Shutdown Countdown: Tony Romo is the key to the Dallas Cowboys making the playoffs

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.

Under Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys are expected to be in the playoffs on an annual basis. That certainly was the case during the 1990s, with the Cowboys going to the postseason in eight of nine seasons between 1991 and 1999. But with just four appearances, and one playoff win, in the last 13 seasons, Jones might be getting a little restless and would be justifiably frustrated with how close his team has come to the playoffs the last two seasons.

In 2011, the Cowboys and New York Giants entered their Week 17 game tied with an 8-7 record. Winner wins the NFC East and goes to the playoffs, the loser goes home. The Cowboys went home, the Giants won the Super Bowl. In 2012, the Cowboys were in the exact same situation. Go on the road and beat the Washington Redskins, win the NFC East and host a playoff game. Quarterback Tony Romo was intercepted three times and Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris carved Rob Ryan's defense for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-18 thumping that ended a Cowboys' season that saw them at 3-5 at the midway point before a second-half surge (they won five of six in November/early December) got them back into playoff contention.

Being knocked out of the playoffs always hurts, but it stings a little more when it comes at the hands of a division rival. If the Cowboys are in a similar, "win or go home" position in Week 17, they'll at least have the luxury of playing at home as they'll host the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 29. With the Cowboys changing play-callers and defensive systems this offseason, and unable to upgrade the roster due to overall personnel mismanagement, salary cap blunders and $5 million in salary cap penalties, the Cowboys could easily find themselves well out of playoff contention by Christmas.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Talent-wise, the roster is about the same as it was in 2012. However, it is a much younger group. Older veterans such as Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Derrick Dockery are gone, as are 2008 first-round picks Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins. The Cowboys, who were hamstrung by the salary cap, were very quiet, as outside linebacker Justin Durant was the only addition with a shot of playing a significant role this season. The Cowboys will be relying on their 2013 draft class to play immediately, particularly first-round pick Travis Frederick, who is projected to start at center.

[Related: Cowboys' cap problems far from solved]

Best offseason acquisition:: Midway through the second-round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Cowboys selected San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar, a 6-foot-6, 254-pound prospect who caught 122 passes for 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns during his 39-game career with the Aztecs. Though he the size to be an in-line tight end, Escobar will have to improve on his strength and blocking to play there at the next level. Fortunately, he has plenty of time because Jason Witten isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Escobar's best attribute is his athleticism and hands, and Cowboys offensive coordinator (and play-caller) Bill Callahan can use Escobar as a "flex" tight end off the line of scrimmage to create size and speed mismatches against safeties and linebackers. According to the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac, the Cowboys used two or more tight end personnel groupings on 28 percent of their offensive snaps in 2012. With the arrival of Escobar, expect that number to increase in 2013.

Biggest hole on the roster: : Hands down, the safety position. The Cowboys are projected to start Barry Church at strong safety and either Matt Johnson or Will Allen at free safety this season. Church is coming off an Achilles injury while Johnson finished his rookie season of 2012 on injured reserve due to a hamstring issue. Having a play-making safety is an important component in Kiffin's defense, yet the team passed on Florida safety Matt Elam in the first-round to select Travis Frederick. Dallas dud use a third-round pick on J.J. Wilcox, who played one season at safety for Georgia Southern after converting from wide receiver.

Position in flux: : There are several positions in flux, particularly on the defensive side of the ball as the Cowboys switch from their long-time use of a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 under Kiffin. The change on defense means perennial Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and two-time franchise tag recipient Anthony Spencer will go from outside linebacker to putting one hand on the ground as defensive ends. The main change on offense, where the Cowboys appear to be saying "adios" to the fullback position — veteran Lawrence Vickers was released in July — and will instead use more two-tight end sets this season.

[Related: Bill Parcells has words of praise for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones]

Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: : In his first two seasons in the NFL, Bruce Carter has been limited to 21 games. Carter was coming off a torn ACL when the Cowboys made him a second-round pick in 2011. That injury lingered into his rookie season, where he played a reserve role in the final 10 games of the season. Carter started 11 games in 2012, but a dislocated elbow ended his season in November. Carter possesses outstanding athleticism and, if he can stay healthy, he will have a major impact from the weak-side linebacker spot in Kiffin's defense.

Stat fact: The Cowboys signed spent over $28 million in cash on Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick — their top three cornerbacks — during the 2012 season. In return, the Cowboys defense tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the least amount of interceptions (seven) and only four of Dallas' picks came from the cornerback position (three by Carr, one by Claiborne).

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Romo cuts down on the picks, DeMarco Murray stays healthy and the Dez Bryant from the second half of the 2012 season is present for a full 16-game season. The Cowboys front seven puts pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the cornerbacks make a few more plays and the team's Texas-sized hole at the safety position isn't exploited by the opponents.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Romo struggles under the weight of his new contract, and behind a less-than-stout offensive line, and the defense does not adjust quickly enough to Kiffin's system to contend for the playoffs. The Cowboys miss the playoffs and Jerry Jones fires the coaching staff and starts from scratch in 2014.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: There aren't many players in today's NFL who are more polarizing than Tony Romo, whose propensity for throwing picks in front of prime time audiences is a popular theme in the Twitterverse. Despite those efforts, Romo is a actually a very good, and very tough quarterback who comes through in "clutch" situations. Go download the 2013 Football Outsiders Almanac for statistical evidence of Romo elevating his performance in "Close and Late" situations. Jerry Jones handed Romo a $108 million extension in April and now expects the 33-year-old quarterback to be Peyton Manning during the week and Roger Staubach on Sunday. If Romo can somehow manage to do that, the Cowboys should end their three-year playoff drought.

The Shutdown Countdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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