ARLINTON, Tex. — When Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo scanned the Houston Texans defense and began shouting signals at cavernous AT&T Stadium, he could not overcome an unexpected sound barrier. So many Texans fans had bought up tickets from Cowboys fans that Romo found himself in a hostile environment.
He had to resort to a silent count.
“It was a road game for a lot of it,” Romo said. “Probably half and half, our fans to their fans.”
Many thousands of Houstonians, wearing blue and red Texans jerseys, braved the Ebola outbreak in Dallas to lend their voice to the cause that matters about as much as life and death: football supremacy in the state of Texas.
It took overtime, but the Cowboys won Sunday’s rare intrastate battle, 20-17, while dominating statistically.
“We need to do a better job as a team and a fan base to realize how big a deal the home field advantage is,” Romo said. “We just need to tighten up, maybe, on selling our tickets.”
It remains to be seen if it was wise strategy to call out the fans. Romo is hardly a crowd favorite anyway. He and the ever-meddling owner Jerry Jones are constant targets of civic complaint. They are cited as the main reasons the Cowboys have not made the playoffs since 2009 and have had three straight 8-8 seasons.
In truth, Romo is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. He makes every throw imaginable, even when under extreme duress. He does have the occasional lapse of focus, a tendency toward the too-difficult pass in the red zone, most noticeable in late-season “must-win” games.
Skepticism increased this year with Romo recovering from off-season back surgery. He has shown he still can throw accurately up to 65 yards, but he’s less agile than before the surgery – and before he became 34. With his ability to twist and turn as defenders closed in, he was one of the most difficult quarterbacks to sack.
Fortunately, general manager Jones has bolstered the pocket by drafting some excellent first-round linemen: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and, most recently, Zack Martin.
The Dallas line is now one of the best, not only protecting Romo but also gouging out holes for DeMarco Murray to lead the league in rushing. Ron Jaworski, the former quarterback who’s now an ESPN analyst, says this O-line “can road-grade you and they can finesse you.”
With the strengthened line, an energized Murray and a defense that under coordinator Rod Marinelli is almost competent, the Cowboys are drawing attention as a possible Super Bowl team. Jaworski: “They’ll be in it to the end.”
We will know more about them when they play in Seattle on Sunday. Dallas is a 9-point underdog to the Super Bowl champions, and the noise Romo encountered at JerryWorld was a library compared to the din of CityLink.
It’s hard to see the Cowboys prevailing, but it’s not totally out of the question. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s ongoing magic act conceals the fact that Seattle’s offensive line is prone to false starts and lapses in protection.
And the Legion of Boom is not quite what it was. In Monday night’s 27-17 victory over Washington, DeSean Jackson blew by the mouthy Richard Sherman for a long touchdown. The week before, Philip Rivers had no reluctance to throw in Sherman’s area, and he too had success.
Seattle’s pass rush is not what it was last year. Can you believe six sacks in four games? Romo will have time to hit Dez Bryant deep. Seattle’s nickel back, Marcus Burley, is vulnerable to underneath routes by slot receivers, and the Cowboys’ duo of Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley has combined for 18 receptions in 21 targets.
So it could be an interesting game.
As for the Texans, their future is promising as long as they have football’s finest defensive player, J.J. Watt. And he’s only 25.
Houston’s problem remains quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick is playing the best ball of his career, and nobody – save perhaps Russell Wilson – is a better leader. But there’s only so much Fitz can do with an arm that cannot heave the ball more than 45 yards.
If Dallas fans get sick of Romo – or he of them — Houston will take him.