IRVING, Texas – Well, it's that time of year again, and I'll be darned, right on time the cabbie taking me from DFW back to The Ranch earlier this week in very broken English asks:
The Cowboys change this year?
You mean, are they better?
Well, yes, the offensive line is better, the defensive system has changed, the defensive coordinator has changed, the injured players from last year have returned and are mostly healthy again, they are running a new two-tight end base offense and the head coach has freed himself up from having to script the entire offensive game plan and call all the plays, so yeah, a whole lot has changed. They are better.
Same quarterback, he says in what I later learned – and to my advantage – was broken Italian. Those two words, same quarterback, more of a pessimistic statement than a question, as he shakes his head.
Some things, nope, they never change.
No matter what the Cowboys have done or do, the winning and losing in the minds of far too many comes down solely on the shoulders of the quarterback, and for the Cowboys these past six and a half seasons those have been the ones holding up Tony Romo's No. 9 jersey.
Amazing to me. Short-sightedness must be a national disease, and especially among all those national members of the media, a term I use loosely since the majority should be classified as national entertainers more than anything else. It's such a lazy analysis of the Dallas Cowboys' inability to qualify for the playoffs the past three seasons with nothing more than an 8-8 record in two of those years and a woefully bad losing record (6-10) in the other.
See, and here's what happens: The Cowboys can lose five defensive starters as they did over the course of last season; their punter, too; play musical chairs along the offensive line because of injuries; lose their lead running back for a period of time and play with a banged up backup; play with backups to backups at several positions; give up 400 points in a season for only the third time since 1962; give up the second most rushing yards since 1986; and then rush for the fewest yards in a 16-game season ever.
But guarantee you the only thing anyone seems to remember from the Cowboys' 8-8 season in 2012 is Romo's 645th of 648 passing attempts. Yes, that one. With 3:00 left in the season, the Cowboys at their own 29, trailing the Washington Redskins, 21-18, a scenario set up for a storybook ending to the game and regular season with the NFC East Division title hanging in the balance.
Interception, Romo ill-advisedly trying to loft a pass left to running back DeMarco Murray while under duress from free blitzing Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, only to have Rob Jackson fake a blitz by dropping into the flat to foil the attempt and the Cowboys season.
Now there is some agony of defeat.
"I feel like I let the team down," said Romo, his words more of a dull groan immediately afterward. "We were back in that position again (to pull one out in the end), and that's on me. Just hard to think about … just a tough pill to swallow, especially throwing that last interception."
Strange, haven't heard a soul ask Romo this summer how long the agony lasted or how do you recover from one of life's low blows. Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan says the subject, at least to his knowledge, has never been brought up again around here. That you just go on.
So here we go, on to 2013, 54th season in franchise history, the Cowboys opening the schedule against the, of course, New York Football Giants on Sunday night at newly christened AT&T Stadium, with a mighty collision of history on hand. While everyone is quick to point out the Giants own a 4-0 record under the four-year-old Cowboys dome, the Cowboys can counter with going 4-0 against the Giants in season openers. And look, as far as history is concerned, only nine guys on this current Cowboys 53-man roster participated in that 2009 stadium-opening loss to the Giants. For further perspective, Tyron Smith was all of 18 years old on that Sept. 20, 2009 date. Morris Claiborne 19. You think that fact haunts them like it haunts you?
Romo, though, does not seem haunted. He, equipped with increased say in the offensive game plan and quite possibly in calling some plays as well, can't wait to get started. And you should too, knowing your quarterback has the ability to throw for more than the 4,000 yards he has thrown for the last four times he has started all 16 games in a season – the only Cowboys quarterback to eclipse 4,000 yards in a season even though two of his predecessors rest in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You should be glad your quarterback has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating ever (101.9). Higher than quarterbacks named Rodgers and Brady and Young and Warner. And while most bemoan Romo's 88 interceptions in 93 starts, know that in their first 93 career starts, Roger Staubach had thrown 87, Danny White 120 and Troy Aikman 82.
Even better, Romo has a great understanding of what comes with the quarterback meal, and a great constitution to handle criticism, never once throwing young receivers under the bus for poor or wrong routes that have tagged him with picks over the last couple of seasons.
"My job is going to be to protect the football," says Romo, who was intercepted a career-matching high 19 times last year, same as his first full season starting in 2007 when the Cowboys went 13-3. "That's my No. 1 job going into every game, and I'm going to do the job this teams needs to win the football game."
That job should be a tad easier with a revamped middle of the offensive line, adding Travis Frederick and Ron Leary, and then most likely Brian Waters by the time the Cowboys travel to Kansas City next Sunday. That's going to be some power, and likely to provide better pass protection than that of last year, which saw Romo get sacked a career-high 36 times.
And if that's the case, then maybe the Cowboys can average more than last season's 3.6 yards a carry, matching the club's lowest average since the 3.5 of 1996.
On top of all that, maybe an improved defense won't require the Cowboys to average 26 points a game to overtake the 25-points a game the club gave up last year, although that might be a work in progress with starting defensive end Anthony Spencer doubtful to play Sunday, starting defensive tackle Jay Ratliff on PUP and then defensive tackle backups Josh Brent (retired), Tyrone Crawford (IR), Sean Lissemore (traded) and now Ben Bass (Thursday's dislocated shoulder looking as if he's going to be out for quite some time) unavailable for the opener.
Just remember, the Cowboys gave up at least 27 points in seven of last year's eight losses. Somewhat frightening.
But yet, the cabbie wonders about Romo.
"Tony's been awfully good and at being able to make a lot of plays and also not making bad plays," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "But like every quarterback who has ever played, when the burden is too big on them, sometimes you try to do too much and you're not able to take care of the ball the way you need to.
"It's a key piece to winning, it's part of the recipe to winning. He knows that, our whole team knows that."
Now that's up to everyone else if you recognize that burden, too, and again that burden has been heavy if you consider the past two seasons, Romo having accounted for – throwing and rushing – 61 of the 77 combined touchdowns the Cowboys have scored. That's a whopping 79 percent.
And get this, too: Romo has a 55-38 record starting regular season games and is 1-3 in the playoffs. There is this general line of demarcation for offenses and defenses in this league. Hold an opponent to no more than 17 points and you give your team a chance to win every time out. Score at least 21 points and you give your team a chance to win every time out.
Well, get this: A Cowboys opponent has scored at least 21 points in 33 of Romo's 41 career losses. And of his 56 victories, only 10 have come when the Cowboys have scored fewer than 21 points.
Talk about burden.
Well, if me eyes aren't deceiving me two days before the start of the 2013 season, that burden should be lifted somewhat, thereby increasing Romo's percentages of being more efficient with the football, not only in making better throws, but more importantly in making fewer bad decisions or those risky ones out of necessity.
And because of that, this Cowboys team breaks out of that 8-8 rut under Garrett to finish …
And without changing the quarterback, cabbie.