Let’s be real.
The Dallas Cowboys are in desperation mode.
After blowing a two-game lead in the NFC East earlier in the season and ample chances to build on it, the Cowboys (7-6) are facing a crucial game Sunday against the Green Bay Packers (6-6-1) at AT&T Stadium, needing to stay within at least one game of the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles (8-5) with three games to play.
While blame for much of the Cowboys’ struggles largely can be placed on the play of a defense that is on pace to set team and possibly league records for futility, the outcome of the season is being placed on familiar shoulders.
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Quarterback Tony Romo, historically and often erroneously blamed for the team’s past failures, is now considered the Cowboys’ saving grace.
Owner Jerry Jones has said that the most disappointing thing about the past two years is that the Cowboys missed the playoffs with a healthy Romo.
With Romo healthy and arguably playing the most efficient football of his career, the 11-year veteran is the team’s only hope of avoiding a fourth consecutive season out of the playoffs.
“I do,” Jones said when asked whether he believed Romo will need to carry the Cowboys to the playoffs.
Jones has always felt that way about Romo. That’s why he gave him a $108 million contract extension in the off-season and instructed coach Jason Garrett to give him Peyton Manning-like input and influence in the offense.
He has to feel that way now because he can’t rely on the defense to get stops. It’s a point that was driven home again in embarrassing fashion in Monday’s 45-28 loss to the Chicago Bears. Chicago became the sixth opponent to score 30 or more points and the third to score 45 or more.
The defense again will be playing without middle linebacker and leading tackler Sean Lee, who is out with a neck strain. Jones said the importance of relying on Romo and winning with offense is “accentuated” even more.
Vice president Stephen Jones went even further than his father, saying that he believed the Cowboys will win the final three games, make the playoffs and make a run in the postseason because they have Romo.
“I certainly think with us having Tony as the leader, a guy we have a lot of confidence in, we have as good a chance as anybody,” Stephen Jones said. “He has had a great year. We need to help and support him. We have to play better and play well. It all starts Sunday at AT&T Stadium.”
Romo has gone from a player considered by many in the public as someone who can’t win the big one — he has a career record of 11-16 in December and is 1-6 in win-or-go-home games in the regular season and playoffs since 2006 — to the man the Cowboys trust the most.
Romo’s numbers this season are sparkling — 296 of 460 for 3,244 yards with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Cowboys’ offense has been somewhat of a disappointment for much of the season.
The Cowboys rank 22nd in NFL offense and 15th in passing yards per game. Against Chicago, Romo passed for three touchdowns but only totaled 104 yards as the Cowboys failed to keep pace.
Romo declined to feed into the notion that the Cowboys’ offense has to be perfect to win because of the woeful play of the defense. But he said if that means putting more on him, then so be it.
“I’d have no problem with that,” Romo said. “I think your job is to find a way to win the football game, so invariably each team is made up a little differently. I just think you have to go out and execute. If the game needs you to score more points, then you have to do that. Some games, we’re having to do that, so you have to do it.”
The big question is, can they do it?
The talent is there. However, the production has been lacking.
After Romo passed for a career-high 522 yards in a 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos on Oct. 6, the offense has been inconsistent at best. Four times Romo has passed for 206 yards or fewer, including three times for 170 or fewer. The Cowboys have converted on just 34 of 98 third-down attempts since the Denver game, a rate of 35 percent.
Yet the Cowboys believe they can and will do more on offense to help carry the team to the playoffs.
“I really believe that we can,” receiver Dez Bryant said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on the defense. No disrespect to our defense, they should focus on what they focus on, and the O should focus on what we focus on. If a team puts up [a certain] amount of points, we should be able to do the same.”
Like Bryant, tight end Jason Witten has no interest in pointing fingers at the defense.
“Look, until we do it, we’re going to take criticism,” Witten said. “I’m assuming your question is coming from the angle of: They haven’t shown us that they can. And you’re right. You are right. That’s what makes this game great. We’ll see where it ends up.
“The last couple of years we came up short. I think everybody embraces that. And it’s a great word for it. You have to embrace this and believe that you’re going to come out on the other side better because of it, and have the success. That’s what you hang your hat on.”
What the Cowboys are hanging their hat on is Romo changing his late-season legacy from tragedy to triumph.
“If you’re a competitor, you’ll enjoy the great challenges that come along with that in sports and life. I think that’s a great thing when you’re faced with some tough things and have to overcome,” Romo said. “You want it to matter and you want it to be important. That’s what’s great about this organization and great about our fans.”