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Tony Romo is a better quarterback than Kyle Orton, and therefore having Tony Romo as your starter in a Week 17 play-in game is the far more preferred option than rolling with Kyle Orton. That’s true for both the Cowboys this weekend against Philadelphia, and for narrative enthusiasts everywhere.

But alas, what’s been assumed (and laughably denied) all week was finally confirmed earlier today: Romo has a herniated disc which required surgery, and it will indeed be Orton under center for the third annual NFC East win or go home death fight Sunday. While that’s clearly something less than ideal, it may not even be the most important Cowboys injury Sunday night.

Orton hasn’t seen any truly meaningful game action since 2011 when he started three games for the Chiefs, a period of stagnancy in which he’s attempted only 71 regular-season passes. Still, entirely casting him aside is foolish, especially against an Eagles secondary that’s a week removed from making Matt Cassel look more like Fran Tarkenton, or something. In that game Cassel completed 74.3 percent of his passes for 382 yards at a pace of 10.9 yards per attempt, while throwing two touchdowns and an interception. The Vikings scored 48 points, far more than their season average of 25.1, and for Cassel it was a start sandwiched between two others when his completion rate fell below 50.0.

So yes, Orton has a shot at avoiding a total face dive, though the arm rust factor isn’t promising. He was sought and signed last summer as one of the league’s best backups, a title he continues to hold, for what it’s worth. Trouble is, his undoing Sunday will likely be the same fate that would have gunned down a healthy Romo: the defense he’ll helplessly watch.

Oh sure, Romo has a far better chance at leading a shootout and scoring 35-ish points, which feels like the only chance his ‘Boys have on Sunday. But consider his two most notable interceptions this year which spawned all those creative narratives and counter narratives.

They both came during two crucial losses, the most recent two weeks ago against the Packers. That’s when the Cowboys had a comfortable 26-point lead at halftime, and yet their defense then surrender 34 second-half points and four Matt Flynn touchdown passes. The now infamous late-game picks by Romo were a bad thing, but they either a) wouldn’t have happened with even slightly below average defense or b) wouldn’t have mattered at all.

There was a similar defensive void in Week 5 against the Broncos. Look, we’re all aware that Peyton Manning is pretty good, as is his offense. But I don’t care if the other team is rotating its quarterbacks between Manning, Montana, and Unitas. If your quarterback throws for 506 yards with five touchdowns to lead an offense that scores 48 points, you should win that game. Yet there the Cowboys were, losing 51-48.

Winning those games is not an assumed fact for the 2013 Dallas Cowboys, a team that’s scored 35 or more points three times this season, yet they lost two of those games and won the other by only five points. When we’re discussing an impending shootout involving a defense giving up the most total yards (418.6 per game) and second most passing yards (290.7) as it tries to stop Nick Foles and his frequent deep ballin’ (the Eagles lead the league with 75 completions of 20 yards or more), Romo’s injury may quickly become a secondary concern. He doesn’t play defense, and Sean Lee does.

Lee, the oft-injured middle linebacker, is terrific in coverage when healthy. He’s frequently been the victim of bad luck, with the latest injury set to sideline him this weekend ligament damage in his neck. The complexion of this Cowboys defense changes dramatically with Lee gone, and that will especially be true against the Eagles given how often Nick Foles utilizes both LeSean McCoy and his tight ends on short routes. McCoy is fifth among all running backs with 536 receiving yards and he’s been targeted 62 times. Meanwhile, with his tight end combination of Zach Ertz and Brent Celek, Foles has averaged 9.1 yards per attempt when targeting that position, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Only Colin Kaepernick has a higher average.

Again, there would be much more confidence in Romo to sling guns and match Foles in a touchdown-off. But ultimately, without even average defense, that won’t matter.

Beyond this weekend and even this season, Romo has now had his back carved up by a skilled surgeon (not Dr. Nick, one hopes) twice over the past two years. I am not a medical professional, but you don’t need that qualification to know that the back isn’t a forgiving area of the body for any athlete, and particularly not one who’s being chased by multiple large humans on every drop back. He’ll be ready for OTAs, according to Jerry Jones, which is swell, but it’s also a somewhat cheerful fact which dodges the larger issue of longevity. We’re talking about a soon-to-be 34-year-old quarterback now coming off two back surgeries, and he was just signed to long-term contract that guarantees him $55 million, with an average annual base salary of $17 million over seven years.

That’s only one rung below Peyton Manning money ($19.2 million annually), and while it’s been great fun watching the elder Manning smash records after four neck surgeries, no two frequently knifed up quarterbacks are the same.

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