Romo Seeks Redemption Against 49ers

by Dan M | Posted on Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Dallas Has to Ride Him. No Matter What.

Special to

The Sports Page Weekly

 

It’s hard to give Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo the “first-game” pass for fumbling and throwing an interception in Sunday’s loss to the Jets because his late-game breakdowns have happened too often at key moments throughout his nine-year career.

 

While his teammates will publicly have his back, Dallas could be treading into dangerous territory when it comes to Romo.

 

Players and coaches will grow tired of playing well enough to win and have Romo turn the ball over or make a mistake that leads to a loss. It happened last season in Minnesota with Brett Favre. The disenchantment came in whispers, but it was there.

 

In the midst of a stretch where Favre threw 10 interceptions during an early-season malaise in which Minnesota lost four of six games, players and coaches told me (not for publication at the time) how frustrated they were because everyone knew Favre was the problem. However, everyone seemed to sidestep it in order to avoid controversy.

 

That frustration only compounded angst toward then-coach Brad Childress and had players second-guessing a lot of what was going on.

If Romo continues to slip when it matters most, the same thing could happen in a locker room that we know hasn’t been the most unified during the Romo era. That simmering dissent could fracture faith, and that would be a wrap for a team with the potential to get to the playoffs and make something happen once they’re there.

 

It’s all about Romo now. The defense, special teams and other parts of the offense will be afforded some margin for error. Not Romo.

 

Where things could get even more complicated is Plan B. What is it?

 

It’s the same thing Minnesota faced last season. There wouldn’t be nearly the uproar in Dallas if Romo is replaced by Jon Kitna at some point as there would have been if Favre was pulled for Tarvaris Jackson. But is Kitna really the answer?

 

If Romo can’t deal with the pressure of winning games late, how in the world would he respond if he had to come off the bench to rescue the team if Kitna got hurt or was ineffective?

 

Dallas has to ride with Romo. If he slips again in the guts of a game, they’ll have to cope with the fallout and start planning for the future. They’ve groomed third-stringer Stephen McGee for three seasons, and maybe they ramp up his development. Drafting a quarterback in 2012 would be a prudent investment, regardless of where things go with Romo.

 

The Cowboys just have to hope that Romo finally stops being like the basketball player who scores 28 points per game but none in the final minute. A pattern is being established and if Romo can’t be relied upon in the clutch, it will damage the psyche of the team. The fan base already has grown weary as memories of Danny White are being conjured more and more by talk-radio callers.

 

Romo’s a good player. No doubting that. There is a difference between good and clutch, though, and the grace period is about up for Romo.

 

Cowboys/49ers preview

The San Francisco 49ers picked up a big win in Week One, putting themselves up and the Seattle Seahawks down in the division. It’s the obvious answer, but the only thing that can get better is more winning and better execution, and who better to do it against than the team’s unofficial biggest rival, the Dallas Cowboys? “Unofficial” is only the identifier because the Cowboys aren’t in the NFC West, but the teams’ battles throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s are well-documented, and illustrate an impressive number of ups and downs, worthy of either a fine roller coaster or perhaps one of Brandon Marshall’s romantic relationships.

 

Dallas, to their credit, didn’t look awful in Week One, despite a losing effort to the New York Jets. They executed offensively, and were… showing a lot of promise defensively. That’s the nicest way to put it, because it was simply an ugly game. Beautiful passing plays to Jason Witten would be followed up by ridiculous judgement calls on Tony Romo’s part, like passing directly to Darrelle Revis in a game-changing situation.

 

DeMarcus Ware absolutely obliterating New York Jet offensive linemen would be followed by the Dallas secondary popping off for a drink on third down, giving up huge chunks of yardage to guys like LaDainian Tomlinson and Santonio Holmes.

 

It was either two really good teams making each other look bad, two marginally good teams showing their weaknesses, or two teams significantly trying to out-suck the other. In the end, Romo made the big mistake and the Cowboys lost the game. But if the Jets are at all as good as advertised this season, then Dallas should be a handful for the 49ers.

 

The 49ers that failed to execute offensively against the Seahawks, which means whatever you think it should. They moved the ball in crucial situations and were able to coax more than a day’s work out of kicker David Akers, but one has to feel that they’ll need to show an awful lot more execution and variation on offense to best their Week Two opponents. Jim Harbaugh’s “blue collar” offense probably won’t cut it, even if the Cowboys remain mistake-prone.

 

Keys to the game

Tony Romo fumbled at the Jets’ 3-yard line and threw a head-scratching interception in the fourth quarter last week, helping the Cowboys send a 14-point lead down the drain. He had an exceptional three quarters, but continues to be dogged by poor decisions at critical moments. 49ers CB Carlos Rogers has shadowed WR Miles Austin before—they matched up in the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry. The 49ers aren’t as equipped to handle WR Dez Bryant and TE Jason Witten, although Bryant finished the opener gimpy. Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan rarely falls out of attack mode. He’ll keep the heat on a 49er offensive line with multiple question marks and force QB Alex Smith to make quick decisions. That’s any easier task if Terence Newman (groin) returns to rescue a secondary thinned by injury.

 

Matchup to watch

Cowboys CBs Bryan McCann and Alan Ball vs. 49ers WR Braylon Edwards

49er coach Jim Harbaugh attacks match-ups, and there should be many in the secondary that favor San Francisco with the Cowboys’ top three corners dealing with injuries. Edwards has much to prove on a one-year deal and he can be a difference-maker when given opportunities.

 

Player spotlight

Cowboys ILB Sean Lee: A star in the making, Lee was a self-admitted perfectionist who got in his own way early in his rookie season in 2010. But he eventually worked into a regular role and stood out in the opener with an interception and team-high 11 tackles.

 

Fast facts

The Cowboys lost a game for just the sixth time, including postseason, last week when Romo had a passer rating over 100.0 (101.9). He’s 28-6 with a 100-plus rating. 49er WR Ted Ginn had two return touchdowns last week, giving him six in his career.

 

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

The Cowboys handed last week’s game away, but the offense was productive until Romo’s two late-game turnovers. And as long as the pass rush keeps the heat on 49er QB Alex Smith, the injury-depleted secondary won’t be overly exposed.

 

Our pick: Cowboys 26-17

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