The author of *America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys, Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.*
Seven games minus the Franchise. Figured win two, maybe three, and be in the mix upon Tony Romo's return in Week 11 at Miami.
Backup quarterbacks do win in this league, just the two employed by the Cowboys weren't up to that task. Or maybe the coaching staff didn't put them into position to succeed, hard to say exactly what has led to this mess.
Still, somehow, someway, this season is by no means finished, the Cowboys being only one game behind in the loss column. Know what, though? It's going to be seven weeks since the last win when the team takes the unfriendly home turf (5-9 in the last 14 regular-season home games) on Sunday night against Philadelphia, so this isn't one of those columns about eight or nine wins will win the NFC East (although that's true).
Instead, let's truly appreciate what Romo has meant to the Cowboys. He's played at such a high level that everyone else allowed themselves to believe the team built around him was elite. That's obviously not the case. An elite team can win one of five games minus their quarterback.
Some numbers to consider:
In the last 17 regular-season games that Romo has started, the Cowboys are 14-3 with the offense averaging 28.4 points.
In the six games over that same stretch that Romo hasn't started, the Cowboys are 0-6 with the offense averaging 16.0 points.
That is simply astounding. The first is right up there with the top-tier teams in the league, a winning percentage of nearly 83 percent with an undefeated record in nine road contests, an unheard of achievement. The second is among the worst teams in the league. Since Week 3, with Romo chilling on the sidelines, 30 of the other 31 NFL teams have won a game. Think about that. Every other club has won a game besides Tennessee, who didn't exactly have Super Bowl aspirations coming into this season.
For me, this should significantly alter how we view the three straight 8-8 finishes from 2011-13. I mean, how can we not? Time and again, fans, media, clueless nincompoops walking the streets would stress how the Cowboys weren't winning because of Romo. If only they had another quarterback, then Dallas would win 10, 11 games, start winning in the playoffs. Romo was the great and powerful choker, jokes on Twitter were aplenty, and when December rolled around on the calendar, watch out, this was crash, crumble and burn time, Romo's specialty.
So sitting here having watched the last five games, remembering Stephen McGee not being able to muster a point on the scoreboard until the last 10 seconds on Christmas Eve 2011 against the Eagles with an offense Romo averaged 24 points a game with, I have to wonder what the last four years would have looked like with, say, Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, Jon Kitna and Kyle Orton at the helm. Honestly, if Romo was forced to retire for some reason at the conclusion of the 2010 season, or if the Cowboys listened to those who wanted him jettisoned for draft picks or half a bag of used footballs, who else would have played quarterback? Top-tier signal-callers don't become free agents. Maybe they would have drafted one along the way. Maybe Johnny Football would have come to Dallas after all.
I'm just saying, what we've witnessed these last five games would have been the norm. The three straight 5-11 seasons under Dave Campo would have looked like Lombardi's Packers in comparison. I'm serious.
If Romo isn't playing quarterback these past four seasons, my guess is the Cowboys would have finished somewhere in the ballpark of 3-13 and maybe 6-10 last year. That's how instrumental the quarterback is, especially in this system. Romo was winning those other games.
With one of those other guys behind center, the team earns possibly 16 wins the last four years combined. Instead, the Cowboys won 36 games, and every single time they took the field, all 64 regular-season occasions, they were in the playoff hunt. There wasn't a single meaningless game, unless you maybe count that aforementioned Philly contest when they put McGee in once it was known the finale the next week was winner-take-all for the division.[embeddedad0]
Here's what is somewhat confusing to me, though. This roster is so much more talented from top to bottom than those three 8-8 squads. The Cowboys were signing guys off the street who were then starting on the defensive line that Sunday. The offensive line in 2011 was a mess, rookie Tyron Smith was probably the best of the bunch at 20 years old. Dallas, and I've said this before, more or less rebuilt the team while competing, which is unheard of in the NFL. It was an act of magic by Romo.
Anyhow, that's my bewilderment. Why isn't this team playing better? Why isn't the offensive line, further fortified by La'el Collins, who was a rookie for about 20 minutes, just dominating up front. Would anyone argue on paper that this is the best offensive line since Jimmy Johnson's first Super Bowl team? Regardless, against Seattle there just weren't many holes for Darren McFadden to run through.
And the defense, would anyone argue this is the best defense on paper since 2009 under Wade Phillips? The unit has allowed just a single touchdown in each of the last two games and yet lost both. Still, despite ranking eighth in total defense, they aren't forcing turnovers. More or less, they aren't the cause of the five-game losing streak, but they haven't been the solution either.
The much-ballyhooed return of Dez Bryant wasn't the solution. Dez was open a whole lot more than folks are talking about, open meaning worth throwing the ball to. This isn't the backyard with your buddies growing up where someone is jumping up and down waving their arms screaming about how wide open they are. This is the NFL, and that was Richard Sherman. The quarterback has to pick his spots, throw some balls and allow Dez to make a play.
Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, 98 percent of the wide receivers in the league should not be afforded that opportunity, but Dez is among the two percent. Throw him the ball. Find a way to put the ball in his hands. Line him up in different spots on offense, throw him the ball at the line of scrimmage and let him try to break tackles.
At one point, late in the second quarter, on third-and-10, Dez ran a magnificent route into the end zone. Cassel took a quick look before dumping off to McFadden for 7 yards and a field goal. Dez walked off the field at a pace slower than a three-legged turtle, head bowed. The frustration that erupted postgame was percolating all afternoon.
So we search for more solutions. In the last 20 hours or so, I've received emails and tweets suggesting (often demanding) Tim Tebow, Kellen Moore, a trade for Matthew Stafford or Johnny Manziel, Ryan Mallett, Clint Stoerner and Matt Flynn. Only one of those weren't actually suggested.
Look, there is no solution. Outside of the defense pitching a shutout, these next two weeks are going to be a challenge to find a win. Romo is returning, though, and here's guessing, here's hoping, he's appreciated for the truly elite franchise quarterback he really is.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at email@example.com.