Tony Romo will come back and play at a high level for the Dallas Cowboys this season.
That’s what tight end Jason Witten’s mindset is, and it’s on the rest of the locker room to ensure expectations are still within reach whenever Romo does return.
Yes, Witten acknowledged, it is hard to lose your starting quarterback for the first part of the season, but the Cowboys are built to win now. And Witten fully expects the Cowboys to do just that as Romo recovers from a compression fracture in his lower back that could keep him out six to 10 weeks, according to a source.
“On the face of this, it really does hurt,” Witten said. “Tony possesses traits that very few have. When he’s not out there, it’s challenging.
“But I don’t think the expectations adjust any. I think the reason for that is we believe in the construction of this team, that it is strong. One of the things we’re trying to do is build on our offensive line, our run game, play-action game, threats down the field, defense, flying around, getting balls out, play field position. I commend coach [Jason] Garrett for that because he does build this structure around that, that it’s not about one individual.”
As good as that sounds, though, it’s hard for any team to stay afloat without their starting quarterback. The Cowboys know this better than most.
Romo missed 12 games last season, and they went 1-11 with Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore trying to fill in.
The Cowboys lost their only games without Romo in 2014 and 2013, too. Since Romo became the Cowboys’ starter in 2006, the team has gone 78-49 when he starts and 10-23 when he doesn’t.
“Look, it’s tough,” Witten said. “There are only two or three people on this planet who have the skill set Tony has. To perform and execute at that position at that level, for all of us, competitive players, myself, this team, you’re trying to build a team to be competitive and compete for a championship.
“It’s a setback on its face. It hurts. … But I don’t believe in anybody more than him. I know what he’s about. This setback is just that. He’ll do everything to come back. I know that, this team knows that and we believe in him. That’s what we rest on.”
Witten brushed off any notion that it might be time for Romo to walk away from the game. The relationship between Witten and Romo is well known, and Witten said anyone wondering why Romo might subject himself to more injuries “simply doesn’t know who Tony Romo is.
“I mean, the most competitive individual I ever met, whether it’s golf, basketball, pingpong, cards, obviously football.”
Witten also didn’t think the quality-of-life argument for Romo registered as much as people might think, citing that Romo’s injuries have been different in nature. Still, Romo is coming off a season in which he fractured his left collarbone twice. In 2013, he underwent two back surgeries and is now dealing with another injury to his back.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m not here to give him a sales pitch or anything like that, but I do know what he’s about, I know what his mindset is and he’ll get back quickly and play at a high level,” Witten said. “Age is just a number from that standpoint. You can’t allow that to get in the way of what you’re goals are and how hard you worked. He’s had a great off-season, he’s built on a lot of those things.
“He had his best season after the back injury in ’13 going into ’14. People are going to bet against him, that’s fine, and I don’t think that’s unfair to do so. But if you know what he’s about, which everybody in this building does, he’s going to be back sooner than probably expected and he’ll play better than anybody thought he would because I know that’s what he’s about.”
In the meantime, Witten has full confidence in rookie Dak Prescott to fill the void left by Romo. Prescott has shown poise and composure early on, and doesn’t seem rattled when circumstances have changed.
Witten even offered high praise for Prescott, saying most veterans like to show rookies the ropes while also making them “earn it.” But Prescott has already earned the respect of the locker room through training camp and three preseason games.
“Not because he’s been thrown into a situation,” Witten said, “just because every opportunity he’s answered it.”
With that being said, Witten doesn’t see the Cowboys having a “here we go again” type attitude, such as a season ago. They fully expect to win games with Prescott, and remain in contention for whenever Romo returns.
Last year serves as an example of what not to do. Witten and the Cowboys aren’t planning on repeating their mistakes.
“It’s easy to say Dez [Bryant] wasn’t there and Tony wasn’t there, but we had to break it down,” Witten said. “As a football team we did a really good job of that and that’s hard. It’s hard to look at yourself and say, ‘I didn’t play well. We didn’t play well.’ When you do that and evaluate it, then you move forward with what we’re going to do better in the next year.
“I think that’s why the confidence, you can feel it in here, there’s a lot of confidence that we can overcome that and be successful. It’s why the expectations don’t change.”