For Repeat Trip To The Playoffs, Tony Romo Needs To Remember That Less Is Often More
The year was 2006 when the Dallas Cowboys inserted Tony Romo into the starting lineup because they believed him to be what Drew Bledsoe was not.
A championship-caliber quarterback.
Nearly nine years later, Romo enters the 2015 season with a golden opportunity to prove he is just that.
The Cowboys start their Oxnard practice schedule on Wednesday armed with an acknowledged support system that promises to enhance the positive qualities of their field-general, while covering up the majority of his well-noted flaws.
With an offensive line that promises to pound open running lanes for runners and keep the pocket clean like none other in the league, Romo looks to build upon a 2014 season that had many close to the team declaring it to be his very best yet. In leading the Cowboys back to the postseason for the first time in five years, Romo set career highs in both completion-percentage (69.9) and passer-rating (113.2).
That he managed to accomplish all of that with a nagging back injury is a testament to the mental fortitude of the 34-year old veteran, who turned over a new leaf when he discovered the art of winning while doing less.
Romo has long been the life-jacket that kept the Cowboys from sinking to the depths of the uncompetitive. Despite what many insist, Romo cannot be categorized as a loser. While his postseason record pales in comparison to past Dallas greats Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, it’s worth noting that the Cowboys have never finished a season below .500 when he has started 10 games or more.
But his role as the savior of the Cowboys ended in last September’s 28-17 season-opening loss to San Francisco in which Romo tossed three mind-numbing interceptions. His back, after having been operated on for each of the previous two off-seasons, was still not completely healed, leaving Romo a tarnished shell of his former self.
The mobility in the pocket, which had for so long enabled him to escape from crashing defenders and extend plays, was gone. Throwing the ball from certain angles had become virtually impossible due to the discomfort in his lower back. Romo could run, but only with a noticeable limp.
To avoid a second meltdown against Tennessee the following week, Romo enrolled in a fast-pace course of football fundamentals. If he wasn’t going to be able to play in the same manner as his former self, then he needed to know how he could play while still being an effective quarterback. The result was a re-education in nearly every phase of his game.
“Anybody who’s had surgery, especially back surgery, you definitely can tell that it’s different than other things that has happened when it is back surgery,” said Romo earlier this spring during an interview on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan in Dallas. “For me, what I found was you can’t just tough it out and work through it harder. That’s not smart. You have to find out what you’re able to do – what different things that you do cause it to have inflammation, to have pain, that come with it. And you just have to manage that, and strengthen all the areas around it all the time. When you do that, you give yourself a chance but it takes time to come back and grow.”
A primary part of his commitment to pain management was a commitment to rest. When not playing on a Thursday, head coach Jason Garrett sat Romo down for each of Dallas’ Wednesday practices, giving his back an extra day to heal from the previous game.
Another form of rest was a commitment to the running game. Though given the liberty to audible at the line of scrimmage, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan encouraged Romo to put more trust in Demarco Murray and his big offensive line. Perhaps emboldened by his injury, Romo agreed to do just that and made Murray the franchise’s all-time single-season record holder in the process.
As odd as it seemed for the usually high-flyin’ Dallas offense to adopt a ground-and-pound philosophy, of equal importance in their success was Romo’s new-found conservatism from within the pocket. His health was of prime importance. It was no secret that the Cowboys were going nowhere with either Brandon Weeden or Dustin Vaughn at quarterback. So Romo was more than willing to hit the deck first when under pressure, rather than extend a play while risking a big hit from a defender that would exacerbate his back injury.
He also made a conscious effort to cut back on what Bill Parcells would term as “impulsive throws.” Standing behind the league’s best offensive line, Romo’s decision-making was truly impeccable, balancing 34 touchdowns against only 9 interceptions. That he backed up his regular season performance with an even better showing in the playoffs only served to rile his most dedicated critics, who are ever-prepared to belittle his neurological capabilities.
Romo’s mental health has never been better, thank you very much. And after an event-free off-season, his physical health is on the upward swing as well. Romo has been a full participant in all of the Cowboys’ OTA practices for the first time since 2012, and enters this training camp focused solely on finding a rhythm with his receivers, and not on filling out his Tylenol prescription.
Before the Cowboys take the field for the first time on Wednesday, Garrett will remind his current team that they will be defined for what they will do in 2015, and not what they did last January. For Romo, that message carries a special significance. For in as much as an injury helped to define his 2014 campaign, he must make sure that his ability to do more this season doesn’t turn into a negative force on the field.
Now entering his tenth season as an NFL starting quarterback, Romo has more help around him than at any other time in his career, from coaching staff to the players he shares the huddle with. Utilizing those pieces in the same fashion as last year could very likely decide whether the ultimate hope that Bill Parcells had for him will finally be realized this year or not.