By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006
CHARLOTTE, Oct. 29 -- The Dallas Cowboys handed out a $25 million contract to Terrell Owens in the offseason for the controversial wide receiver to be the savior of the franchise and, perhaps, of Bill Parcells's tenure as their coach.
They may have found their savior Sunday night, but it wasn't Owens. Quarterback Tony Romo, a former undrafted rookie making his first NFL start, kept their season from unraveling by directing the Cowboys to a 35-14 triumph over the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
"My hat's off to my kids tonight," Parcells said. "They fought back. That was a good win for us. We needed it badly."
Romo completed 24 of 36 passes for 270 yards as the Cowboys (4-3) moved into second place in the NFC East, a game behind the New York Giants. Romo threw a costly interception as the Panthers (4-4) raced to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on touchdown runs by tailback DeShaun Foster and wide receiver Steve Smith.
But the young quarterback steadied himself and led the Cowboys to 35 straight points, throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Jason Witten and connecting with Owens on a two-point conversion pass. The Cowboys took the lead for good on tailback Julius Jones's fourth-quarter touchdown run following a fumble by the Panthers on a kickoff.
"It's self-explanatory," Owens said. "You saw the game. He managed the game and put the ball where it needed to be, and everybody played together as a group."
Owens was Romo's favorite target, with nine catches for 107 yards. Witten added six catches for 80 yards, and Jones ran for 92 yards on 24 carries. Jones's backup, Marion Barber, had two late touchdown runs after a pair of turnovers by Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, first an interception and then a fumble.
"We haven't found a way to finish a game yet, and this was probably as poor of a performance in the fourth quarter that I've been associated with," Panthers Coach John Fox said. "I apologize to all of the people who paid for tickets to be at the game."
Parcells switched to Romo at halftime of last Monday night's loss to the New York Giants at Texas Stadium, after a first half in which veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe was sacked four times and threw an interception on the doorstep of the Giants' goal line. But Romo threw three second-half interceptions, one on the opening play of the third quarter and another that was returned for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Still, Parcells decided Tuesday to start Romo and announced the decision Wednesday, hoping that the younger quarterback's mobility would be useful playing behind the Cowboys' sometimes-leaky offensive line.
Romo completed a pass to Owens on the Cowboys' first offensive play Sunday, and he scrambled for a first down the second time they had the ball. But the Cowboys' opening drive ended with a punt, and they got nothing on their second possession when kicker Mike Vanderjagt missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. The ball clanked off the right upright.
The Panthers, to that point, had done nothing on offense. They went three plays and out on each of their first two possessions. But Delhomme finally found the strike zone on the Panthers' third drive. He had four completions, plus a throw that resulted in a pass-interference penalty on the Cowboys, to set up Foster's one-yard touchdown plunge.
Romo made his first big mistake, throwing a pass up for grabs in Owens's direction while under pressure. Cornerback Chris Gamble made a juggling interception, just managing to get his feet in bounds after finally grabbing the ball. That put the Panthers back in business at the Cowboys 24-yard line, and they needed only one play to cash in. Smith took the ball from Delhomme on an end-around and dashed untouched into the corner of the end zone.
"You never want to get in that situation, especially in your first start," Romo said. "But it's nice to be able to come back from that."
The Cowboys got a good kickoff return by Tyson Thompson and a personal foul on the Panthers for a hit out of bounds, and Romo directed them 47 yards for a touchdown. The score came on a three-yard pass to Witten. The Cowboys had a chance to scoop up a Panthers' fumble on the ensuing kickoff but botched it. They did force a punt, though, and got Vanderjagt's 38-yard field goal in the final minute of the first half to pull to within 14-10. The Panthers blocked one kick by Vanderjagt, but he got another chance because Fox had called a timeout just before the snap.
The Cowboys got a break in the third quarter when Panthers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, a Parcells favorite who was released by Dallas in the offseason to make room for Owens, dropped an on-target throw from Delhomme after he'd beaten cornerback Anthony Henry for what might have been a touchdown. The Cowboys were moving the ball better in the third quarter but weren't converting.
They got a first down at the Carolina 8 early in the fourth quarter after a pair of clutch catches by Witten. But on third down from the 6, Romo's pass was just wide of Witten and the ball bounced off the tight end's fingertips. The Cowboys had to settle for Vanderjagt's 24-yard field goal that narrowed their deficit to 14-13. The Panthers' Brad Hoover lost a fumble on the kickoff, and Jones sprinted 14 yards through the middle of the Carolina defense on the next play to put Dallas in front. Romo's two-point conversion pass to Owens upped the lead to 21-14.