ARLINGTON, Texas – The second half was about to start, the Cowboys already trailing San Francisco, 28-3, this season opener sizing up to be one of those many big-school-little school college mismatches littering all day Saturday.
Why, it was bad enough that DeMarco Murray's first carry of the season, the Cowboys second snap of 2014, turned into a fumble returned for a touchdown. But after Dallas kicked a field goal on their next
possession, quarterback Tony Romo was intercepted on the next three possessions, setting up a layup San Francisco touchdown on one, costing the Cowboys a scoring opportunity from the 49ers' 5-yard line on another and giving the ball back one more time to San Francisco before the second quarter ended on the third.
At the half, Romo, playing in his first real game since undergoing back surgery in late December to repair a herniated disk, had a 51.5 passer rating, already having been intercepted nearly a third as many times in one half as he had been all of last year.
So someone asked me, "Do you think Romo still is having trouble with his back?"
My response: "No, he is having trouble with his eyes."
Romo … just … wasn't … seeing … the … field.
This was on him, having nothing to do with poor routes or poor protection or dropped passes. This had nothing to do with a weak back. This was poor decision-making, period.
"Just bad decisions," Romo bluntly admitted over and over following the Cowboys' season-opening 28-17 loss to San Francisco at AT&T Stadium.
No two ways about it.
Maybe this is the residue of the Cowboys cautiously treating Romo as he recovered from the back surgery. Remember, he only had to be ready for Sept. 7, the season opener, and being ready meant physically. He would not partake much in the OTAs and minicamps. He really only played a half and two possessions during the preseason.
And when it came to practice, until this past week Romo only would practice two consecutive days and then take the third one off, working diligently to continue strengthening the back muscles violated by the microdisectomy surgery.
Look, comparatively, Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman had the same surgery back in mid-June 1993. He would play in a preseason game nine weeks later and then was ready for the opener on Sept. 6, like within three months of his surgery.
Romo has had nearly eight full months to recuperate, and has been insisting, from a physical standpoint, that he's fine. Good to go.
When bumping into Aikman on Friday, the former Cowboys quarterback at The Ranch preparing for his Fox broadcast, we talked about his surgery. He said the biggest problem after the procedure is "stiffness," and that he really never had a problem with the disk again. Some like to say, yeah, sure, it was Aikman's back that eventually led to his retirement in 2001, right?
That's right, but Aikman also reminded me it was the facet joints, located on the back of the spinal column covered with articular cartilage linking each vertebrae together, that caused his problem in the end, not the repaired disk.
While Romo had plenty of time to rehab his back, maybe he did not take enough time on the field to refresh his mind. Remember me saying I jokingly asked Romo early in training camp if he would be treated like Adrian Peterson, new Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer insisting he did not want to chance his star back taking any snaps in preseason games?
Romo was adamant that a running back could get away with that. Maybe any other position, too … except quarterback. He talked about how quarterbacks have to reacquaint themselves with how quickly plays flash in front of you. How you have to get comfortable in the pocket once again. How you have to sharpen your decision-making, knowing you have to make those in only three, maybe four seconds, if you're lucky. Adapting to the speed of the game is essential.
Well, to me, Romo just didn't adapt well in the first half, just didn't see the field on Sunday. On the first pick, trying to drill Dez Bryant from the 32 downfield 18 yards to his right, Romo locked onto Dez, allowing free safety Ed Reid to jump from the other side of the field to intercept the pass. Had Romo clearly viewed the field, he would have seen Terrance Williams had beaten the corner down the middle deep left, and with Reid already vacating the premises would have been wide open for a potential touchdown pass. Romo never saw him.
On the Cowboys' next possession, the team once again drove down field, set up with a first-and-goal from the San Francisco 5. Romo faked a handoff to Murray, causing the Niners defense to collapse, and there went Dwayne Harris into the end zone, wide open. Romo never saw him, or as he said, "By the time I spotted it, I was peeking out of the corner of my eye for Witten because I thought we were going to get him."
They didn't. Romo tried floating a pass over the linebacker into Witten before the safety recovered. The ball hung up way to long, and Patrick Willis fading back intercepted it. And if he hadn't, the safety, Antoine Bethea, would have. Again, nothing to do with the physical condition of his back. Just didn't see the field.
And on the third interception, the next possession, trying to drive the ball out from his own one, on a first-and-10 at the Cowboys 12, the Cowboys lined up three tight ends, Murray in the backfield and Dez Bryant out left, basically showing run. The Cowboys weren't running. They were going deep, and Dez had a step on the corner running a post.
One big problem. The backside corner, Parrish Cox, didn't have anyone on his side to cover. And when the Cowboys max-protected, he simply dropped into coverage, rotating over and intercepting the pass just before Dez was able to get to the ball at the San Francisco 36.
Someone said, "Tony looks like he is having trouble with the deep ball."
Really? So with the line of scrimmage at the 12, Romo likely let go maybe at the 7. The ball was caught at the Niners 36. Let's see, that's 57 yards in the air. Not a weak arm. That's a weak eye or decision.
"I gave him a chance out there and sometimes he comes down with those," Romo said. "You've got to judge the time of the game and where the ball is to determine if you're going to do that."
Well, with 3:39 left in the half and San Francisco leading 21-3, the Niners needed just three of those minutes to drive 66 yards for the knockout touchdown before the half.
And that was that.
The Cowboys actually lost this opener for all the wrong reasons. Remember, it was the defense everyone was so worried about. The Cowboys would lean on their offense to neutralize what is perceived to be another porous defensive unit after last season's historically bad performance. But in reality, the defense should have been charged with giving up just 14 points of San Francisco's 28.
And if the offense is going to gift-wrap 14 points to the opposition it darn well better score more than 17 of its own. And remember, the Cowboys have won only five games since the start of the 2008 season when scoring no more than 17 points.
No one knows that more than owner Jerry Jones, who said, "I do know that we know that if we can't score more than that, then you're going to have a tough time against any team, not just San Francisco."
Got that right. [embedded_ad]
The offense has to be better. Romo has to be better.
"Anytime your team plays against a good football team, you've got to manage the mistakes," Romo said. "I didn't do a good enough job of that in this game. I think our team played well enough to have a chance to win.
"I've got to play at a higher level, and I'll do that going forward. I didn't perform well enough, not up to my standard tonight, and that is disappointing."
Even Romo could see that.