This the first part in my series analyzing the Cowboys roster.
The Dallas Cowboys reminded everyone in 2006 that they are truly a blessed franchise. The organization that gave us Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman introduced us to the next in line last year, but it wasn't a former Heisman Trophy winner or a first overall draft choice that would assume the role, it was a former undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois. Tony Romo is a player that every NFL team could have acquired just three seasons earlier for the mere asking price of a seventh round draft choice.
Romo's (pictured, courtesy of Ricky Moon) rise last year wasn't as meteoric as it appeared to the casual fan, rather it was a slow and steady climb. Sean Payton scouted Romo at the 2003 combine, liked what he saw, and when the young QB was bypassed in the draft the Cowboys were able to quickly entice him to sign a contract. Bill Parcells told the media that same preseason that he believed he had something in this young gunslinger and "moxie" was the word that Parcells used to describe the kid. But moxie alone, while a fantastic quality, isn't enough to offset a lack of talent no matter how much of it a player has, and most people just chalked it up to "Parcells being Parcells" and looking for "his guys". This was the same coach, after all, that would later tell us that Willie Blade was going to be a force in the league, and the same one that fell in love with Ray Lucas in a prior stop with the Jets. But what many people failed to realize was, in addition to the moxie that Parcells raved about, this kid had plenty of talent. This was no Willie Blade or Ray Lucas.
The Cowboys signed Vinny Testaverde in 2004, and with Quincy Carter in place as the starter, and Drew Henson being groomed as the future replacement, it appeared Romo's spot on the team was in jeopardy. Talent, and maybe a little bit of luck would dictate a different outcome. Romo led the Cowboys to a last minute win against the Oakland Raiders in a preseason game, justifying Parcells praise if only for the moment, and Quincy Carter was released before the season started due to continued marijuana use. Tony Romo began the 2004 season as the Cowboys number two quarterback. During the season, with Vinny Testaverde nursing a sore back and right shoulder, Parcells would give Henson a Thanksgiving Day start against the Chicago Bears. Perhaps Parcells gave in to Jerry Jones and everyone else calling for Henson, or perhaps he just didn't feel that Romo was ready, but Henson struggled in the game and was replaced by a suddenly healthy Vinny Testaverde, and Romo ended 2004 like he started it, as the Cowboys number two quarterback.
The Cowboys signed Drew Bledsoe in 2005 to be the starter, and it was supposed to be the year that Drew Henson finally put Tony Romo in his rear view mirror once and for all. Many people, most in fact, still viewed Henson as the quarterback of the future, and saw Romo merely as a good character player and a tool used by Parcells to try and push Henson to improve. But Romo again had a great camp and preseason, clearly out-performing Henson, and again he was the Cowboys number two quarterback. Drew Bledsoe went on to take every snap for the Cowboys in the 2005 regular season. Immediately following the season, Peter King of Sports Illustrated reported that the New York Jets had offered the Cowboys a 4th round draft choice for Romo but were turned down. Later it was reported (by many) that Sean Payton, now the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, had offered the Cowboys a 3rd round draft choice for Romo and were also denied. Word had gotten out about Parcells' young gunslinger, who had yet to appear in an NFL regular season game.
Rumors began during 2006 training camp that Parcells was actually considering starting Romo ahead of Bledsoe. Parcells denied the rumors, saying only that he needed to see what he had in the young kid, but the speculation only got hotter when Romo started the first preseason game. And Romo did nothing to quiet the rumors himself, playing fabulously in that game against the Seahawks and the rest of the 2006 preseason. Bill Parcells put every bit of pressure he possibly could on Romo in that first preseason start, telling the fans and media "we're going to find out about Tony Romo in this game" and seemingly putting the young player's entire NFL legitimacy at stake in one meaningless game, and Romo passed the test with flying colors. Drew Bledsoe was the starter when the season began, but it wouldn't be long.
The Cowboys limped to a 3-2 record out of the gate, and with Drew Bledsoe being exposed by the New York Giants in the first half of a Monday Night game, the second consecutive division rival to exploit The Statue, and the team about to fall to 3-3, Parcells made the switch. After the game, Bledsoe called the move a bad decision. Romo and the Cowboys weren't able to win that game in the second half, but afterwards he was named the starter by Parcells, and the team reeled off wins in six of the next seven contests, including a victory against then-undefeated and soon-to-be Superbowl Champion Indianapolis Colts. Romo-mania was born. It would have been seven consecutive wins had it not been for a last minute blocked field goal that allowed Washington to beat the Cowboys, after Romo had the team in position for a game-winning kick.
The Cowboys made the playoffs primarily because of Romo, and they were eliminated in the first round primarily because of Romo. After he led the team down the field for a potential game-winning, chip shot field goal against the Seahawks, another special teams error cost the Cowboys a game, and this time it was Romo fumbling the snap. All in all, it was a tremendous season for Romo, as he finished with a 95.1 passer rating, 19 TD and 13 INT, 65.2% completion rate, and a whopping 8.6 yds/att. He capped it off by being named to the Probowl, a feat in itself after only starting 10 games, and ended up starting the game due to a Drew Brees injury. It was one of the best seasons by a passer in Cowboys history.
The Cowboys signed Brad Johnson in the offseason to a three year deal to backup Romo. He's a 13-year veteran and spent the past two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, where he played the first five years of his career. Johnson had stops in Tampa Bay, where he won Super Bowl XXXVII and Washington in between his Minnesota years. Johnson won't throw a lot of interceptions and will check the ball down frequently (a maddening amount) and offers little mobility at this stage of his career. He has the current NFL record (12 years) for most consecutive seasons completing at least 60% of his passes, breaking the former record (8 years) held by Joe Montana and Steve Young. Johnson has a 67-44 career record as a starting quarterback. He has played in two Pro Bowls (1999 and 2002). Johnson will be 39 years old in September.
Johnson has said he didn't come to Dallas to be a mentor, he came to fill a role, but that's precisely why the Cowboys signed him and it was a very good move. Johnson has got by in the NFL for 13 seasons on guts and intangibles and average playing ability. He's won a Super Bowl and he's been involved in plenty of quarterback controversies. He's had fans calling for him to play, and calling for him to be benched. He's been around the block plenty of times, and he's a player that Tony Romo can learn a lot from. And I doubt Romo's received a whole lot of advice from fellow quarterbacks at this stage of his young career. Johnson's starting days are behind him but he can steady the ship for a few games if needed. I really like this move.
Matt Baker was on the Cowboys practice squad last season after going undrafted in the 2006 draft and signing with the team in August. He played college at North Carolina, and though he did post the fourth-highest yardage total in school history his senior season, his numbers weren't eye-popping. Bill Parcells liked Baker's quick release and spoke highly of his decision-making. Todd Archer recently had an article on Baker in the Dallas Morning News comparing him to Romo. Both players went undrafted, both are 6-2 and both can smash a golf ball. Archer also said that Baker has improved his arm strength since joining the Cowboys. He will likely be the Cowboys third quarterback again and let's put aside the Romo comparisons for now. Franchise quarterbacks in the undrafted ranks like Tony Romo are one in a million. No franchise can be that blessed, can they?
Matt Moore was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon St. after the 2007 draft. He had a very good senior year, completing 61% of his passes for 3,022 yards with 18 TD and 7 INT. Moore is considered smart, a great leader, tough, a gamer, those are the descriptions in his scouting report. He also has good touch and timing and offers good mobility. His arm strength is only adequate. Between Baker and Moore, Moore looks like the one more capable of making it to me.
The Cowboys offered Richard Bartel out of Tarleton St. a tryout to participate in the recent team OTA's, and signed him afterwards. The main reason for this is Matt Moore's school obligations (his semester doesn't end until mid-June) and the Cowboys need a live arm to take some of the reps. Moore will miss several more camps because of school. Johnson doesn't need to throw a lot of passes in camp at this stage of his career and the Cowboys need another passer in case something comes up with Romo and Baker and so they don't overwork the two of them. The Cowboys say they like Bartel's arm and he offers pretty good mobility for a big guy (6-4, 230) but I'll be surprised if anything comes out of this signing.
The Dallas Cowboys are in great shape at the quarterback position in 2007, and probably for the next 8-10 seasons with the 27-year old Tony Romo behind center. With the weapons that Romo has to choose from, he should challenge some of the Cowboys single season records this year and that's saying something for a franchise that had two Hall Of Fame players at the postion and several more very good ones.