By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
After last year's season opener, the Dallas Cowboys were 1-0, coming off a road win at Cleveland and defending their egomaniacal receiver, Terrell Owens, who had drawn a fine from the NFL for his track star touchdown celebration.
After this year's opener the Cowboys are 1-0, coming off a road win at Tampa Bay and defending...no, make that stomping on T.O.'s grave. Won't you join us?
Week 1: Buffalo Bills' Terrell Owens—two catches for 46 yards and no touchdowns in a loss to the Patriots. Dallas Cowboys' trio Patrick Crayton, Miles Austin and Roy Williams—eight catches for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-21 victory over the Buccaneers.
Don't wanna say I told you so, but TOLD YOU SO!
"What?" Williams said, the syrupy sarcasm dripping down his chin. "Without T.O.? Wow."
For the first time in a long time, a Cowboys victory felt as honest and clean as it felt good.
With T.O. in silver and blue the last three years, it felt as if the Cowboys were selling their soul to the devil. It resulted not in championships, but chaos. Now, with Owens released and banished to Siberia, the Cowboys are left without a Hall of Fame receiver or an All-World toothache.
How sweet it is.
After owner Jerry Jones released Owens in March, Cowboys fans lined up on two distinctly different sides of the T.O. issue. In this corner: Owens' supporters who belittled Dallas' receiving corps and predicted stagnation for the offense and outright implosion for Romo without his best target. And in this corner: realists.
I said all along that the Cowboys would be better off without Owens, a 35-year-old, past-his-prime receiver hampered by lazy route-running, lousy hands and shrinking talent he tried to camouflage with an ever escalating ego. During a pre-season in which Romo played 80 snaps yet produced only one completion over 25 yards—a 42-yard catch-and-run screen to running back Felix Jones—I'll admit I had some doubts. But it only took one week to prove that T.O. A.D. will be OK.
Stubborn Owens supporters: Do yourselves a favor and forget him. Owens' VH1 reality flop—The T.O. Show—couldn't beat Nickelodeon's Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, and his diminished skill set can no longer beat press coverage. Bottom line: The Cowboys are better on the football field and better in the locker room without Terrell Owens.
Or perhaps you didn't see what went down last Sunday in Tampa.
Despite being freed from force-feeding the ball to just one receiver, Romo didn't play his best game. He overthrew receivers. He threw behind receivers. He threw late to receivers.
Oh, by the way, he also passed for three touchdowns, a career-high 353 yards and became the first Cowboys quarterback in 47 years to launch two 60-plus-yard scoring strikes in the same game.
"It's just one game," said receiver Patrick Crayton, who hauled in an 80-yard scoring strike that put the game away in the fourth quarter. "But that's when we're at our best, spreading the ball around and using all of our weapons."
Said owner Jerry Jones, "Good to see the receivers get some balls and really get going. There is no doubt we were directing the ball at Terrell the last three years. This is going to be a different type offense. A different ball game altogether."
Fans who remember Owens bitching after having 17—17!—passes thrown his way in a game last season probably didn't recognize these Cowboys. With offensive coordinator Jason Garrett allowed to confuse the Buccaneers by using all three running backs (Marion Barber, Jones and Tashard Choice), implementing multiple formations and coddling zero egos, Romo threw passes to seven different receivers and touchdowns to three separate targets.
The Cowboys weren't predictable, but potent.
"It's not about the yards or the stats," Romo said. "It's about winning games. It was nice to go out there and use the whole field, find a bunch of receivers. When we do that, we're a difficult offense to defend."
The Buccaneers are, however, an inferior opponent in disarray. Tampa totally busted coverage on Williams' 66-yard catch down the seam, became discombobulated on Crayton's bomb and whiffed three tackles on Austin's 42-yard grab-and-dash. The damage could have—should have—been much worse had Romo not thrown an alley with no oop to tight end Martellus Bennett in the end zone and badly overcooked a ball to a streaking Austin that had 65-yard touchdown tattooed all over it. But for a group of receivers that was doubted, downgraded and downright derided, the immediate results were vindicating.
"It was very important to me to come out and have a good game because I have a lot of critics and even some die-hard fans who don't believe in me," Williams said. "I hope I can turn some heads, though I probably won't turn all of them because of Game 1."
While the offense and special teams (a blocked field goal, three kickoff touchbacks from rookie David Buehler and no long returns allowed) looked 13-3, head coach Wade Phillips' defense appeared an underwhelming 8-8.
Despite journeyman Byron Leftwich at quarterback, leading receiver Antonio Bryant hobbled by a bad knee and an offensive coordinator who had been on the job all of 10 days, the Bucs gashed the Cowboys for 174 yards rushing and piled up 450 overall. For the first time in Phillips' regime in Dallas, the Cowboys finished without a sack and failed to force a turnover.
"They ran the ball, and we didn't get any sacks," linebacker Bradie James said. "For us, it was like, 'Wow, what defense is this?' We've just got to go back to the drawing board and work harder this week."
The un-T.O. Trio and 110,000 fans notwithstanding, the smashmouth New York Giants will ruin Dallas' debut in Cowboys Stadium Sunday night if they can run the football as effectively as Tampa Bay. Still, with winnable games against Carolina, Denver and Kansas City looming, the Cowboys appear headed to—at worst—a 4-1 start into late October.
That would be invigorating. The diversified offense is already refreshing.
During his three years in Dallas, Owens produced 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns. Last season he caught 69 passes for 1,052 yards and 10 touchdowns, all team highs. Without him there will be no unequivocal main target. No self-aggrandizing touchdown celebrations prioritizing self over team. No enraged sideline rants demanding more balls thrown his way. No pressure to feed the monster. No selfish, divisive locker-room agendas.
And, most of all, there will be no tears shed.
"We've shown that we have a lot of guys who can make plays," tight end Jason Witten said. "Tony can look at more than just one or two guys. I've got to think I will benefit from that, and the team will benefit. We've got the makings of a good thing here."
The guy who, turns out, is easily replaceable if not easily forgettable. That's who.