Monday, November 20, 2006

Looking The Part

Thirty-five years ago, in the middle of a season, a legendary old school football coach finally had seen enough of his erratic, lumbering, strong-armed starting passer, making the move to an unproven mobile quarterback who just seemed to have that special something all the great ones had -- from Otto Graham to Johnny U. to Bart Starr to Joe Willie. In 1971, it was the great Tom Landry sitting down Craig Morton and rolling the dice on Roger the Dodger. Last month it was Bill Parcells going with his hunches and inserting untested Antonio Ramiro Romo in place of struggling Drew Bledsoe. And after yesterday's stirring, signature 21-14 victory over the previously unbeaten Indianapolis Colts, who's to say history isn't in the course of repeating itself -- to the giddy delight of legions of Dallas Cowboys fans eager to embrace their newest star.

On a late April day in 2003, Tony Romo, like hundreds of other college football prospects, was hoping to be drafted by one of the 32 NFL teams. After all, he was a three time Ohio Valley Conference player of the year at Eastern Illinois, as well as winner of the Walter Payton Award for top Division 1-AA player of the year. But a funny thing happened on draft day. Romo, usually sure handed on the football field, dropped his only cellphone that morning and was unable to field calls the entire day. So when teams tried to contact him in the later rounds to relay their interest in drafting him, he was literally left incommunicado. By the time he got a new phone the next morning, he had 29 new messages. The history of the NFL is rife with such incidents, often changing a team's course and, sometimes, even a league's destiny.

Roger Staubach himself was a 10th round pick in 1964, so any team with the patience to wait for the Midshipman to complete his Naval service could have drafted the rights to the player. Brett Favre was a second round pick by Atlanta in 1991, then traded the next year to Green Bay. Joe Montana was a third round pick, the 82nd player taken in 1979, and of course Dan Marino lasted until the late first round in 1983. So sometimes in sports all the scouting and preparation in the world takes a back seat to good luck and fortunate timing.

Tony Romo (100.0) now finds himself in heady territory, sitting in a virtual tie with Peyton Manning (100.5) atop the league leader board in overall Passer Rating, but more telling is the shot in the arm he has given a coach, a franchise, and a city. Against the Colts' quick defense, he threw only four incompletions all day, hitting 19-23 passes for 226 yards, with only one interception marring what was otherwise a surgeon's precision in the pocket.
As we've seen the unlikely ascent of Tony Romo chronicled the last few weeks, the interesting stories and anecdotes have grown in number. In addition to the broken phone incident, there were rumors that the Jets, Saints and Packers were all interested in trading for Romo this past offseason, and it seems the Cardinals made an offer on draft day before "settling" for Matt Leinart. Now you couldn't pry Tony Romo from Bill Parcells' and Jerry Jones' hands for less than a resurrected Johnny U. himself -- allegedly the Tuna's favorite all-time favorite signal caller.

But to beat an undefeated team this late in the season takes a balanced, team effort, and yesterday Dallas put together its best overall game certainly of the year and in all likelihood it was the most complete Cowboys victory in the four-year Bill Parcells era. Playing without leading pass rusher LB Greg Ellis, the defense stepped it up and put constant pressure on all-world QB Peyton Manning, sacking him twice, hitting and rushing him often, and picking him off twice. DE DeMarcus "Every" Ware played his most dominant game of the season, refusing to be blocked and seemingly never lining up in the same spot two plays in a row. Roy Williams was a terror in the secondary, leveling Colts WRs all day, and intercepted Manning on the goal line as the Colts were going in for an apparent score. The inspired play of LBs Brady James and Akin Ayodele (8 solo tackles) set the tone, assuring the Colts got no easy yards. But it was second-year LB Kevin Burnett that gave the team its biggest spark of the day at a most crucial time, returning a deflected Manning pass 39 yards to tie the score early in the second half.

The Cowboys' running game was effective if not spectacular, with RBs Julius Jones (22-79) and Marion Barber (9-35, 2 TDs) spearheading a ground game that gained enough tough yards all day to take pressure off Romo and the passing game. The offensive line had trouble with the Colts' underrated front seven in the running game, but were able to keep Romo relatively free in the pocket (only 1 sack), with OT Flozell Adams shutting down the Colts' All-Pro DE Dwight Freeney for the most part.

The spectacular win gives the Cowboys (6-4) much needed momentum for the stretch run, with 3-7 Tampa Bay coming to Texas Stadium this Thursday for a Thanksgiving Day matchup that should be a very winnable game. A Giants loss tonight in Jacksonville would result in Dallas sharing first place in the NFC East, and with the Eagles losing QB Donovan McNabb for the year due to a severe knee injury against Tennessee, the Cowboys have to like their playoff chances heading into the December 3rd game against the beat-up, reeling Giants.

After pulling off the upset yesterday against the 9-0 Colts , Tony Romo's team now has a lot to play for in 2006 and beyond, and much of it can be traced to an old school coach having the nerve to pull the trigger on an energetic, talented newcomer. Funny how it all worked out, proving that in sports, it's sometimes just as important to be lucky as it is good. Just ask the starting quarterback for the suddenly resurgent Dallas Cowboys. If you can get him to stop beaming with one of the widest grins in the sporting world, Tony Romo will probably be happy to tell you all about it.

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