Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is finally ready to return from a fractured collarbone that has sidelined him since Week 3. He's been out for two months, but will be under center when the Cowboys play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday.
The Cowboys have not fared well without Romo in the lineup. Dallas won each of its first two games with Romo under center, but have gone 0-7 since he went down with injury. That's the longest losing streak for the franchise since 1989. It put them in last place in the NFC East with over half the season already played.
At best, the Cowboys could finish with a 9-7 record. That would require winning out. Romo has a long road from here, but it starts with a game against the Dolphins, a comparatively easy game given the matchup against the presently undefeated Carolina Panthers the following week.
When Romo went down with an injury, Brandon Weeden was the primary backup and started three games before he gave way to Matt Cassel. Weeden had the confidence of owner Jerry Jones, and things started off fine, when he completed 22 of 26 passes for 232 yards against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Cowboys didn't win that game, and Weeden didn't do much in the next two games, both of which were losses. He didn't throw a ton of interceptions and completed 72 percent of his passes,but he simply couldn't give the offense any life. He averaged 7.53 yards per play in his four games with Dallas and just 4.80 yards per pass in his last start against the New England Patriots.
Cassel was acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills and proved to be worse than Weeden when it comes to protecting the football. A good backup should take care of the football first and foremost, but in four starts, Cassel tossed five interceptions and just four touchdowns. Three of those interceptions came in his first game, a 27-20 loss to the rival and division-leading New York Giants.
It's not all on the quarterbacks
As bad as Weeden and Cassel were, the Cowboys had other issues over the course of their seven-game losing skid. To start, wide receiver Dez Bryant missed most of those games with a broken foot, and only returned against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 9. Bryant received a huge contract extension this offseason, but he has just 17 catches for 209 yards and a touchdown in four games played this season.
The running game also hasn't been there. Joseph Randle was the starter initially, but he didn't break 100 yards in any of the six games he played and was released for off-field issues. Darren McFadden, who hasn't been a 1,000-yard rusher since 2010, is the primary starter now and is only recently putting up big games. He has 494 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry average, but he was not a factor for the first five games of the season.
Outside of the lack of offensive playmakers, you can definitely blame Weeden and Cassel for not being able to compensate for those things. You can argue that Romo can and has in the past, and that's definitely a factor.
On defense, there aren't any real excuses. Dallas isn't among the best teams in the league on that side of the ball, but they rank 17th in the league in total defense. They also rank 17th in points allowed per game, but offensively they rank 30th in the league, with only the St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers below them. The defense did allow Jameis Winston to score with 54 seconds remaining in their last game, giving the Buccaneers a win.
But the fact remains: a good quarterback can win with Dallas' defense.
Can Romo save their season?
We've established that the Cowboys have more problems than the quarterback position, but we have also established that a good enough quarterback could have turned an admittedly shaky situation into at least some wins. If Romo starts the past seven games for the Cowboys, they certainly don't lose all seven of them.
And the NFC East is not a strong division. Last year, the NFC South was won by the 7-8-1 Panthers, and this year's NFC East looks almost that bad. The Giants are 5-5 and both Washington and Philadelphia are 4-5 on the year. Dallas has a lot of ground to make up, but none of those teams are likely to win out. All they have to do is win where those teams lose, and most importantly, they need to beat Washington the next two times they play them.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Romo was active for the first two games, and both games were against NFC East opponents. Those were wins, though since then the Cowboys lost to the Giants and Eagles again, splitting the series with both. They will play Washington in Week 13 and again in Week 17, and both matches will be hugely important.
Dallas has tough games against the Panthers and Green Bay Packers left on the schedule, and potentially tough matchups against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets. Losing to teams like the Buccaneers and Saints definitely hurt their chances. But the biggest thing to note is that yes, the Cowboys are still in the running despite their record.
Romo, for his part, seems more than ready to play, recently Tweeting out video of a scene from Major League, in which Jake Taylor says there's only one thing left to do: "Win the whole f****ing thing."
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