Bruised ribs. Stitched chin. Multiple penalties.
In last Sunday's NFL season opener in Cleveland, the Dallas Cowboys were missing two of their top four receivers, their starting left guard and a Pro Bowl cornerback. They didn't, however, miss a beat.
In their most dominant debut in 10 years, the Cowboys amplified their Super Bowl expectations by ramming a 28-point catheter up the Browns' optimism and serving notice that they are indeed one of the best teams in professional football.
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Further confirmation arrives Monday night in the home opener when the Cowboys will whip the Philadelphia Eagles.
"If we work together, it's going to be real hard to beat us," cornerback Pacman Jones told reporters after the game. "Period, point blank."
Despite playing short-handed on the road against a 10-win team, the Cowboys could have named their score against Cleveland. Quarterback Tony Romo threw a careless interception in the end zone, and head coach Wade Phillips sympathetically chose to run out the clock in the end or else 28-10 could've been 38-10, or worse.
Lubricating the jubilation, of course, is a sigh of relief. I—and nearly everyone else—have picked the Cowboys as the best team in the NFC, but there remained a morsel of doubt about Romo, about the inexperienced depth and about the lingering psychological damage from consecutive heart-breaking playoff losses.
It took one game to erase any uncertainty. After watching Romo add a wrinkle to his arsenal and seeing upstart backups plug injury holes with steady—if not superlative—performances, the Cowboys are clearly the favorite to play in Super Bowl XLIII. In fact, considering the season-ending injury to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and the lackluster start by the Indianapolis Colts, entering Week 2, aren't the Cowboys the NFL's best team and the favorite to win it?
No better team to test Dallas' ascendancy than the Eagles.
Last year the Cowboys were rolling along at 12-1 when a mediocre Philadelphia team sauntered into Texas Stadium on December 6. With Jessica Simpson officially launching her jinx in a pink Romo jersey, her boyfriend completed only 13 of 36 passes and threw three interceptions. The Cowboys stunningly lost, 10-6, and dropped three of their final four games including the home playoff crotch-kick courtesy of the New York Giants.
"This," Phillips said of Monday night's game, "will be our second big game of the season."
But America's Team doesn't merely play 16 games but rather 16 seasons, each breathlessly and nauseatingly dissected. And as long as former feuding teammates Terrell Owens and Donovan McNabb are in opposite uniforms, Cowboys-Eagles will have magnified ramifications, usually played out in prime time.
Owens bolted from the gate with 87 receiving yards and a touchdown (the refs cheated him out of another, right?). But McNabb was even more spectacular, throwing for 361 yards and three touchdowns despite playing without his top two targets. Hank Baskett, Greg Lewis and DeSean Jackson may not strike fear into the heart of Cowboys secondary coach Dave Campo, but in last week's 38-3 rout of the St. Louis Rams, they became Philadelphia's first 100-yard receiving trio since 1960.
Of course, McNabb and his unheralded band of one-hit wonders will amount to nothing more than gnats on a cow's hindquarters if the Cowboys play to their potential. The Eagles simply aren't in Dallas' class.
Not since the '98 team lifted the lid with a 38-10 shellacking of the Cardinals in Arizona have the Cowboys provided a more assertive opening statement.
Sure, there were oddities (owner Jerry Jones chatting with basketball star LeBron James and rugged nose tackle Tank Johnson fiddling with his diamond earrings), annoyances (tie between Fox's animated robot inexplicably wearing No. 34 and Fox sideline "reporter" Pam Oliver never providing a "report" on injured running back Marion Barber) and distractions (the oversized "GU 63" patch and field emblem commemorating Gene Upshaw, the former Players Association boss who, ironically, was despised by old-school players). But mostly there were the Cowboys, masking their numerous injuries and overcoming their 11 brain-fart penalties with unmatched star power.
Receivers Miles Austin and Sam Hurd missed the game, but Isaiah Stanback filled in with two catches.
Left guard Kyle Kosier was out, but replaced admirably by Cory Procter on an offensive line that opened holes for 142 rushing yards and allowed just one hit on Romo.
Barber, whose ferocious running style led me to fear injuries as the starter, left with bruised ribs. But rookie Felix Jones, who has the innate ability to turn subtle cuts into drastic moves at full speed, scored an 11-yard touchdown the first time he was handed the ball.
Terence Newman, the Pro Bowl cornerback, didn't suit up but was replaced by Pacman, who, despite likely playing his worst game this season (one interference penalty; two punt returns for eight yards and a fumble), didn't allow a big play.
Ditto for the defense, which somehow used green corners (rookie draft picks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick) with a résumé flimsier than Sarah Palin's to hold the Browns to 205 total yards.
Leading it all, not surprisingly, was Romo. But it was a different Romo. A new-and-improved Romo.
One with both an iron chin and quiet feet.
For really the first time in his three-year career, Romo balanced his talented improvisations with a patience—a willingness—to stand steady in the pocket. What we're seeing is the maturation of a quarterback, from wildly entertaining to ultimately successful.
"Did you see it?" Romo asked reporters after the game. "That's what I was working on in the off-season. By doing it this way, I didn't feel the pressure, and I really helped the offensive line."
Romo opened 2007 with 345 yards passing and four touchdowns and went on to break numerous franchise records and become the NFC's Pro Bowl starter. But while meticulously watching game film over the winter, he noticed a flaw in which he subconsciously wiggled his feet in the pocket, sometimes resulting in his inching up a couple yards, often toward the oncoming rush. Against the Browns his feet were noticeably calm and quiet, like an old man settling into the Barcalounger for an afternoon nap.
"I just planted my feet and went through the reads," Romo said.
Added receiver Patrick Crayton, "He was surveying the field like he was at the beach, picking out honeys."
Considering the necessary evolution, Romo's 320-yard performance against the Browns is more promising than his torching of the Giants 12 months ago. At that time Romo still felt the need to be Dallas' bottle of Wite-Out, erasing typos, injuries and penalties with his ad-libs.
But now—face it and embrace it—Tony Romo's settling down.
He recently bought a house in Las Colinas (the fact that it once belonged to former Mavericks coach Quinn Buckner raises questions about his karma, but that's for another column). And, despite taking a helmet to the chin and a bloody cut that required 13 stitches last Sunday, he's seemingly ready to make a home in the pocket.
Said tight end and close friend Jason Witten, "He's never played better."
The Cowboys seem headed in the same direction.
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