Double Coverage: Is Romo better off without T.O.?

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and John Clayton

For a discussion about T.O. and Tony Romo, ESPN.com called upon two of its most divisive newsroom personalities: John "The Professor" Clayton and me. Will Romo be better off without the most polarizing player in the league, or will the Cowboys' offense sputter without T.O.'s production?

John and I essentially agree that the Cowboys will be better off without Terrell Owens in the long run, but it's a bit premature to say they will see immediate results on the field. Let's delve into this fascinating topic with two men who've watched this once beautiful relationship -- "That's my quarterback!" -- lose its bloom.

John starts off by answering this all-important question: Is Romo better off without T.O.?

JC: Statistically, no. Emotionally, yes. The problem is in the transition, because there is no way you can take away T.O's ability to have a 1,000-yard season along with getting 10 or more touchdowns and think Romo can be as effective. Even with T.O. on the roster last season, Romo's accuracy dropped from 64.4 to 61.3. But he still stayed at the two-touchdown-pass-per-game level. That's a tribute to his skills.

Romo isn't overrated as a quarterback, but the talent around him might be. Roy Williams has one Pro Bowl season to his credit and he's clearly not T.O. In the end, the Cowboys could be better without T.O., but the evidence may not be there this season. They needed to make a change because of the tension created when T.O. didn't get the ball. You and I sat near each other at the Redskins game in Dallas last season and we watched T.O. at his worst. Owens was clearly showing his frustration with not getting the ball in the first half, so the Cowboys changed their game plan at halftime and forced too many throws to Owens in the second half. That threw off the rhythm of the offense and eventually allowed the Redskins to take control and win the game.

Williams was obviously acquired to bridge the changeover when Owens wasn't going to be a Cowboy, but here's my fear: The situation in Dallas for Romo is what Trent Edwards went through in Buffalo in 2008. After seven weeks, teams found out that if you stuff the run and double-team Lee Evans, the Bills' offense was totally solved. Romo does have the benefit of having Jason Witten -- his favorite target -- to bail him out of being completely shut out if Williams is double covered. To get back to the level of his 4,211-yard season in 2007, Romo needs another stud at split end. That's not going to be found this season. Patrick Crayton is good enough to start, but he's like Josh Reed on the other side of Evans. He doesn't change the coverage tendencies. Miles Austin is serviceable. And I'm definitely not buying into the notion that a healthy Felix Jones can completely fill the void for Owens. Only eight running backs caught 50 or more passes and Marion Barber was one of them. Jones can help in the short zones, but he's not going to stretch the offense like a T.O. My forecast would be a 3,700-yard season and maybe 20 to 23 touchdowns. I also think his sack numbers might go up. Remember, Romo has never had anything worse than a 24-sack season. The heat will be on this year, and Tony doesn't have the supporting cast to cool things off.

Mosley: John, I agree that this is one of those "be careful what you wish for" moments for the Cowboys. T.O. had become a toxic presence in the locker room, and releasing him was the best thing for the long-term health of the club. But the guy put up big (although somewhat empty) numbers in three years and he was a constant threat. But I think you hit on the biggest reason T.O.'s release has a chance to yield immediate results. In that Skins game you referenced, you could tell that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett steered the game plan toward T.O. in the second half to the detriment of weapons such as Jones.

I think you'll see more of a team concept this season. In order to cut down on Romo's alarming turnover rate -- he threw at least one interception in 10 of the 13 games he started and fumbled seven times -- Garrett has to rely more on the running game. And with Derrick Ward leaving the Giants, the Cowboys could challenge them for the best trio in the loaded NFC East. There's a theory in Dallas that Garrett felt hamstrung in dealing with issues (T.O.'s complaining) because he wanted to avoid stepping on Wade Phillips' toes. In paying Garrett $3 million a year to stay in Dallas two years ago, Jerry Jones sent the message that he was the head coach in waiting. This season, Garrett's squarely on the hot seat. I've been told that he's carrying himself a lot differently at Valley Ranch -- and I've observed him taking a more fiery approach on the practice field. I think the departure of T.O. is something Garrett privately celebrated -- perhaps with champagne. T.O. had a direct route to Jerry Jones, which pretty much made Phillips and Garrett powerless much of the time.

But John, you've been covering the league for a season or two. Is locker-room chemistry overrated or do you believe in this idea of addition by subtraction when it comes to a polarizing player such as T.O.? How's our chemistry during this e-mail exchange?

JC: Locker-room chemistry may be a little overrated in the regular season but not in the postseason. That's why T.O. was an addition by subtraction, but the numbers don't totally add up here as we've seen in other situations. And that's why I think there could be a one-season drop in offensive production for the Cowboys. It took the Eagles more than a year to recover from T.O.'s departure, although I don't think the chemistry impact will be as bad in Dallas as it was in Philadelphia. Owens split that team. He had the defensive players believing in him and not Donovan McNabb. You'll have a better read on that being in that locker room. I know T.O. had his supporters, but I don't think those supporters were as strong as those in Philadelphia. I just see more ways defenses can bottle up the offense. You mention the Giants. Where were they when Plaxico Burress was out the final month of the season? Teams blitzed them without punishment. If the Cowboys try to model themselves a little like the Giants, they have to beware of the limitations if teams can successfully cover Williams. This year may be a step backward, but Romo and the Cowboys could come out better in the long run. But that might not be until 2010 when they upgrade the receiver position even more. No, I'm not saying trade for Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards. They just need one more talented receiver to make everything work better.

MM: John, if the Cowboys aren't ready for prime time until 2010, both Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett will be goners. Jerry Jones is counting on Williams being a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver and he's hoping that Garrett can figure out a way to unleash a talented stable of running backs. He must summon his Ivy League pedigree and come up with a way to make sure Felix Jones touches the ball at least 12 times a game.

You make a good point in the Philly-Dallas comparison, though. I don't think T.O.'s followers on the defensive side of the ball (and there were plenty) were as loyal as the players in Philly at the time. The Cowboys had a lot of young (impressionable) players who didn't really know who to follow. Thank goodness Austin had the good sense to stay above the fray as Williams and Crayton followed T.O. around like puppy dogs.

Part of that has to do with T.O.'s charismatic personality, but a lot of it had to do with a head coach who takes a very laid-back approach. As we've talked about numerous times on the award-winning (soon, I'm sure) NFC East blog, Garrett is apparently a changed man at Valley Ranch. Is it too late to get his bluff in? Well, we're about to find out.

As we've also discussed in the past, there's no one on the Cowboys' coaching staff whom Romo truly seems to respect. Bill Parcells and Tony Sparano had his ear because he actually thought there might be consequences when he threw three or four interceptions. Under the Phillips regime, Romo has grown far too careless with the ball. We'll see if Garrett's new tough-guy approach has any effect on him.

I think the biggest positive for Romo with T.O. leaving is that he can get back to throwing to whomever's open. T.O. often had a tough time beating press coverage, but Romo would force the ball to him in an effort to appease him. Receivers such as Sam Hurd, Austin and Crayton won't be nearly as demanding. I think there will be far less drama at Valley Ranch this season, and Romo will function better in that atmosphere.

John, there's some debate on who will replace T.O.'s production. I think it will be a combination of an improved running game and Witten. But Williams is a player under enormous pressure. Do you think he's up to the task? What do you make of all this "trust" the players allegedly have in each other now? Every time Williams opens his mouth, I feel like he should be on the set of "The View." What's your take?

JC: Matt, I don't know what this "trust" thing really is. It's a talent thing. The only thing I question is the thought that T.O.'s departure will allow Romo to get back to throwing to the open receiver. Defenses can take Witten and Williams out of being open with double coverage. If that happens, the running game advantage will be only marginal and Romo may not have anybody open. Ultimately, the Cowboys will be better without T.O. but I just think they are going to struggle this year because the drop-off is too vast from T.O. to Crayton or to Austin. If I'm right, you might be blogging more playoff games in Philadel
phia or at Giants Stadium than Jerry Jones' new digs in Big D.
MM: John, I want to leave you with four words that have changed my life: Trust in Miles Austin! Say those words over and over again during that vacation that you've been putting off for 20 years. Romo has to place a lot more emphasis on ball security. Parcells taught him how to treat the football like it was precious. But last year, Romo went back to his swashbuckling ways, flinging the ball downfield. You can't do that against most NFL teams -- especially the one Ed Reed plays for. Romo found that out the hard way. Honestly, it's nice that everyone can now realize how fraudulent the "friendship" was between Romo and T.O. The two players never particularly liked each other -- but they did stack up some pretty impressive numbers together. Now, we'll continue to read about the "boundaries" that Williams has broken down to bond with Romo. Honestly, I've never heard an NFL player makes statements like that. I choose to blame it on Mack Brown.

John, thanks for your outstanding contribution to the NFL Nation Blog and the NFC Beast. You're welcome here anytime. And thanks to the blog editors for reading the previous 1,953 words.

For the Worldwide NFL Blog Network, I'm Matt Mosley.

Trey Wingo, Mark Schlereth and Trent Dilfer also joined the debate.