Phillips: Why This Dez-Less Stretch Won't Determine Tony Romo's Eliteness

IRVING, Texas – Uh oh. I'm seeing and hearing that word again this week from Cowboys Nation.

The "E" word.

As in, now we're going to find out whether Tony Romo is truly "Elite" without his All-Pro receiver and last year's leading rusher.

For the love of all things elite and ordinary, Dez Bryant's multi-week absence following foot surgery and DeMarco Murray's Philadelphia defection do not serve as some sort of test balloon for Romo's quarterback status ranking.

Haven't we moved past all this? Didn't last Sunday's fourth-quarter rally – the 24th comeback of Romo's 10-year starting career – remind us yet again that this guy, now 35 years old, is among the best at what he does?

"He's as good as anybody playing right now," Chip Kelly told the Dallas media via conference call this week.

Call it lip service by the opponent's head coach if you like, but after that performance against the Giants, as well as a 2014 season in which Romo finished third in the league MVP voting, Kelly ain't wrong. And his opinion as a creative offensive mind carries a lot of weight with me.

Kelly even mentioned "elite" when describing Romo. But trust me, he didn't rekindle this debate -- it was inevitable around the water cooler given the Cowboys' current circumstances.

I'll be honest: I've never understood what qualifies as elite for an NFL quarterback. Does it mean consistently big numbers over a long period of time? Consistently big numbers with at least one championship?

If the word got erased from the football vernacular tomorrow, I'm pretty sure I could live with that.

Yes, these next few weeks without Bryant are a big test for Romo and the Cowboys' offense. He no longer has an outside receiver who has previously attracted­ double coverage. His healthy skill players must win one-on-one battles to earn the extra attention that creates favorable matchups for others. And the Eagles, with their 49 sacks a season ago, historically have chased him around.

But suggesting Tony Romo must attain, or maintain, some kind of elite status by winning X amount of games without Dez (no pun intended) is missing the point.

Quarterbacks need great teammates in order to be great themselves. No sport requires a larger collective effort than football – 11 guys moving and executing in concert. That's why the Cowboys, realizing their roster was aging and underachieving, quietly began rebuilding around Romo five years ago.

By 2013, 15 of the 22 starters head coach Jason Garrett inherited midway through the 2010 season were gone. Today, only Romo, Jason Witten and Doug Free remain. In particular, the front office has completely overhauled the offensive line with four athletic new starters all under the age of 25.

What happened last year with perhaps the best supporting cast in Romo's career, and certainly since the 13-win 2007 season? Twelve wins and his most efficient season yet. Funny how that works.

Romo himself has improved with age. Maybe the two back surgeries have somewhat tamed his wild early playing tendencies, transforming him into a more cerebral quarterback without sacrificing his creativity. Maybe that was inevitable with experience. It's probably a little of both.

Garrett said it well in his walkoff chat with reporters this week:

"Tony's been a really good player for a long time. This idea that Tony's just emerging . . . he's been a really good player for a long time. Hopefully our team has gotten better around him. I think he's improved as a player, and one of the reasons is the approach that he takes."

So Romo will step onto Lincoln Financial Field this Sunday with Dez Bryant sidelined and DeMarco Murray on the opposite sideline, and inevitably the perception among some observers is that he must carry the Cowboys these next few weeks, that their hopes rise or fall with him because he's the guy with the ball in his hands every play.

Does he need to play well? Absolutely. Got to avoid turnovers after throwing an interception in Week 1. He'll also need the run game to help him stay ahead of the chains in a hostile environment. He'll throw to the open receiver based on coverages. And defensively, the Cowboys need a gritty performance similar to last Sunday when they held the Giants to four field goals and one offensive touchdown.

One of Garrett's first coaching tenets when he got the job in 2010 was, "It Takes Everybody."

With No. 88 out, that's truer than ever for No. 9.

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