Monday, October 30, 2006

Tony Terrific: A Player Discovered, A Season Resurrected

With his inspired, gutty performance last night leading the Dallas Cowboys to a come-from-behind, surprisingly decisive road victory over the Carolina Panthers, 35-14, all QB Tony Romo did was save a season, reenergize a coach and quite possibly resurrect a franchise that as little as six days ago seemed headed for another disappointing campaign. In what some were calling a desperation move, Bill Parcells replaced his starting QB for the last year and a half with the untested, undrafted four-year reserve from Eastern Illinois, and now those same doubters are probably hailing the beginning of the Tony Romo Era.

John Madden said Romo's mobility and quick release are reminiscent of Joe Montana, others cited Brett Favre for their similar gunslinger approach to the game. In a game and a half, Romo has thrown for 497 yards and 3 TDs, completing 38-61 passes against the Giants and Panthers, two of the more formidable defensive units in the NFL. Last night he aced his first career start and helped Dallas set a franchise record with 25 points in the fourth quarter.

There is nothing that energizes a team and a franchise more than getting good play out of a young QB. And Romo's performance last night, bringing his team methodically back from a 14-0 deficit in front of a hostile crowd, showing arm strength, touch, poise and the ability to make something out of nothing with his legs, cannot be overestimated. The proof was in the suddenly animated Parcells at the end of the game -- backslapping Tony Romo and the rest of "my kids," playfully joking with "The Player," planting kisses on his guys, and just looking like there's nowhere else he'd rather be. Such was the spark Romo provided to the entire Dallas sidelines.

The Dallas defense turned nasty and stingy after Carolina jumped out to its first quarter 14-0 lead, shutting them out over the final three quarters and holding the Panthers to a paltry 204 yards of total offense, led by outstanding efforts by LB Greg Ellis and CBs Terence Newman and Anthony Henry. (see boxscore). The beleaguered offensive line turned in a solid showing, keeping Romo clean for most of his 36 attempts, and opening up nice lanes in the running game, which churned out 141 yards and 3 TDs between Julius Jones and Marion Barber on 33 carries. WR Terrell Owens was terrific, turning in his first 100-yard receiving game as a Cowboy, while TE Jason Witten ultimately may be the biggest beneficiary down the line of Romo's quick reads, hauling in 6 passes for 80 yards and a TD.

Considering the quality of opponent and overall circumstances, it was easily the Cowboys' most impressive game of the season, and maybe going back three or four seasons -- in other words, the entire Parcells era in Dallas. There was no denying it was the most noteworthy performance, given what was at stake and who was doing the staking at QB.

Now, Julius Jones may be my favorite player in all of football, but you simply cannot ignore Marion Barber and have to find out ways to get him the ball. Barber runs with a passion and authority you don't see every day, and on his two TDs he simply wouldn't be denied. Barber could start for more than a few teams, but the Cowboys will hang on to him for as long as they can. It is a good problem to have -- two running backs who can get the job done. It's obvious Bill knows running backs, plucking Jones (currently 6th in the NFL in rushing with 616 yards) in the second round of the 2004 draft after trading out of the first round, then stealing Barber a year later in the fourth round.

But the story of the night was 26-year-old Tony Romo, who shares a birthday (April 21) with yours truly; if you don't think that's big, then you're not paying attention. Al Michaels and Madden were both singing his praises all night long, saying he has that "it" quality that top players just seem to resonate. If Drew Bledsoe was a latter day version of statuesque pocket passer Craig Morton, then Romo may be our new version of Roger Staubach -- a mobile, smart, efficient, all-out field general. I also see a lot of Chad Pennington in him, maybe even a little Doug Flutie. Not too bad.

The first thing you notice about Romo is his quick release. He holds the ball high, near his ear, which allows him to pull the trigger quickly. Romo can also make all the tough throws -- the deep out, the deep slant. He made a terrific play where he stepped sideways in the pocket, avoiding a rusher, then firing a rope around 25 yards downfield. But he made big plays all night, doggedly overcoming at least three first down passes called back on offensive penalties. He rarely forced anything into tight spaces like he did last week against the Giants, and the one pick he threw probably should not have been an interception at all, with both Madden and Michaels expressing doubt that the CB had possession of the ball before going out of bounds.

The whole team seemed to rally around the upgraded play at the QB position. You cannot overestimate the effect it has on a game when a quarterback can make a play with his legs after the defense has covered everyone downfield and the play breaks down; it's as draining to the defense as it is uplifting to the offense. We had exactly zero of those types of plays with Bledsoe as QB, and had around 4 of them in the first half alone last night.

So the season has been officially resurrected. The Cowboys are 4-3, still only one game behind the first place Giants, but these last 9 games are going to be a treat for long-time Cowboy fans like myself. We may have found our franchise QB of the future, after a long and often painful search to replace Troy Aikman after the 2000 season.

For one week at least, no one can doubt that after one of the most discouraging defeats in Cowboys regular season history against the Giants on MNF, the team, the franchise and the coach have rarely had more reason for optimism. And judging by his wide grin of satisfaction on display at the end of last night's game, it looks like the Big Tuna isn't going anywhere for a long, long while. From the looks of Parcells after we clinched the win last night, he's simply having too much fun to quit now.

Good timing yesterday as The New York Times Sunday sports supplement, Play, featured Bill Parcells on the cover. The well written, in-depth story followed Parcells around for one week (before the week two Washington game), giving me a new appreciation for what drives Parcells. As writer Michael Lewis succintly captured it for those wondering why Parcells continues to push himself at age 65 after his Hall of Fame legacy has long been assured: he has come to terms with the discovery that he needs the game far more than it needs him. His biggest fear is waking up one day and finding out that he has none of "any guys" around him, even more than the stress of the job that forces most coaches out of the business.

"He was right: there’s always something. It’s in the nature of the job. “Guys can’t take it,” he says, “that’s why they get out.” Some of the best coaches the game ever saw — Bill Walsh, John Madden — quit simply because the strain was too great. Parcells won’t quit. He now knows that about himself: he needs it more than it needs him. He just turned 65. His marriage is over, and his daughters are grown. “My whole life I’ve always had some guys,” he says. “You gotta have some guys. That’s probably one of the fears I have when I get older: that I won’t have any guys.” His younger brother Don died last year. Most of his close friends who haven’t died are back in New Jersey. His legacy is secure: he will one day have a bust in the football Hall of Fame. But then his legacy was secure in 2003, before he took the Cowboys’ head-coaching job. Before he did so, he had a surprising number of plaintive phone calls from former players. “My old players didn’t want me to take the job,” he says. “They were afraid I’d embarrass myself. They didn’t get it. It’s not about your legacy.”

As Parcells describes the world of coaching, it's an occupation where you always have to prove yourself and start over again each week, you're only as good as your last game, and the losses are more frustrating than the victories are rewarding: "What this is, he can’t — or won’t — specify. But when your life has been defined by the pressure of competition and your response to it, there’s a feeling you get, and it’s hard to shake. You wake up each morning knowing the next game is all that matters. If you fail in it, nothing you’ve done with your life counts. By your very nature you always have to start all over again, fresh. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it’s nonetheless addictive. Even if you have millions in the bank and everyone around you tells you that you’re a success, you seek out that uncomfortable place. And if you don’t, you’re on the wrong side of the thin curtain that separates Cyclone Hart from Vito Antuofermo. “It’s a cloistered, narrow existence that I’m not proud of,” says Parcells. “I don’t know what’s going on in the world. And I don’t have time to find out. All I think about is football and winning. But hey — ” He sweeps his hand over his desk and points to the office that scarcely registers his presence. “Who’s got it better than me?”

I must say that I have rarely been prouder
to be a Cowboys fan, nor can I remember being as optimistic and upbeat about the team's future, with the possible exception of the early '90s Jimmy Johnson era. There's not a day that goes by that Dallas Cowboys fans shouldn't cross their fingers and hope Parcells sticks around Dallas for a long, long time. His latest discovery, Tony Romo, shows he may still have that magic touch and may know a little something about football after all.


The World Series just finished between the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers was notable for its lack of juice. I mean, that series could have gone on for another two weeks and not provide any memorable moments. It just goes to show that as if you don't have a team to either really hate to root against or really like and root for, there's no emotion for the fan. With either the Mets or Yankees in the Series, that dilemma would have been solved...

I wrote a
post last week saying that how Fox broadcasts baseball is like an annoying distraction wrapped inside a sideshow, and over the weekend Richard Sandomir, the New York Times Sports TV critic, provided the gory details in an article entitled Action Wasn't Always On Camera. In Game 4 of the series alone, cameras cut away from the action on the field and to the crowd in the stands a staggering 222 times, and cut to "action" in the dugout another 153 times. This is some Fox Sports producer's idea of cutting-edge broadcasting, but it really takes away from the game. There's no reason to make a fetish of the fans in the stands; they're not that interesting to look at. When did it become fashionable to not show the players themselves? As Sandomir rightly put it: "Here are my simple rules: If fans are genuinely joyous or completely deflated, show them judiciously. Otherwise, don’t interrupt the rhythm of a game or an at-bat. Some of the best crowd shots at Busch were the most distant ones, which showed the sea of red cheering wildly." Couldn't agree more.

Worst stat line of the NFL weekend goes to Tampa Bay QB Bruce Gradkowski, whose 20-48 pasing for a scant 139 yards (less than 3 yards per pass attempt) and putrid passer rating of 41.7 only begins to tell the tale of his woeful ineptitude. Now he wasn't helped at all by receivers showing a bad case of alligator arms and dropping catchable balls on more than one occasion, as well as swirling Giants Stadium winds, but you can't win with that kind of QB play in the NFL ... Jets QB Chad Pennington also stunk the place up, posting a career low 21.1 QB rating in a dismal 20-13 loss to the Cleveland Browns, completing only 11 of 28 passes for a measly 108 yards through the air...

Interesting story related by Al Michaels last nite about Romo. It turns out that New Orleans head coach Gary Peyton also saw something in the QB and, when he got the Saints' job, inquired about his old pupil Tony Romo being available before making a move to acquire Drew Brees from the Chargers, but Big Bill squashed that notion immediately, and now the little-known Romo is paying dividends after four years of grooming. Incidentally, Peyton played QB at the same school as Romo, Eastern Illinois, about 20 years prior. Goes to show how big a role coincidence and accidents play in sports...

Maybe my glasses are a bit rosy because of the sweet Cowboys victory last night night, but NBC does the best job of all the networks -- CBS, ESPN, Fox -- covering the NFL. It starts with the announcing crew -- Al Michaels being the smoothest play-by-play guy, John Madden hands down still the leading color guy. Their sideline reporter Andrea Mitchell is not only extremely knowledgeable but remains thankfully unobtrusive relative to the broadcast as a whole. Just a quality broadcast, especially compared to the horror show that is ESPN Monday Night Football, and NBC's pregame highlight show is also very good.

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