Mac Engel

There is hope for the Cowboys and Tony Romo

With visions of Earl Campbell barely able to walk dancing in our heads, it is time to find a pro jock who has had back surgeries — plural — who can still play.

Not far from Valley Ranch exists a tiny island of hope for the Dallas Cowboys in this vast ocean of despair. Tony Romo, get to know Kari Lehtonen. Ask him how his back is doing.

For proper introductions: Tony Romo is the No. 1 quarterback of the Cowboys who recently had his second back surgery in less than eight months. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week that Romo’s back is progressing and he is on schedule for a timely return.

Lehtonen is the No. 1 goalie for the Dallas Stars, and a member of Team Finland for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. He offers tangible proof a guy can have multiple back surgeries and still do more than just play.

Not that it didn’t scare the hell out of Lehtonen. In the span of about four months between 2008-09, he had two surgeries.

“You hear about other players having bad back problems and it’s scary because it can be potentially career-ending,” Lehtonen told me. “I was fortunate.”

The former No. 2 overall draft pick of the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, he was traded to the Stars after both surgeries because his former team had finally given up on him.

Since his surgeries, and this trade, he has been one of the better goalies in the league. (BTW: It would really help if his team had some decent defensemen in front of him, but that’s another column.)

There are no guarantees on this sort of thing, but a guy can have multiple back surgeries and play at a high level. It’s not as if NHL goalies don’t put their bodies in awkward positions, or aren’t occasionally on the receiving end of a big hit.

“The doctors today and the technology are really very good at figuring out ways to make you feel better,” Lehtonen said. “Every back is a little bit different. When I had the surgery, it had been a couple of years [with back pain] leading up to it. It took me quite a while to get back to normal.

“It was maybe a little tight the following season, but it didn’t affect my play. But ever since then, it’s been 100 percent normal.”

The biggest difference between Lehtonen and Romo is age — Kari was in his 20s and Romo is in his 30s.

At this point, with Jerry and the Cowboys committed to Romo, and no young quarterback on the roster being developed into starting material, fans need a reason to believe that Romo is not going to be forced out of the game because of his back — like Troy Aikman.

As much as you may not like Romo for whatever reason, he remains his team’s best chance. The only way he has a chance is if his back holds.

Two surgeries in eight months do not look good, but cases such as Lehtonen‘s say it can work and that Tony Romo does not have to walk like Earl Campbell just yet.

Trust in Bailey

The Cowboys handing out a contract extension before the player becomes a free agent is not news. Happens every other day. That they did so for a kicker is a sign we should all prepare for the end of the world.

For only the second time in his tenure of owning the team, Jerry Jones paid a kicker.

Since he arrived, no one has been any more consistent or any better at his job than Dan Bailey, who signed a seven-year deal with a $4 million bonus, and $7.5 mil guaranteed. Good for him.

Hope this works better for Bailey and the Cowboys than it did the last time Jerry paid a kicker. The other instance was Mike Vanderjagt, who in March of ’06 signed a three-year deal with a $2.5 million bonus. The peculiar Vanderjagt was cut that season when coach Bill Parcells could not trust him.

In three years with the Cowboys, Bailey is 89 for 98. Hard to say you can’t trust him.

No defense

Not that the few thousand remaining Dallas Stars fans need a reason to be irritated by the tenure of former Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, but put the 2010 NHL Draft at the top of the list.

With the 11th overall pick, the Stars selected goalie Jack Campbell. He remains with the Stars’ top minor-league affiliate, the Texas Stars, and is a well-regarded prospect.

With the 12th overall pick, the Anaheim Ducks selected defenseman Cam Fowler. Fowler is one of the NHL’s best young defensemen and will play for Team USA in the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Stars’ problems can directly be traced to a dearth of quality defensemen. Fowler would have fixed a lot of that.

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