The decision about who to choose for our Dallas Cowboys game ball seems too obvious. Coming into the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, there was one question that everyone wanted to know the answer to, and that almost everyone believed was the real key to winning the game. That question: Would Tony Romo play? He did, and his performance was outstanding in the 31-17 victory at Wembley Stadium in London. Quarterbacks get too much of the credit or blame for the performance of their football teams, but in this instance it seems hard to argue with how the team responded to Romo as both a player and a leader.
Sometimes, things are obvious because they just are. So Romo gets this well-deserved nod.
His stat line is impressive enough, 20 of 27 passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of his best performances to date this season.
However, other players had their own impressive stats. One whose numbers directly helped Romo was Dez Bryant, who came back from a couple of lackluster performances to go totally wild in the second quarter. He did not catch a single pass for the rest of the game, but in that fifteen minutes he had six receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns. That was good enough to set the all time Cowboys record for yards receiving in a single quarter, but more impressive was the way he accomplished the two scores. In both, he ran over, under, around and through defenders, looking like a man who refused to be denied the goal line. It was a great performance that fit hand in glove with Romo's day.
DeMarco Murray had a fairly routine day, getting exactly 100 yards (and failing to get 20 carries, which of course risked dooming the team). He had no touchdowns, which was perhaps a matter of pure bad timing. Murray came off the field after a 21 yard carry, perhaps because he was carrying about a pound and a half of Wembley turf wedged in his facemask. On the next carry, Joseph Randle blew right through the defense for 40 yards and a touchdown. What is notable about Murray's day is that he now has a career best 1,233 yards (surpassing last year's career best total of 1,121, and leading this season's second place rusher Arian Foster by 411). And he has six more games to add to it.
That kind of offensive game does not happen without an outstanding job by the line. In addition to opening up the rushing lanes, the line did an excellent job of protecting Romo. He was sacked once, at a point in the game when the coaches perhaps should have already pulled him and his surgically repaired and freshly re-injured back. He also was only hit three times. Now he and the other banged up players have two weeks to heal with the bye coming up.
While Romo was getting some excellent protection, the Dallas defense was getting to Blake Bortles better than they have any quarterback this season, sacking him four times. They also held the Jacksonville offense to only four-of-14 third down conversions. (Dallas' offense was not much better, but countered by converting a lot of first and second downs.)
The line was very effective, but the real stars defensively have to be the linebackers. Bruce Carter had one of his best games ever, notching seven tackles, an interception, and a pass defended, despite missing on a couple of plays along the way. Even better was the day Anthony Hitchens had. He led the team with nine tackles, none more impressive than the stoning of Toby Gerhart on fourth and one. But his biggest contribution was in letting Rolando McClain stay on the sidelines. McClain was active for the game, but the way Hitchens filled in meant that there was no need to send in a player that was certainly less than 100%. When the fourth round rookie was drafted last spring, the team talked about him backing up Sean Lee. That statement was met with outright derision in some quarters. Those negative voices are rather silent with the way Hitchens has filled in at all three linebacking spots this season.
But stats never tell the entire story. While Romo had a day passing that was worthy of this game ball, it is really being awarded to him because of the leadership and determination he showed in playing. He clearly was not 100% either, missing Jason Witten on what should have been an easy touchdown on the opening drive, and his "zip", or the lack thereof, was one of the leading topics of discussion in social media. But he realized that the Cowboys could ill afford a third loss in a row. His willingness to take his chances of being re-injured to help the team lifted everyone's game. It is completely amazing to see this, since we all know it has been scientifically verified by a multitude of sportswriters and bloggers that there is no leadership on the Cowboys.
Maybe that's another meme that will finally bite the dust. And that is another reason to give this ball to one of the toughest and most effective quarterbacks in the NFL.