Cowboys must ease burden on Tony Romo

IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo declared that his primary job is to protect the football. He’ll need a lot of help.

Several of Romo’s league-leading 19 interceptions last season were of the trying-to-do-too-much variety. Coach Jason Garrett hopes Romo won’t feel that sense of desperation this season.

“Like every quarterback who ever played when the burden was too big on them, sometimes you try to do too much and you’re not able to take care of the ball the way you need to,” Garrett said. “It’s a key piece of winning. It’s part of the recipe for winning, so he knows that. Our whole team knows that.”

What have the Cowboys done to try to ease the burden on Romo?

Start with the upgrades made to the offensive line, which should have new starters at all three interior spots once recent addition Brian Waters joins the starting lineup, which could happen as soon as Week 2. It would have been nice to get the six-time Pro Bowl guard signed before the first week of September, but better late than never. The Cowboys invested a first-round pick in center Travis Frederick because they recognized that improved offensive line play was such a glaring need. Left guard Ronald Leary is essentially an undrafted redshirt rookie, but the Cowboys are confident he’ll provide power and a nasty streak -- two things that have been missing.

A remodeled O-line ought to improve a running game that frankly can’t be much worse than it was last season, when it set franchise records for futility. The Cowboys ranked second to last in the league in rushing yards (1,265) and attempts (355).

Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, the new playcaller whose zone-blocking scheme has been further implemented since last season, also should be more committed to the run than Garrett tended to be. It’s hard for Romo to commit a turnover when he’s handing the ball off.

The beefed-up interior offensive line also should consistently give Romo, who was dropped for 36 sacks and escaped many more last season, a cleaner pocket in which to work. He’s especially vulnerable to making poor decisions when he has pressure in his face. (Exhibit A: Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs' pick-six of an ill-advised, ad-libbed shovel pass by Romo, who was being taken down by Henry Melton after the defensive tackle blew by right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau.)

Owner and general manager Jerry Jones talked about the value of giving Romo “an extra half-second” after the Cowboys drafted Frederick, the No. 22 player on their board. It’s also worth noting that ProFootballFocus.com graded Waters as the best pass-blocking guard in the NFL in 2011.

“We’ve given ourselves a real chance to maximize what Romo brings to the table, to maximize our talent,” Jones said.

The defense can aid Romo’s goal of cutting down turnovers by creating more takeaways and allowing fewer points, putting the Cowboys in position to play with a lead instead of constantly coming from behind, as was the case last season. The fact that the Cowboys forced only 16 turnovers last season is one of the primary reasons Rob Ryan no longer reports to work at Valley Ranch, replaced by the tandem of Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, the latter of whom coordinated the Chicago defense that led the league with 44 turnovers forced last season.

Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg element to the Cowboys’ problem of playing from behind so often. Romo’s turnovers were the root of that issue on occasion, such as when they spotted the Giants a 23-0 lead at JerryWorld last season. Romo’s three picks in the first 17 minutes led directly to 17 points, capped by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s 28-yard touchdown return.

Romo is committed to being more careful with the ball. The Cowboys are committed to attempting to ease the pressure on their franchise quarterback to perform like a superhero.

“It’s really just about team,” Garrett said. “You don’t want any part of your team to have too much of a burden, so you want to play good defense, you want to have balance on offense, you want to be good in the kicking game. If any one phase of your team feels like they have to do it all, that’s not a good thing. Teams win in this league.”