Tony Romo's security blanket is hurt and his next best option needs a security force.
Between injuries, such as the damaged spleen that makes tight end Jason Witten doubtful for Wednesday night's opener, and the dangerous hijinks of wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is paying to have a bodyguard around him at all times, the Dallas Cowboys are a mess and have been for quite some time.
Or as tight end Martellus Bennett, an ex-Cowboy who found his way to the Giants this offseason, said: "Man, being in Dallas was cool, but the drama … it's out of control."
From Witten to Bryant to a myriad of other issues, the Cowboys are a flawed gem. In the middle of it is Romo, who has a history of statistical regular-season greatness and postseason ugliness.
"We all have a lot to prove this season," Romo said as he sat beneath a eucalyptus tree in Oxnard, Calif., in late July. "There are a lot of expectations for this team and we all understand that."
[AccuScore odds: Three-way battle atop NFC East]
The problem is, while the expectations are lofty, this is a team that is top-heavy with talent. After you get past Witten, Bryant, Romo, Miles Austin and DeMarcus Ware, things start to drop off faster than the beach cliffs just south of Oxnard.
There are gaping holes that no amount of Jerry Jones confidence will cover. Perhaps that's why Jones' promise this offseason to kick some tail against the archrival New York Giants was met with more amusement than serious threat.
"I'm not really worried about Jerry," Giants owner John Mara said with a wry smile. "Somehow, I don't think he'll be suiting up, although if he did …"
Mara didn't have to finish that thought about his 69-year-old adversary to make his point.
As the Cowboys and defending champion Giants prepare to open the season at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, this is a matchup of rivals who are theoretically close, but fundamentally miles apart.
Start with the quarterbacks. Romo has been among the most productive passers in the league for years. So much so that former Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer said he thought Romo was better than Eli Manning.
Nice try, but only when it comes to fantasy football. When it comes to actually winning games and titles, Manning has two rings, eight playoff wins (seven on the road) and two of the most memorable clutch pass plays in the history of the game. Romo has just one playoff victory and his most defining moment was when he jetted to Cabo with then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson, Witten and his wife during the first weekend of the 2007 playoffs when the Cowboys had a bye.
The differences run deeper. For as much attention as wide receivers Bryant and Austin have generated, neither has ever been as productive as Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. At running back, Giants starter Ahmad Bradshaw, a former seventh-round pick, is the definition of toughness by playing through injuries, including a stress fracture in his foot last season. Dallas running back Felix Jones, a former first-round pick, has been hurt so much that he's now taking a backseat to DeMarco Murray.
On defense, where Jason Pierre-Paul raised his game last season when other Giants linemen were hurt, uber-talented Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware has shrunk. In the teams' two contests last season, Pierre-Paul had three sacks, including two in a critical comeback victory by the Giants. Ware, by contrast, had 1 ½ sacks in those games, both coming in a season-ending blowout loss.
Still, the 8-8 Cowboys finished only a game behind the 9-7 Giants in the NFC East. Critical in that was the 37-34 loss by the Cowboys at home to New York in Week 15, when the Giants overcame a 12-point deficit in the final 3:20. This was the second loss of a 1-4 tailspin that ended the Cowboys' season.
The game was reminiscent of the 2007 playoffs, when the Giants went to Dallas and handed the Cowboys a brutal divisional loss. Just like that season, the Cowboys then watched the Giants go on to win the Super Bowl.
"That was difficult, but I think it taught our team just how close they are to being a champion," said Jones, whose team has gone 17 years without getting to the title game.
As much as Jones may want to believe that, there are plenty of people who view the Cowboys much closer to disaster than revival of the dynasty they had in the early 1990s.
Of the top players on the team, only Witten is considered a true grinder, the type of guy who will go hard whether he's getting the ball. Other players who should go hard all the time, like defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, have been infected with what outsiders believe is the Jones "star system" vision.
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The trickle-down effect is that Cowboys players get treated and propped up like stars even when they do little or nothing that actually matters. Perhaps even worse is that the Cowboys use top draft picks as attention-grabbers, be it drafting Bryant in the first round in 2010 or trading up to nab cornerback Morris Claiborne this year. The problem with the latter is that Dallas arguably had more pressing needs.
In fact, since wresting back control of the draft following Bill Parcells' departure after the '06 season, Jones has used only one of the team's eight first- or second-round picks on an offensive lineman. For all the picks used on Bryant, Claiborne, Felix Jones and the trade for wide receiver Roy Williams, the line has been largely forgotten.
And now, it's largely forgettable. Throughout training camp, the Cowboys have fretted about the line, particularly the interior portion. Yet, they opted not to re-sign guard Montrae Holland this offseason. Overall, there are internal fears that pass rushers will have lots of free shots at Romo if the group doesn't improve drastically.
In short, there's a serious lack of security around the guy who is supposed to be pulling the trigger in Dallas.
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