It was miserable and seemed to stretch out forever. As the Dallas Cowboys struggled through the seven game losing streak, nothing worked. After Brandon Weeden steadily declined, they put in Matt Cassel, but still the losses came. The arrival of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain from their suspensions did not change the tide. Seemingly constant shuffling of running backs led to some good yardage totals, but still no wins. Through it all, the fans clung desperately to one thought:
Tony Romo will be back.
Well, we finally got there, and it was just what we were all hoping for. The team that had found way after way to lose games took the field and seized control. It was not all great, with a bit of a stumble bracketing halftime that allowed the Miami Dolphins to tie the game in the third quarter, but things were quickly set aright and the Cowboys owned the fourth quarter. Where they had let so many chances slip away late in the preceding weeks, they looked confident and in control.
And it is hard to argue with the proposition that Romo made all the difference. Call it the Romo factor. He is not just the field general on offense, but he seems to get everyone on the team to dial it up a notch. The intangibles are certainly important, but hard to prove. That's okay. There are plenty of concrete things he brought to the game that the Cowboys did not have with either Weeden or Cassel. The best overview of what he means for Dallas is probably this one from the always perceptive Bob Sturm.
Welcome back, dominant offense.
And, that means, of course, Tony Romo. This is not breaking any story about what he means to this thing, but you have to understand that his mental mastery of the offense is such right now that he literally coordinates the offense from under center. Yes, he sets protection, sniffs out blitzes, gets them in the right play, and aborts the play that he thinks is doomed. Yes, he is looking frustrated if a route isn't run right or if the receiver is seeing something different. And yes, his throws were erratic and we can imagine he will be getting back into form as we go down the stretch.
The specifics of what Romo does on the field can be described in details from the Dolphins win. Although he was by his own admission knocking off some rust, getting more comfortable as the game progressed, he opened up with one of the moves that very few other quarterbacks can make, the scramble to evade a safety followed by an almost casual left-handed toss that bought Chris Jones some extra room to get a punt off, and came very close to getting a first down. It was not the only display of his Romodini skills that day, but it announced to the world that he was back, and the Cowboys were, too.
But spectacular plays in isolation do not make a team successful. It is the way the individual efforts combine. A look at the stats from the game show just how the Romo effect led to this win.
One of the biggest is the time of possession. Yes, that is a sometimes misleading statistic, and some coaches, like, say, Chip Kelly, completely disregard it. But for the way the Cowboys are constructed, it is integral to their game plan. Keep the ball, drive for points, and send a fresh, rested defense out to get the ball back. Wash, rinse, repeat. Dallas held the ball for 38:50 to Miami's 21:10, and the advantage they held over the Dolphins was almost in exact proportion to the yardage advantage they had (386 to 210) and the final 24-14 score. It was exactly the kind of game the Cowboys were built to play, as Sturm pointed out in his article, and despite two interceptions, it allowed Dallas to dominate the game.
All that is driven by Romo at quarterback. He greatly expands the playbook, not just in what can be called but when it is used. It is hard to imagine that Scott Linehan would have put the ball in Weeden or Cassel's hands on third and long in the shadow of the Cowboys own end zone the way he did with Romo. And it is almost certain that it would not have turned out nearly as well as it did on Sunday. With Romo, the team can mix up the calls. Against the Dolphins, the team got 11 first downs through the air and 10 on the ground. They also converted 50% of their third downs, while holding the Dolphins to just one out of ten. Romo's presence as a passer, and the use of play action, keeps the other defense from loading the box. Although John Lynch seemed to think at one time during the game that the Miami defense was wearing down the Dallas offensive line, the fourth quarter showed that it was really the other way around as the Cowboys used almost exclusively runs to grind 5:25 off the clock and hand the ball back to the Dolphins with only 1:04 left and no real chance at all, especially as the Cowboys' pass rush was able to tee off on a team that could only go for the deep bomb.
Those were all things that were not happening while Romo was out. They are concrete elements of what he brings to the field. The inspiration he also provides, the sense that almost no game is ever out of reach, are not measurable but none the less real. It can also be said that some players, like Rolando McClain and DeMarcus Lawrence, are just now starting to hit their stride. But don't underestimate the lift they may also get from knowing Romo has returned.
The odds are still almost impossibly long for the Cowboys to fight their way back into the playoffs. But each win whittles them down. They still have to have some help. But now they have Tony Romo back. And they are not dead yet.