force the ball to T.O. regardless of if he was covered or not.

While Romo won't throw for 353 yards every week, as long as he remains willing to take what the defense gives him like he did on Sunday instead of forcing balls into coverage, look for many more huge performances out of the Cowboys passing attack.

2. Jason Garrett's Successful, and, More Importantly, Adaptable Game Plan

Anybody who was reading my work after the 2008 season knew I was more than underwhelmed with the performance of the Cowboys' offense last year.

A lot of that blame I put on Jason Garrett's shoulders for being too proud and inflexible to adapt his game plan to opposing defenses due to the overwhelming success he had in 2007.

If week one is any indication, that was soooo 2008.

By all accounts Tampa Bay's game plan was to bring extra men into the box to prevent the Cowboys from running the ball, forcing the Cowboys to beat them with their passing attack. 

In conjunction with the departure of T.O., after an entire off season of "the Cowboys need to run the ball more" stories coming out of Valley Ranch, that would seem like the most obvious strategy.

For much of the first half, the Cowboys tried to run out of a non-shotgun, multiple running back and tight end formation while passing out of the spread shotgun offense.  Many of the run plays were stuffed when Tampa brought an extra man into the box when the Cowboys weren't in the spread.

However, towards the end of the second half, the Cowboys realized that Tampa was going to keep stacking against the run, and ran a majority of their second half plays, regardless of whether they were running or passing, out of the spread shotgun formation.

This forced Tampa to do one of two things: 1) keep stacking the box against the run and opening it up to the big play through the air, or 2) play a pass defense and leave itself vulnerable to the draw up the middle. 

As the box score shows (353 yards passing, 118 yards rushing), Tampa wasn't able to figure out when to do what and consequently was blown off the field in the second half.

The Cowboys went from using the run to set up the pass to doing the exact opposite based on what the defense was giving them, something I was dying to see out of Jason Garrett's offense last year. 

If Garrett can become more and more effective at these in game adjustments, expect many more huge passing days out of the offense this year.

3. I Thought T.O. Was The Only Game Breaker in Dallas

While it is still hard to tell whether the plethora of big plays was due to Dallas' talent or Tampa Bay's lack thereof, it is safe to conclude that the Cowboys have a lot more people capable of breaking open a game that do not have their own reality show on VH-1.

(By all accounts Brett Michaels is an awesome punt returner...his limbo game needs work though).

While it will be hard to imagine all three wide outs having long touchdown catches in the same game again, I guarantee you Patrick Crayton, Roy Williams, and Miles Austin had defensive coordinators across the league that ended up in neck braces from the strength of the double-take the Cowboys' box score induced this Sunday.

The timing displayed between Romo's back-shoulder throw to Miles Austin, and Austin's subsequent electrifying run after the catch was a sight Cowboys fans have been waiting to see from the promising burner for the last two-plus seasons.

Patrick Crayton serves to benefit from the departure of T.O. more than any receiver on the roster, as the move meant Crayton was starting back at the second WR position instead of being relegated to the slot.

Crayton needed to demonstrate he was able to put up numbers worthy of a No. 2 wide receiver in the National Football League. One 80-yard touchdown and another 44-yard reception later, Crayton showed what he can do to defenses that don't give him the respect a No. 2 wide receiver deserves.

And suffice it to say, despite all the ridiculous critics who tried to postulate otherwise, 27-year-old Roy Williams can still play wide receiver in the NFL

I don't care who you are playing against, complete slouches don't catch 66-yard touchdowns in the NFL unless the pass ricochets off a member of the Cincinnatti Bengals first.

 

Three Things That Need To Change After Week 1

Nobody plays a perfect game, no matter what the final score is.  Here are three things the Dallas Cowboys can look to improve upon despite their dominant performance:

1. Roy Williams-Tony Romo Timing

One of the biggest reasons I was excited to see what Roy E. could do this season was because he and Romo had an entire summer to work together and work out the timing so vital to creating a successful QB-WR duo.

While Romo and Williams did connect on some nice plays and a long touchdown, there was a near interception on a third-and-long and a dropped slant on third-and-short that suggests the tandem still has a little work to do.

In the second quarter, Romo launched a pass to the right towards Williams, who was running a comeback route, a route that is often thrown before the receiver has made his break.

In the pairs' defense, pressure could have forced Romo to throw the ball earlier than Williams expected, but the defender had turned and seen the ball before Williams and almost made a pick on the sideline because the ball arrived just as Roy was turning around.

On the dropped slant, the ball was thrown high and seemed to ricochet off of Williams' hands and then helmet before bouncing to the ground. That was either a ball thrown in a place Williams didn't like/didn't see in time, or a flat out drop by Williams. 

Either way, neither is a possibility you want to consider with your No. 1 wide receiver.

I still look for Romo and Williams to put up impressive numbers this season. However these two plays suggest the pair is still feeling each other out in their first full season on the field together.

2. Lack of Sustained Drives

This might not be something the Cowboys need to improve upon from last week and more something that will need to happen in the coming weeks, but there is another side to the "all three Cowboys' touchdowns were over 40 yards" coin.

Whether Tampa Bay turns out to be a contender or not this season (all signs point to the latter), one thing is certain: the New York Giants are better, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

One can't expect a veteran and disciplined defense coming off a dominant performance against Washington to surrender three scoring plays over 40 yards in a single game to ANY opponent. 

I'm not saying the Cowboys shouldn't keep taking shots down field.

However, much like a basketball team who's first offensive option is the three-point shot every time down the court (I'm talking to you, Duke fan), a football team that relies exclusively on the big play to score will be more feast-or-famine than Nicole Ritchie.

Against the disciplined and talented defenses of the NFC East, the Cowboys will have to augment their big plays with sustained and well-balanced drives that synergistically combine the short passing and running game to actually set up big plays that might arise organically against less talented teams.

3. Marty B Quiet for the First Time Since Camp Started

I have been predicting great things for Martellus Bennett, easily the most colorful Cowboy and my favorite newcomer to the squad, since the beginning of training camp. Many Twitter updates and YouTube rap video releases later, Bennett finally got to take the field opposite Jason Witten, or, "Rice," for the first time in a meaningful game.

However, outside of a very nice 13-yard first down grab on an out to the left side of the field, Martellus Bennett was largely absent from the passing game, and seemed to be lost and/or confused in the three-play debacle that stalled the Cowboys' first drive of the game.

One thing to note is that big plays eliminate red zone possessions, which is the section of the field Martellus Bennett will be most valuable this year.  After all, he did catch four touchdowns in only 20 receptions last year.

However, he was only targeted twice all game (the other being on the only Cowboys' red zone possession of the game). Bennett has game breaking ability for a tight end, and should be an integral part of the passing game from here on out.

If the Cowboys have any hope in creating the aforementioned sustained drives that will be so integral when playing playoff teams, Martellus Bennett will need to play a much larger role in the passing attack as a whole.

 

FINAL GRADE: A-

The Cowboys shattered personal records and put on an offensive performance only outdone by Drew Brees' performance against The University of Michigan's JV Women's Field Hockey Team that for some reason took the field in Lions jerseys on Sunday.

However, as impressive as the big plays are, long, sustainable drives are what wins tough close games, which the Cowboys will have a lot of playing in the NFC East. 

Big plays lead to highlights. Consistency leads to playoff victories. 

The Cowboys will face a true litmus test in the New York Giants next week during Sunday Night Football.

Let's hope Tony Romo and Jason Garrett can keep the "No-T.O. Show" going against a bitter division rival.  All signs seem to be pointing in the right direction.

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