IRVING, Texas – After a heartbreaking loss to the Giants two weeks ago, in a game the Cowboys lost by a pinkie, the biggest news from the defeat centered on turnovers.
They had six in that game, including four interceptions by Tony Romo, who was up to a season-high 13 after seven outings.
Fast-forward to now, with nine games played, and Tony Romo is still sitting at 13 picks. Although that total is still the most in the NFL, guys like Philip Rivers (12), Eli Manning (11) and Jay Cutler (11) are closing in.
More importantly, the Cowboys haven't turned the ball over once in the last two games. Against the Eagles Sunday, it marked just the second time all year the Cowboys won the turnover battle.
"The ball is the most important thing … we've got to protect the football," Romo said following Sunday's win in Philly. "We talk about it all the time. And when you can do that. You have a chance to have some success and be a pretty good football team."
But more than just protecting the ball, head coach Jason Garrett has always harped on the challenge of trying to get Romo to be careful with the ball, but not lose his aggressiveness at the same time.
As Garrett put it a few weeks ago, "we want don't want to take the Romo out of Romo."
Against the Eagles, in arguably the most pivotal moment of the game, Romo was able to find that perfect balance. On a key third-and-5 play, Romo dodged about four defenders in the pocket, stepped up and fired a 25-yard strike to Miles Austin for a first down, which led to a game-tying touchdown just three plays later.
Garrett said it wasn't just juking the defenders, but how Romo avoided the sacks that was the most impressive.
Garrett credited Romo's ability to tuck the ball toward his chest as defenders were getting close, yet not taking his eyes off the receivers down the field. Garrett, a former quarterback himself, said it's only natural to sometimes focus only on protecting the ball and keeping the play alive can be secondary. Romo was able to do both on that play, one that Garrett said was a "Top-5 play" in Romo's career.
"It was a huge play in the game for us," Garrett said. "I thought it was a great example of him still playing, but understanding the issues with the ball and the pocket and physically holding it the right way. All the while keeping his eyes up."
Garrett was asked if Romo's pocket awareness is a nature vs. nurture issue. While he's got great instincts, it's something the quarterback has worked on during the offseason.
"He's worked very hard at making sure in all of his movements that the ball is up here (by his chest) and it's in his cylinder and just strong instead of away from his body," Garrett said of Romo. "The amazing thing with him is that he feels so much and he can see so much while all this stuff is going on. Having played the position, I know what a melee this thing feels like. He just has this great poise about him as an athlete. It's pretty unique."
Romo was a former basketball star in high school, finishing runner-up to NBA veteran Caron Butler for Mr. Basketball in the state of Wisconsin. Garrett said he thinks Romo's basketball skills have been evident during his career, whether it's the hand-eye coordination to catch an errant snap from center, or like a few weeks ago when he actually dribbled the ball off the turf, caught it on the bounce, and turned up the field to make a pass and avoid a sack.
"I think I see it more with his vision," said Garrett, who immediately recalled a 1-yard touchdown pass to John Phillips against the Giants on Oct. 28. "Literally, that was a basketball-type play. His eyes are over here, but he knows he's going to throw it back here. He does things with his eyes, while he's on the move, and can move defenders, more than I've ever seen any quarterback. These guys that are chasing him are big-time world-class athletes. He can move them around with his eyes. Not many quarterbacks can do stuff like that, and I think it does come back to his basketball stuff."
Garrett said he'll trade some of the negative plays that come with Romo's game for the ability his quarterback has to make the big play.
"If you ever get to a point where you're strangling him and say 'you can't do that,' I think you're taking away the essence of what makes him a real special player," Garrett said. "You're going to have some plays that you don't like, and you have to live with those. And, we've had a few of those. But at the same time, you have to allow for the other ones."
Fortunately for Garrett and the Cowboys, those "other ones" have showed up a little more here in the last two weeks.