I watched the win over the Panthers again and have two reports two give. The first one is all Tony Romo, since he deserves special attention and it follows below. The second one, about the rest of the team, will follow later today and includes a focus on the offensive line.
Here's the caveat for the entire Tony Romo breakdown below; this was one game. I'm basing this review on what I saw Sunday night and it's not a comment on future play. So if it sounds like Romo is the next Tom Brady or something, it's because for one night he was. But next week, that all could be washed away with a poor performance.
The game wasn't too big for Tony Romo on Sunday Night. We hear Coach Parcells throw that phrase out in press conferences, on Sunday we saw it defined. To Romo, this was just another day at the office, or so it appeared.
Take the opening drives of the game. Romo comes out and hits T.O. to open the first drive and on 2nd and 3 hits Witten for a first down. Chop block, penalty, 2nd and 18. He hits Witten for 10 yards and its 3rd and 8. Peppers reads the middle screen and covers MB3, Flozell gets beat and Romo is sacked. Tough start.
Undaunted, Romo comes out and leads a 9-play 52-yard drive, and then Vanderjagt misses the FG. That's two series in a row where Romo had done his job but was undone by the rest of the team. The next offensive series for Romo starts with the Cowboys down 7-0. Hostile environment, you're now losing, the team is making mistakes, that could be discouraging for a young QB. On first down he hit Witten again but a holding penalty makes it 1st and 20. On 3rd down, desperate to make something happen, Romo makes the killer mistake by throwing an ill-advised pass that is intercepted. The Panthers immediately cashed it in for a 14-0 lead.
This was the moment that poise really kicked in for Romo. That's a lot of negative activity in the first quarter of Romo's first game starting in the NFL, and only the second game where he'd played minutes that were actually meaningful.
So what does Romo do? Direct a 9-play, 47-yard TD drive. A drive that never even has a 3rd down, Romo threw 4 passes on 2nd down, converting each to 1st downs or a TD. Efficient and effective. On the next series Romo goes 68 yards in 14 plays, eating up the time in the first half, and gets a FG. On the series, he converted a 3rd and 2 by using his feet, then converted a 3rd and 7 with a bullet strike to Witten. He almost converted a 3rd and 13 with the Panthers blitzing for a first down, but Terry Glenn came up a yard short on the catch and we kicked the FG.
Now its 14-10 at halftime and the game is up for grabs. That's poise under pressure.
2. Pocket presence
I counted at least four. And by that, I mean four times that Romo made plays when Bledsoe would've absolutely failed, and I think that's being generous to Bledsoe.
Tony Romo had the spidey-senses working. He felt pressure when it was real, and when it wasn't real he stayed in the pocket. Two different sides of the coin and equally important.
When the pressure came and the pocket started collapsing, not only was Romo adept at moving around in the pocket or taking off running, but he almost always moved in the right direction to open space. He almost always put himself in position to make a play instead of just running around in the backfield without a plan except to avoid the sack. A good example was a play to Witten. We had a 3rd and 2 deep in Panther territory, and MB3 had just picked up the 1st down on a run but T.O. got called for holding. It's a spot foul so now its 3rd and 7; Gurode gets a false start penalty and its 3rd and 12. Romo drops back, Rivera gets beat and his man is headed for Romo. At the last second Romo takes two quick steps to his left, finds the open ground in the pocket, and with his head up the whole time fires a bullet to Witten for the first down.
On the flip side, he doesn't get hit as much as Bledsoe did, so he doesn't get happy feet in the pocket. After Bledsoe got hit a few times early in games because he couldn't avoid the rush, he would start seeing the rush instead of sensing it and the happy feet would start dancing. His mechanics would get out of whack and disaster usually awaited. Romo didn't have that problem. He avoided the rush so well that he didn't take a lot of hits, even on plays where he gets the pass off; he's not getting knocked down. As the game progressed Romo stayed in the pocket, sometimes when it looked like it was breaking down, but he knew he had enough time to make his throw. He didn't start dancing and was able to accurately judge real pressure from false pressure. It's frustrating when a QB bails out of a pocket to early, almost as much as when he bails out too late.
3. Quick release
It was like hitting the fast-forward button on your Tivo in comparison to Drew Bledsoe. Not the super fast-forward, just the one tap on the button fast-forward. Romo has a quick release and he makes quick decisions.
When Romo took 3-step drops to throw the quick hitches and slants, it was text-book. His drop is fast; he plants on the back foot and gets the ball out on target, quickly. When he hits the 5 and 7-step drops, his quick release lets him hang in the pocket just a little longer before he has to throw it. He was very adept at letting the rush get close to him but still giving himself time to get the ball out cleanly, without anyone hitting his arm or fouling up his mechanics. This was one thing that absolutely killed Bledsoe, throwing passes under duress when he couldn't step into a throw.
4. Reading the defense
It's hard to be too accurate about reads and audibles without knowing the play calls, but Romo didn't look to be shy about changing the plays. He took his time at the line, was constantly pointing out the pass rush and appeared to make audible calls regularly.
The Panthers chose to blitz Romo. They ran a number of middle blitzes using their LB's. The line did a good job of picking them up and Romo took advantage of their absence. With the middle LB's missing from the coverage Romo and Witten played catch over the middle of the field and he hit both Owens and Glenn on deep `in' patterns.
On the 2-point conversion, Romo read the defense perfectly. The Cowboys lined up in a shotgun formation with an empty backfield. I was calling out QB draw the minute I saw the formation. But it wasn't a draw. Owens was in the left slot, and the linebacker covering the middle of the field crept up to the end of the line and faked a blitz. Romo took the snap, faked a QB draw by taking a step forward, then dropped back and fired the ball to Owens on a quick slant. Romo saw the linebacker at the end of the line, froze him for just an instant before he could drop back into coverage and he was a step slow in making the coverage on Owens across the middle. The defensive back on Owens was covering his outside expecting help from the linebacker on the inside. Romo saw the whole thing and executed it perfectly.
5. Possible weaknesses
So far, Romo hasn't connected on the deep pattern with regularity, mainly because he's content to take the short, underneath stuff. He did connect on a couple of passes of 20+ yards on Sunday over the middle, but we've yet to see the go pattern or the deep post, routes of that nature. We don't really know yet how good he is hitting receivers 30-yards or more downfield. He's going to have to do it at some point because defenses will start pressing forward to stop the short passing game.
We can't forget he did make a very bad impulse throw for an interception which is easy to overlook considering how he played the rest of the game. But he needs to remember that play as an example of what not to do in a game.
His deep out passes could use a little more zip. He threw one to Glenn that was a little dangerous because it hung up there for a second and he also floated one into Owens. Now, the Owens one was a safe loft, he was wide open so the softer touch was the safer throw, but it also kept Owens from having time to turn up field. Next time, he might need Owens to score instead of just getting the first down to help grind out the clock.