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Five Moments That Shaped The Cowboys' 2013 Season (Pt. IV): Romo's Back Injury

Our series on five moments or organizational decisions that had significant long-term repercussions over the course of the 2013 season continues with a look at the effect our franchise quarterback's back injury (or, rather, injuries) had on the passing game.

This may have only been the final straw in a series of tweaks to Romo's back
This may have only been the final straw in a series of tweaks to Romo's back
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Part I: Hiring Kiffin

Part II: Trading Back in Round One

Part III: Promoting Will McClay

After a 2011 season that arguably was the best of his career, especially when considering the mediocrity of the sieve-like O-line in front of him, Tony Romo took a small step back in 2012. Despite throwing for over 700 more yards (on 125 more completions) than the previous campaign, his touchdown passes dipped from 31 to 28; more importantly, his interceptions ballooned from 10 to 19, and his yards per attempt fell from a staggeringly good 8.0 to a merely quite respectable 7.6.

Team observers would have you believe that 2013 was a bounce-back season. Romo topped the 30 TD mark (with 31) and reduced the number of interceptions to 2011 levels, with ten. In 2013, Romo's touchdown, completion and interception percentages were all roughly comparable to his 2011 numbers, and in line with the better seasons of his career...with one exception: his yards per attempt fell of dramatically.

This shouldn't surprise; watching the Cowboys offense operate this year, it was clear that they preferred to play smallball, throwing deep only rarely (and, when they did, often underthrowing open receivers - but I'll get to that later in the piece). The real question, therefore, is: why? Why, when you build an offense around a star quarterback who has proven himself to be historically special in one key way - throwing for more yards per attempt than any QB in recent memory - do you delimit the one thing we know this offense does well?

For the last couple of seasons, my pet thesis has been that the team, particularly the offensive coaches, have been haunted by the image of Romo lying on the carpet after breaking his collarbone in 2010. They understand that if this was to happen again, it would signal the end of the season. As a result, priority one when developing a gameplan is to ensure Romo's safety - to get him to the inevitable week 17 showdown for the NFC Championship. With a shaky offensive line, this means eschewing the kinds of slow-developing deep passes that put your franchise QB at risk.

Now, however, I am revising that thesis. And I'm doing so because of Romo's back injuries (yes, I said injuries, plural). As a way of building a case, let's review what we know: Last year, in late May, Romo had surgery to remove a cyst in his back. At the time, his surgery came suddenly, without advance warning, and was shrouded in mystery. He missed the offseason program, but was back in time for training camp, where he practiced every day, even during the "veteran rest" sessions.

Back injuries - more specifically, spinal injuries, are usually dealt with in a series of steps of increasing magnitude of intervention: rest, physical therapy, epidural cortisone shots, surgery. This is because surgery on or near the spine is always a risky endeavor, and cutting away discs or other material compromises future performance, comfort, etc. So, if we accept the conspiracy theory that Romo's  "cyst removal" was in fact a strucutal intervention of some sort, then it was done so as a last resort. This suggests that whatever was ailing him was serious enough that it had failed to respond to the other forms of treatment.

With this in mind, incurring a back injury on a Sunday and being operated on a few days later, as happened to Romo in the season's final week, defied standard medical practice. This leads me to conclude, as Gil Le Breton did earlier this month, that "Romo was bothered by the back all season...the "cyst procedure" was more serious than Jones cares to admit...[and Romo] managed the pain, numbness, whatever - like all back patients - with medication and rest, whenever he could get it. "

Reviewing the evidence, LeBreton concludes, "I thought we were seeing a 33-year-old quarterback whose skills, for whatever reason, were starting to decline. But as it turns out, shame on me. Romo was hurt." Indeed, the fact that Romo received back treatments every Monday during the season lends further credence to this claim.

An assessment of Romo's 2013 campaign using the old eyeball test certainly suggests that something was amiss: the underthrown deep balls; the refusal to tuck the ball and run, often with an open field in front of him; less dexterity in the pocket, punctuated by an alarming number of times when he would drop into a quasi-fetal position in the face of -sometimes at the mere whisper of - an interior rush.

But the numbers support this thesis as well. Romo's career has been defined by many things. The one stat that doesn't get enough recognition is his YPA, which, for most of his career, has ranked at or near the best of the modern era. Currently, only Aaron Rodgers (8.2), Steve Young (8.0), Kurt Warner and Phillip Rivers (both 7.9) sit in front of Romo, who is tied with Ben Roethlisberger at 7.8. From 2006-2009, Romo's  YPA was a stunning 8.1. After the 2011 season, Romo was tied for the lead with Young, at 8.0. In short, his YPA has fallen precipitously in the last two years.

In 2013, Romo's YPA was 7.2, a career-low by a goodly margin (his previous low had been 7.5 in 2010, a year in which he played only six games before breaking his collarbone).  What's scarier still is that, if we subtract the Denver game, in which he and the rest of the Dallas offense played out of their minds (and he compiled an astonishing 14.1 YPA), his YPA for the season comes in at 6.65. That's where the likes of Ryan Tannehill (6.7), Terrelle Pryor (6.6) and Brandon Weeden (6.5) set up camp.

So, was he playing injured all season, or was there a moment during the season in which he was either injured again (a new injury) or reinjured? I polled my fellow front page writers and Joey Ickes, who, you may remember, did a complete study of every passing play in the first ten games of the season, stated that his film study has him convinced that Romo was hurt in the second half against Kansas City, on a play in which he stripped-sacked by the Chiefs' Ron Parker.

The in-game numbers certainly substantiate Joey's thesis. Before the play, Romo had thrown 30 passes, and was enjoying a healthy .833 completion percentage (25-30). Two of those completions had been passes that had travelled a long way in the air, both to Dez Bryant, for 53 and 38 yards. After the strip-sack, Romo suddenly became inaccurate, often wildly so. On many passes, he appeared unable to extend through the throw, throwing low on short passes and floating deeper passes.

At the time, in my post-game summary, I wondered whether the sack reinjured a ribcage that required a pain-killing injection before the game. Now I wonder, with Joey, whether this was the moment in which the season turned and a team with numerous receiving weapons became unable to exploit them because their quarterback couldn't throw deep with the ease that he did when he was piling up all-time great YPA numbers.

Romo's most recent surgery has the alarmist in me wondering whether the Cowboys have just staked their future - and the future of their cap - on damaged quarterback goods. The sunny reports out of Valley Ranch (in which Jerry dismisses the surgery as minor and Jason claims number nine got "immediate relief") have me concerned, as they sound a lot like the downplaying the accompanied the cyst removal procedure last May. Honestly, the only bit of information that gives me hope that we might again see the "old Romo" is this early January tweet from our resident insider, Birddog26:

I hope you're right on this one, BD. I like the 8.0+ YPA Romo.

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