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Helman: Outlining A Blueprint For The Cowboys To Survive Romo's Absence

IRVING, Texas – The blueprint is there, and it's honestly pretty obvious – it's just a matter of whether Brandon Weeden and the Cowboys can follow it.

This being the NFL, it's absolutely not new for a franchise to cope for an extended period of time without a star player – or even two. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was correct when he said no one's going to care that his team is coping with injuries.

"Nobody feels sorry for you. That's not really how the world works," he said Monday. "The way it works is, you focus on the task at hand."

With that out of the way, this isn't the first time a team with playoff ambitions has had to maintain those goals without their starting quarterback. Just in the last two years, two different teams have lost their starter to the same injury Tony Romo suffered – a broken collarbone.

One of those teams held the rope and made the playoffs, while the other didn't. And it's certainly true that no two teams, schemes and backup quarterbacks are created equal, it's still worth taking a look at.


Stop me if this sounds familiar: Green Bay lost its Pro Bowl quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in the middle of a highly-anticipated matchup against a divisional rival. The difference is, Rodgers left that game after one series, and Green Bay lost to Chicago, 27-20.

The Packers found themselves in a similar position, though – two games above .500 with an uncertain wait for Rodgers to return to the lineup.

Ironically enough, the guy they turned to is one of the guys this team is currently working out to be Weeden's backup: Matt Flynn. After a suboptimal pair of starts from Scott Tolzien, Flynn entered in Week 12 and led Green Bay to a … tie … against division foe Minnesota.

It might not have been the most auspicious of starts, but Flynn improved. He made five appearances and led Green Bay to a 2-2-1 mark. That's hardly great, but it gave Green Bay a shot at the division title in Week 17 when Rodgers returned – a shot the Packers capitalized on.

The numbers from Green Bay's two spare signal-callers in that timespan were not great. Tolzien completed 61 percent for one touchdown, five picks and an average of 239 yards per game in three appearances. Flynn completed 61 percent for seven touchdowns, five interceptions and an average of 230 yards per game.


Roughly a year later, Nick Foles broke his collarbone in Philadelphia's Nov. 2 against the Texans. Again, in a familiar twist, he didn't require surgery – but his status was in doubt for the remainder of the year.

Enter Mark Sanchez, which Cowboys fans should remember quite well.  The former Jets quarterback took over a team with a 6-2 record, and the Sanchez Era in Philadelphia started beautifully, with the Eagles capitalizing on a plus-five turnover margin to down Carolina, 45-21.

Sanchez led Philadelphia to a 4-4 record over the course of eight starts – which, optimistically, you'd hope would be enough to land you in the playoffs at 10-6. That obviously wasn't the case, though, as a surging Dallas team roared to a 12-4 record behind an MVP-caliber performance from Romo.

It's not even that the former first-round pick was bad. He handled himself pretty well in Chip Kelly's offense, completing 64 percent of his passes for an average of 277 yards per game and 11 touchdowns. If there's a criticism to be had, it's probably that he was a little pick-happy, with nine in eight games.


Which leads me back to the aforementioned blueprint.

Without Rodgers picking up the slack, the 2013 Packers went 0-2 in game where they had a negative turnover differential. They went 2-2-1 in games where they were positive or even.

The Sanchez-led Eagles improved on that, going 3-0 when they won the turnover battle, 0-2 when they lost it and 1-2 with an even differential. That's a 5-2-1 mark when the ball is being taken care of.

Those two teams also have something the Cowboys will hope they can relate to. The 2013 Packers, behind an Offensive Rookie of the Year effort from Eddie Lacy, boasted the No. 7 rushing offense in football, averaging 133 yards per game. The 2014 Eagles were ninth in the league with 124 rushing yards per game during LeSean McCoy's final season with the team.

The Cowboys' ground game hasn't lived up to the lofty standards it set last year. With 94.5 yards per game, Dallas is just 20th in the league. That'll need to improve if Weeden is going to be in position to be successful.

On the other side, it's starting to look like the Cowboys might have a strength their contemporaries couldn't lean on – a stout defense. The 2013 Packers ranked 25th in the league in defense, allowing an average of 404 yards per game while Rodgers was absent. They did, however, force 13 of their 22 takeaways on the year during the seven games without their quarterback.

In 2014, the Eagles allowed 378 yards per game during the second half of the season, when Sanchez was starting. The run defense was strong, allowing just 3.7 yards per carry – fourth-best in the league. The secondary surrendered 4,238 passing yards, however, ultimately sinking them.

We're only 12 percent through this season, but this Dallas defense has looked special so far. The Cowboys are allowing 258 yards per game, which is third best in the league – including an absurd 53 rushing yards allowed per game. They're also only surrendering 18 points per game, with 17 of their 36 total points allowed coming directly off turnovers.

Reinforcements can be expected in the next few weeks, as well. Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain will return from their suspensions in time for Week 5, while Randy Gregory is optimistic he can return in the next few weeks.

Going Forward:

If I had to guess, there are going to be some ugly moments in the next eight weeks. Green Bay lost games by scores of 27-13 and 40-10 during their stretch without Rodgers. Even with Sanchez playing relatively well, the Eagles lost games by scores of 53-20, 24-14 and 38-27.

The Arizona Cardinals, who finished last season at 11-5, had to sneak into the playoffs by going 3-4 down the stretch after losing Carson Palmer for the season. Even at 11-5 and the No. 5 in the NFC playoffs, the Cardinals lost games by 16, 11 and 29 points during the back end of their season.

That's all alright. Nobody expects Weeden to be a miracle worker – Flynn certainly wasn't, but he did enough to keep the Packers alive.

If Weeden can be responsible with the football, make a handful of plays when necessary and get some help from his supporting cast, he might be able to keep the Cowboys alive until the cavalry comes.

There's a precedent for it.

Want to be there when the Cowboys take on the Falcons? Tickets start as low as $29 for the Sunday, September 27th match up at AT&T Stadium. Instant ticket download available. Click here to purchase.

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