Between Tony Romo’s back, shorthanded defense, Cowboys could be heading for trouble


Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is sacked by the Dolphins’ Olivier Vernon during Saturday night’s preseason game. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The Dallas Cowboys were looking for some good in 34-year-old starting quarterback Tony Romo being sacked three times by the Miami Dolphins in the first half of their third preseason game Saturday night. What the Cowboys came up with was that it showed Romo could at least absorb a hit.

“I took some hits and that was good, just in regard to you get back up and keep playing,” Romo said late Saturday night in the visitor’s locker room at Sun Life Stadium. “That part of it was positive. Hits in general, you know, we can avoid. But it was good to kind of get back up, just keep going, feel how it felt and go play football.”

Romo took his cue from Coach Jason Garrett, who said earlier: “I think in a funny kind of way, that’s good for him to be able to feel that contact and know that it’s like the contact he’s been feeling his whole life playing NFL quarterback. I thought for the most part you want to protect better than that. … [But] that’s what happens in a real, live game. I thought he handled that well and bounced right back up.”

It is a glass-half-full time of the year for all NFL teams, when everyone is still unbeaten and can fancy themselves a viable Super Bowl contender. But for most teams, there also are issues that will become harsh realities when the regular season arrives. The Cowboys’ issues were on full display Saturday. When Romo wasn’t being harassed by Miami pass rushers, the Dallas defense took the field and surrendered 200 rushing yards to the Dolphins.

Garrett was asked afterward if he thinks his team is ready, with most of his starters set to sit out Thursday’s preseason finale, for the Sept. 7 regular season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, who have reached the last three NFC title games. Garrett’s answer seemed to fall along the lines of: What choice do we have?

“Absolutely,” he said. “You have to be ready. We’ll have good work days this coming week and then we’ll start getting into a game plan against San Francisco. So there are some good things to build on, obviously some things to correct. And we’ll go back to work in practice to do that, get ready for that challenge against the Niners in Week 1.”

The Cowboys are coming off three straight 8-8 seasons. They played a winner-take-all game for the NFC East crown in each of those seasons but lost all three, last season to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys have had four straight non-winning, non-playoff seasons. And now the only thing that stands between them and the Brandon Weeden era is Romo’s surgically repaired back.

“Yeah, it was good to take a hit and say, ‘Huh, well, I’m fine.’… I’d prefer not to [be hit], I think, when you look at it,” Romo said Saturday. “But I think what you find is, as long as you get back up, you feel good about it. I know it’s been a big thing for [the media] has been able to write an article about, ‘He took a hit. He can get back up from it.’ So we decided to give it to [reporters] tonight.”

Romo receives plenty of criticism for having only one career playoff victory. But he also has been a highly productive player in the regular season. He threw 31 touchdown passes with only 10 interceptions in 15 games last season before his back injury forced him to miss the season-ending loss to the Eagles. He kept the Cowboys in contention to the final day of a season in which they ranked last in the league in total defense.

He played in two games this preseason and said he feels ready for the season.

“This is the same kind of schedule we’ve done [previously] in the preseason,” Romo said. “It doesn’t feel that different than any other year. I think obviously with coming off surgery, you can always talk about that. But that’s part of the game and then you go out and play.”

The Dallas offense managed only a pair of field goals in Romo’s half of work Saturday. But he said he believes the offense will be productive.

“We wanted to obviously go out and score more points than we did tonight,” Romo said. “But you can take some good things away from it, and then we’ve got to correct a couple things that can change that pretty quickly. It’d be different if it was a different style or the way it was happening. But I think the way it’s going, we’ve just got to execute a little bit better, and I think we can. We have the ability to. So I think it’ll be good going forward.”

The offense might have to be very good. Offseason subtractions from the defense that struggled so mightily last season have some predicting that it could be among the worst-ever NFL defenses this season. Pass rushers DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone, Ware to Denver after being released by the Cowboys and Hatcher to Washington in free agency. Linebacker Sean Lee was lost to a season-ending knee injury suffered during an offseason practice. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick is to be suspended from the first four games of the season for testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.

The Cowboys didn’t address their defense or, as owner Jerry Jones admittedly was tempted to do, add Johnny Manziel as Romo’s eventual successor with their first-round draft choice in May. Instead, they added to an already impressive collection of young offensive linemen by selecting Notre Dame’s Zack Martin. He’s now starting at right guard for a unit that could be among the NFL’s best, despite Saturday’s troubles keeping Romo off the turf. But the defensive performance against the Dolphins means that the Cowboys have yielded 503 rushing yards in three preseason games.

“That’s what preseason is for,” defensive end Tyrone Crawford said. “Get all of the mistakes out now.”

Garrett said he hopes for improvement, not only by the defense but in all areas.

“Are we playing at our optimal level right now? Absolutely not,” Garrett said. “And I think probably in 31 other cities, if they’re honest, they’ll probably say the same thing. But after three preseason games, this is where we are. We’ll go back to work on Monday morning, trying to improve our football team and get ready for a great challenge against a team that’s gone to the NFC championship the last three years.”

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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