Not so long ago, in a time called BRE (before Romo Era), the Dallas Cowboys were 3-2 and going into a tough stretch of games. We had the Giants at home, then the three game road trip. I wrote at that time that Dallas had to come out of that stretch of games no worse than 5-4, preferably 6-3, to have a legitimate chance at a playoff run. Now that we've completed that run, we are 5-4, so to some extent - mission accomplished. Of course, the loss to Washington prevented us from being 6-3, but as things stand today the Cowboys are very much in the thick of a playoff run.
Taking stock after the Sunday games
1. We've found our QB. I admitted, along with some others, that the delay in benching Drew Bledsoe and playing Tony Romo was a costly mistake. It's time to put that behind us as Cowboy fans. Romo supporters - you were right - we're all on the Romo bandwagon now. The kid has been phenomenal in his three starts and shows no signs of being a flash in the pan. He looks fully capable of leading this team to the playoffs, now it's a question of the rest of the team following him. If we don't make the playoffs this year, it's highly doubtful it will be a QB issue that holds us back.
2. Now we need to find an OLB. By all reports Greg Ellis is done for the year. This is a costly injury as Ellis was the major force in our pass rush. DeMarcus Ware has all the skills in the world, but he hasn't put it together on a consistent basis. He better start this week, he's our best hope at becoming the impact player we need in the pass rush. But we still need someone to replace Ellis, with the likely candidates being Kevin Burnett, Bobby Carpenter or Al Singleton. More than likely, we'll see a combination of players. Singleton might be a good choice in running situations, he has the experience and wasn't bad in that department last year. In passing situations, Kevin Burnett seems to be the most capable of applying pressure to the QB. Then there's Carpenter, who so far hasn't done much, but over the past couple of weeks Parcells has talked more about getting him into games. Maybe he finally understands the position and has shown enough improvement in practice to inspire some confidence in Coach Parcells. As a wild-card in the equation, we have Junior Glymph. During training camp and the preseason, Glymph showed the ability to get after the QB. Somehow, a combination of these players has to take up the slack left by Ellis.
3. On Sunday, the Cowboys got some help from other NFC teams. Two 4-4 teams, the Vikings and the Rams, lost; dropping them a game behind in the wild-card chase. The Eagles kept pace at 5-4, and the Falcons were 5-3, but they lost so they dropped into a tie with the Cowboys and the Eagles. The Giants were beaten by the Bears and fell to 6-3 and are facing a rash of injuries, so their grasp on the division lead is tenuous. We have one more 4-4 team, the Carolina Panthers, who play tonight against the Bucs. Everybody root for a Tampa Bay win.
4. Even though the Cowboys played well in their win on Sunday, they still managed to commit 8 penalties for 69 yards, too many if we want to compete with the better teams in the league.
5. With Terry Glenn out of the game, we got to see the depth the Cowboys have at WR, and it looks good. Patrick Crayton has had a rebirth since Tony Romo's taken over, and Sam Hurd showed he's a player by catching 4 passes for 42 yards, and he had a TD taken off the board by - what else - a penalty. With Jason Witten looking like the All-Pro player he's been the past couple of years, the Cowboys have the offensive weapons to compete with any team.
6. The secondary played well against two pretty good WR's on Sunday, with only Anthony Henry showing signs of continued inconsistency. Keith Davis and Pat Watkins will be the real keys going down the stretch though; teams will seek them out the rest of the season as the weak point on the defense.
7. Jason Hatcher may become an important piece of the puzzle down the stretch. With Ellis out, he needs to help DeMarcus Ware apply pressure on the QB when he's on the field. Besides Ware, he's shown more capability of getting into the backfield than the other Cowboys' linemen. Oh yeah, Chris Canty, we used to believe you had that ability, if you want to be a star in this league, now's the time to step up.
Next week is the beginning of crunch time for the Cowboys. We have the Colts in for a visit next Sunday, which kicks off a run of five home games out of the last seven. When the schedule came out earlier this year, the number one thing said was that Dallas needed to be in position to make a run over the last part of the season where a favorable home schedule gives them an advantage. Thanks to a mediocre NFC, the Cowboys are in position to make that run. It starts with a very tough game against the undefeated Colts. A team with the WR's and the QB capable of shredding any secondary in the league. Now, we face them without our most consistent pass rusher. If there was ever a game for the secondary to come up big and for DeMarcus Ware to take over a game, next week is it.
Things could be better for Dallas, we gave away a couple of games that we shouldn't have. Our self-inflicted wounds may come back to haunt us when they hand out dance invitations at the end of the year. But the Cowboys can do something about it. They've got their QB; they've got as much talent as anybody in the league and they have a favorable home schedule. There are no more excuses. It's crunch time.