ARLINGTON, Texas – The wisest thing Tony Romo did all afternoon was fall down.
The Dallas Cowboys' franchise quarterback collapsed to the turf on more than one occasion when the pocket collapsed around him on Thursday. He protected his ailing back and protected his team's season in doing so.
That's because the Thanksgiving Day drubbing at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles makes one thing very clear: Even with DeMarco Murray carrying a heavy load, the Cowboys need Romo healthier if they have any hopes of getting by Philadelphia either in the regular season or the playoffs. The Eagles raced by the Cowboys early in this game, went on to win 33-10, and the plodding home team looked creaky and cranky.
Owner Jerry Jones admitted "there's plenty to criticize all over this team, starting right here [with me]," but there's one stinging issue to deal with first and foremost.
"When we get the ball," Jones said, "we need to make things happen. They did and we didn't."
Philadelphia looked fresher and sharper from the get-go, with Mark Sanchez looking like a younger Romo and Romo looking like the old, butt-fumbling Sanchez. A big part of the reason was the short week, as Romo usually takes Wednesday off and returns to the field on Thursday. Here, he came off a Sunday night road win against the New York Giants and prepared for another division rival quickly. His throws at times lacked zip and accuracy. He didn't seem to step into them like usual.
"There are no excuses," Romo said. "They made things a little bit tougher. I missed a couple throws that I normally won't miss. I will be better at that the rest of the year; I know that for sure."
The offensive line has to be better as well. Romo's young blockers have gotten a ton of credit for growing up quickly, but on Thursday they were manhandled by Fletcher Cox and company. After the game, center Travis Frederick said the performance was "just a matter of being out of rhythm." Linemates Ronald Leary and Tyron Smith sat at their lockers and declined interviews. Whatever the reason, the Eagles out-Cowboy'd the Cowboys on the ground. They outrushed Dallas 256 to 93.
"They stopped the way that we could beat them," Jones said.
The Eagles' game plan was straightforward: "To stop DeMarco Murray and get them into third downs," said linebacker Connor Barwin, "and then make Tony Romo move around in the pocket."
Romo, when healthy, is terrific when he moves the pocket. Clearly that advantage is gone, at least temporarily. So if the secondary sticks with its assigned receivers, a four-man rush against Dallas is as good as a blitz. That makes the two-pronged attack of Murray and Romo inert. There isn't an obvious reason why that will change over the next several weeks, especially if Romo doesn't feel better.
It was a little curious why coach Jason Garrett left his quarterback on the field for the duration. The game was out of reach by the fourth quarter, and there was no reason for the quarterback to risk another bruise. Garrett said he didn't consider pulling his leader. "Our job is to compete," he said. "Compete for 60 minutes. Try to win ballgames. Everybody's a part of that."
Jones said he was "OK" with the decision, but perhaps he shouldn't have been. When you have a franchise quarterback who is sacking himself as a way of avoiding injury when there's no play to be made, there's no such thing as being too careful in a blowout. And Romo's decision to go down in those instances was also a sign of how well the Eagles game planned.
"Part of it was for me to look to move, there was nowhere to go, and it was going to end poorly if you are trying to throw with a lot of people around you," Romo said. "I tried to find a spot but I didn't. I thought there was a guy coming and I was probably wrong."
The Cowboys' December demons have shown a little early this year, and what was thought to be a chance at home to tear down the infamous 8-8 barrier with a ninth win turned into a reason for added concern. The rival with the backup quarterback looks a lot better than the team with the aching quarterback.
A home division loss in a marquee game is never good, but the odd aspect of this Cowboys season is how well they've played away from here. They're 5-0 outside of Jerryworld.
"We're focused way more on the road," defensive end Jeremy Mincey said.
That might be in part because of the underwhelming home crowd.
"We didn't get much out of 'em today," Mincey said, adding, "it was pretty quiet."
"It's the Dallas Cowboys," he continued. "They gotta take some pride."
It might not matter. The Cowboys host only one more regular-season game here this year, and if their quarterback isn't crisper in the dreaded December, there might not be a home game in January.