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Spagnola: Intrigue As This Cowboys Offense Unfolds


OXNARD, Calif. – So remember way back when this "more Romo involvement" began, back in March when those very words from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had everyone scratching their heads and many still?

At those NFL owners' meetings when he uttered these very words about Tony Romo: "… where he will have a significant level of input and contribution to the planning and implementing of our offensive approach – both in the meeting room and on the field."

The "on the field" seemed to make, at least me, go hmmmm.

Because it was like, how in the world can Tony Romo be more involved than he already has been in the offense? Why, the guy threw for 4,903 yards in 2012, obviously a career high and Cowboys franchise record since no quarterback other than Romo has passed for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, and now he's done so four times and in each of the past two years.

He set the team mark for attempts in a single season in 2012, and if you consider his total offense, he accounted for (passing and running) 82 percent of the team's offensive production. And for good measure, of the eight rushing touchdowns the Cowboys had last year, Romo owned one. That means Romo directly accounted for 29 of the Cowboys 37 offensive touchdowns.

That's pretty involved I'd say, sort of like the old joke about how committed the pig is compared to the chicken when it comes to a breakfast of bacon and eggs.

As the Cowboys' charter flight landed at Point Mugu Naval Air Station Friday for Saturday's official start to training camp with a noon press conference, this picture of Romo's involvement seems to be growing clearer and clearer by the day as the team's starting quarterback is about to embark on his 11th training camp, if you believe that. How times flies.

OK, we're pretty clear on the "contribution to the planning and implementing of our offensive approach" part with all the talk of Romo spending more "hours" at The Ranch and being asked for input into the early-week game-planning. Makes sense, right? The quarterback who will be starting for the seventh consecutive full season should have a pretty good grasp of what's going on.

But what about this on-the-field business?

At the time, my guess was this: Maybe the Cowboys go with a little more hurry-up offense, allowing Romo to call more of his own plays at the line of scrimmage. After all, they sure seemed to be pretty good when forced into their two-minute offense or when they'd fall behind 23-0 and had to abandon whatever had been planned earlier in the week for a little Romo helter-skelter, let's-sling-it-around offense.

Well …

The day before the charter left for training camp, Jones taped his two segments for the Cowboys Special Edition television show, which by the way this year's first installment airs in Dallas-Fort Worth at 10:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS-11 (check local listings for stations on the Dallas Cowboys Television Network). One of Jones' answers caught me by surprise.

He was asked: What position or position group will you specifically be keeping an eye on during training camp?

So I'm figuring he's going to say something like offensive line, since this was somewhat of a sore spot last year in more ways than just physical injuries. Maybe he points out the Cowboys defensive ends are a little light in the saddle to be playing this 4-3 front fulltime.

Or he could have gone the safety route, since one returning starter, Barry Church, has only three NFL starts to his credit, and the other spot appears to be wide open. Or he could have gone running back since at this point it's DeMarco Murray and … who? You know, just circling one of the positions in question heading into this camp after consecutive 8-8 seasons.

But without hesitation, Jones said …


My mind did one of those, say whats? Quarterback? You've got a top-10 quarterback in the NFL, one who nearly threw for 5,000 yards last year, and the backup, Kyle Orton, was rated by one person this offseason as the second-best backup in the league.

Jerry continues, me wondering where in the world is he going with this:

"And so I'm excited. I know the commitment Romo has, I know the time he is spending, I know the commitment we have to his extended involvement in what we're going to be doing offensively. So how we implement that, how we incorporate that, and how we're going to play a game is important to me."

Ah, I see, when you commit nearly $120 million to a guy over seven years, and $55 million of it will eventually be guaranteed, you're probably keenly interested in how the guy is performing, especially since Romo having a benign cyst removed from his back caused him to miss all of the offseason practices (nine OTAs and the three-day minicamp).

Fair enough.

But there was more; there was this: "Specifically, I'm interested in how we do with our tight end emphasis we have. This lets us have people on the field, players on the field, that we don't have to substitute as much for, that will even allow your quarterback to have more freedom to make play-calls out on the field because he's not having to get substitutions when the play comes in.

"It's a little subtle added bonus playing with the tight ends we have."

Well now. This all is starting to add up, and confirm my earlier suspicions that head coach Jason Garrett and play-calling cohort Bill Callahan might be willing to trust Romo calling plays at times, either in a hurry-up operation or one of those muddle deals. And look, I'm not saying this is going to take place 60 snaps a game. That would be rather impossible.

See, the usual reason these days for quarterbacks not calling their owns plays is the inability to make the necessary personnel group substitutions in time to fit the play call. This ain't hockey.

Ah, but now the versatility of a two-tight offense. Where is Jason Witten and his second tight end accomplice lining up? Both on the line of scrimmage, tight to the tackles, suggesting run yet easily enough for one or both to flair out in the pass pattern? One on the line of scrimmage and one masquerading as a fullback (called an H-back), again giving you the ability to run or pass? One tight to the line and the other in the slot, giving a three-receiver look? Both out wide, making this a four-receiver set, getting either linebackers or safeties in coverage down the field?

And, if you are doing this without huddling for long or at all, and not making personnel substitutions, then the defense will have trouble matching up and will not be given an opportunity to substitute.

So maybe there is reason for the Cowboys having gone tight end mad, using a second-round draft choice on a tight end (Gavin Escobar) when they already have the perennial All-Pro Witten, who is coming off a team-leading 110-catch season, and on-coming James Hanna. Maybe now we've gained insight into why the Cowboys also signed veteran tight end Dante Rosario and are bringing a grand total of six of these tight ends – no fullbacks – here for the start of training camp.

Giving us new meaning to there is more than one way to skin a, uh, 'Skin, Giant or Eagle.

And you can sure bet Romo is buying into this concept. Chomping on the bit might be more like it.

Just the other day Romo told the Racine (Wis.) Journal Times, "As quarterback, through the experiences you've had, you just understand what defenses are trying to do and you gain a very high understanding of football concepts and what you want to do."

Like if a defense is failing to stop what you're doing, keep doing it until it adjusts, and when the defense adjusts, then you do something else. Simple, right?

Because if the Cowboys think their offense has grown stale – lots of yards but not enough commensurate touchdowns – then here comes the spice.

What you think? Jerry, heaven forbid, just might know what he needs to be watching. Yep, we need to keep our eyes glued to that offensive line and that defensive line. We need to discern if it appears the Cowboys have the ability to run the football and stop the run, and if this defense has a safety net.

But let us, too, see how this franchise's hefty investment in this quarterback, both financially and in increased play-calling/design involvement, and in these slew of tight ends unfolds here at training camp. Might just determine where this team's heading in 2013.

The first horn blows 10:30 a.m. (PDT) Sunday.

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