Sports Illustrated has an interview with Troy Aikman up. Although the main topic is his career as a broadcaster, there was a point where the subject of the just completed season of his former team came up.
SI: How do you view the Cowboys' season? Here's one view: The offensive line came together, Tony Romo had a great year, and this bodes well for the future. The other view: This was a really big shot for them, their quarterback is in his mid-30s, and they didn't capitalize.
Aikman: I tend to look at it as more of the latter. It seems that Dez will be back, I'm not so sure about DeMarco Murray and Tony will be 35 next year. I know what that's like. It was a challenge for him physically this year and he played great. So many things had to happen for them to have the kind of year they did this year. Not just for Dallas, for any team...The Cowboys have to prove for me that they can develop talent and do all the things that someone like Seattle has done. They were very healthy this year. There were teams I was on as a player that were very talented teams and for whatever reason they could not win the games they had to win to ultimately achieve what they wanted to do. This was an opportunity for a Dallas team that was playing as well as anyone in football and had as much confidence as anyone and they came up short. Does that mean they can get back? Yes, they have a chance. But this had the makings of a really special year and it had a great feel to it. Since I retired, this was the first time that I have seen a Cowboys team have the makings of being able to go all the way and they came up short.
Obviously the quarterback who led the Cowboys to three Super Bowl victories knows a lot about football and more than most about Dallas, but is he right? Was the 2014 season the high-water mark for the Cowboys, or can they build on it?
Obviously, Jerry Jones is betting a lot on the team being able to have more success, as evidenced by the contracts he has given Jason Garrett and others on the coaching staff. There is no doubt that much of the credit for the success of the team is due to the coaches. Underlying the decision to bring as many of them back as possible is the belief that continuity in coaching will lead to continuity in performance. With a young roster and the expected ongoing turnover in players that Garrett espouses, there should be a very good chance of more success in the immediate future.
But Aikman focuses on the great limiting factor for the Cowboys: Tony Romo, or to be more specific, Romo's health. There is no question that Romo is technically at the peak of his career. His play, particularly in December and into the playoffs was at an unprecedented high level.
Only one QB in NFL history has posted a 113.0-plus regular-season rating and a 120.0-plus playoff rating the same year. Yes, Tony Romo.— Jeff Sullivan (@SullyBaldHead) January 14, 2015
But there is that other number involved: 35. The one thing that defeats all athletes in the end is age, and Romo is now in a battle to keep playing at his best while the years, and the hits and injuries, pile up. He showed once again that his is able to play hurt, and that he will put everything out there to win. Breaking bones in your back in midseason, no matter how "minor" the damage is considered to be, and then finishing out the year with the best month of your career requires a level of toughness most of us can only imagine. How long can he keep it up?
He thinks he can go for a few more seasons. Many other aging players have come back when they thought they still had it, only to find out they really didn't. However, last summer Romo told everyone that we would see "the best version" of him ever. That elicited a few snickers, but it turned out he was right. And he didn't just say it would be this season.
"I think over the course of the next four or five years, you'll see the best version of me that I've had throughout my career. That's for a lot of different reasons, but I really believe that. I believe that will show as we go forward, so I'm excited about that."
He was right about the short term, so maybe we need to wait a bit before we write him off for the next few seasons. Already, he is looking at a much easier offseason. The fractured transverse processes in his back are not something that normally requires surgery, and he did not suffer any other injuries that would lead to extensive recuperation and rehabilitation, either. He did have to play with torn ligaments in his left ring finger in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers, but again that should heal up with time. This will be the first offseason he can participate in fully in three years. That, plus having another year to get over the effects of his back surgery just after the 2013 season, could itself contribute to him playing better in 2015 than in 2014. And that would be playing at a very high level, indeed.
Romo is the limiting factor for the Cowboys, and the quarterback who can successfully replace him is still a bit of a fantasy right now. But at the moment, he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Many NFL teams don't have a quarterback capable of playing well enough to get the team into the playoffs, much less win it all. And most of the ones that do are always one hard hit away from having to find out what their backup can do.
Aikman mentions the fact that Dez Bryant will likely be back but DeMarco Murray won't. Murray had a fantastic year, but running backs are far more susceptible to a serious drop off, and in recent years there have been many examples of teams replacing their top rusher with a low cost alternative and hardly missing a beat. Dallas is going to work on doing that if they can't retain Murray, which is how most feel things will play out.
The caveat will always be that the Cowboys will go as far as Romo can take them. Aikman raises some reasonable concerns, but Romo himself countered them with his performance in a season he was coming off surgery and had not fully recovered from by the opening game. We won't know the real answer until we see how he plays for the next few years, but right now, putting you money on Tony looks like a good bet.
Jerry Jones certainly hopes so.