In his Monday column, my buddy Bob Sturm posed a question all Dallas fans have pondered the last year or so:
I think we can all agree [Romo] also once had a groove. In his first 25 or so games in the NFL, he was somewhere between amazing and unbelievable. Then, something happened where he hit adversity and we began to see the weaknesses in his game. And for the last 20 or so starts, he just has not been the same guy who seemed like he played the game with everything happening around him in slow motion. Was something wrong with him?
I think I can answer that one. Something was wrong with Tony Romo-- he lost his mojo. He didn't have a number one receiving target.
In those first 25 games, where Romo was playing shagadelic football, he had at least one elite-performing wideout, whom he could trust. I dug out my trusty Scientific Football annuals and looked at the YPAs for receivers who had at least 100 attempts per season. These are regulars, the guys who saw at least half a dozen balls per game thrown their way.
- Lee Evans, Buffalo, 10.6
- Terry Glenn, Dallas, 10.3
- Chad Johnson, Cincinnati, 10.0
- Marques Colston, New Orleans 9.8
- Marvin Harrison, Indianapolis, 9.8
(That T.O. guy finished 22nd overall, at 8.0.)
- Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis, 10.6
- Terrell Owens, Dallas, 9.7
- Roddy White, Atlanta, 9,6
- Jerricho Cotchery, N.Y. Jets, 9.6
- Randy Moss, New England, 9.3
(Patrick Crayton had a strong 9.5 YPA but didn't have enough attempts to qualify. He also had a dismal 2.8 YPA against elite, red-level CBs, comparied to T.O.'s 9.4. Before I move to my main argument, consider what a healthy Glenn could have meant to the '07 team? Not enough has been written about what the team lost when his knee broke down in training camp that year.)
Now, let's consider what happened in those next 20 games, which coincide with opening day '08 through the Broncos game this year. Romo broke his pinkie, obviously, and lost three games. Even more important, he lost his number one. Roy Williams was imported from Detroit to take the role, but his heel injury took his game away. I've made the point in several other columns, but it bears repeating -- Williams had a 15.4 yards per reception average his first month with the team and shockingly bad 4.6 YPC after he developed plantar fasciitis.
And that T.O. fellow? He lost it, sometime in the fourth quarter of the week two Eagles game. He destroyed Philly's secondary that night but topped 80 yards in just three of his last fourteen games. His YPA dropped to 7.5, which put him in the bottom third of receivers who saw lots of passes.
Romo lost the elite receiving complement to Jason Witten, and his purple mojo flowed away. For the last two weeks, however, Miles Austin has played like Lance Alworth, a pantheon-level number 19. Austin's 16 catches and 421 yards look impressive. In YPA terms, they're just as good.
2009 to date
- Austin - 35 attempts, 21,completions, 502 yards, 14.3 YPA
- Wiliams - 30 attempts, 12 completions, 230 yards, 7.7 YPA
14.3 is off-the-charts good. Let me be the first to say, however, that it's premature to anoint Miles Austin. The league hasn't had a chance to start game planning to stop him. And he hasn't started a game in the division, where Corey Webster, Carlos Rogers and the Eagles pair of Asante Samuels and Sheldon Brown, all red-level corners in '08, await him. That said, even if Austin drops off a bit, he still could rank among the league leaders in YPA with consistent play.
I also think it's equally premature to put Roy Williams in the Joey Galloway, Cowboys-bust category. A 7.7 YPA isn't great, but it's better than T.O.'s 08 number and there's no reason to expect William's performance to slide any more. A modest improvement would give the '09 pair similar productivity to Glenn's and Owen's '06 numbers.
It's easy to whack at the draft value points lost on the Williams deal with Detroit, and consider what Dallas could have obtained besides. But if you're going to parse that trade, you have to include the value retained by the trade the Cowboys didn't make.
The Jets seriously considered signing Austin, a New Jersey guy, to an offer sheet which would have given the Cowboys New York's 2nd round pick in compensation. The Jets never made Austin an offer, in part because Dallas made it clear that they would do what was necessary to keep him.
Contemplate the damage that deal would have wreaked. The Jets picked 53rd overall, two spots behind Dallas' 2nd round selection. Recall that Dallas traded out of that spot, because all of their primary 2nd round targets were gone. If Dallas couldn't find value for one pick, what would they have done with two? And who could Dallas have pulled out of a subsequent round to match Austin's current production?
You can't judge trades strictly on draft points. You have to evaluate value to the position and to the team. Right now, I think that the value Dallas preserved by keeping Miles Austin outweighs any value the team lost obtaining Roy Williams. And that doesn't consider the value he's has added to his quarterback's game. A guy named Austin has helped restore Tony Romo's powers, and not a moment too soon.