Can Tony Romo be a No. 1 quarterback without Terrell Owens?
Poor, poor Tony Romo. After years of building a strong relationship, all of a sudden, he finds himself alone. But enough about Jessica Simpson. What about Terrell Owens? What will Tony Romo do now that his soulmate on the football field has shuffled off to Buffalo? Is he still worthy of being your No. 1 fantasy quarterback?
Certainly last season's final numbers were a bit deceptive for Romo. He finished only 12th in ESPN standard scoring among quarterbacks, but keep in mind that he did sit out a month with a broken finger. Even being out of action for three games (he returned to the huddle after the team's bye week), Romo still managed to finish sixth in the league in touchdown passes with 26, and surely would have been able to pass Tyler Thigpen, David Garrard and Chad Pennington in fantasy scoring had the freak injury not taken place.
However, you can't underestimate Owens' role in Romo's success. Consider this: Of Romo's 450 passes last season, 115 of them -- 25.6 percent -- were intended for T.O. Sure, he caught only 57 of those balls, but that was more than enough for 952 yards, which was 27.6 percent of Romo's total yardage for the season, not to mention 34.6 percent of his touchdown passes. At an average of 16.7 yards per reception, it's clear that the Romo-Owens connection was largely responsible for Romo finishing the season tied for fifth most in the league with 48 passes of 20-plus yards.
So who's left in the fold? Roy E. Williams becomes the No. 1 receiver in Dallas. Williams never quite developed a rapport with Romo, having arrived from Detroit during the quarterback's time on the sidelines. Over the last seven games of the year, he connected with Romo for just 16 catches, averaging only 10 yards per reception. Of course, he'll have a different role in 2009, and there's a whole preseason for chemistry between the two to take flight. But even in his All-Pro season with the Lions, Williams never matched Owens' yards-per-reception output. Patrick Crayton is the likely No. 2, but he has had that job in the past with mixed results, and frequently disappears for weeks at a time. Miles Austin has the downfield speed to stretch opposing defenses, but with only 18 career catches to his name, there's no way he -- or some combination of all three wide receivers -- is going to fill T.O.'s shoes and make up for his absence.
True, the Cowboys have one of the top tight ends in the league, and Jason Witten can certainly be counted on for 80-90 receptions at about 11 yards per pop, but he can't possibly do much more than what he has accomplished in the past. In fact, Witten might well be called on to do far less. Last season, the Cowboys averaged a little over nine more pass attempts a game than rush attempts. Marion Barber had only 13 carries over the last month of the season because of an injured toe, Felix Jones averaged 8.9 yards per carry but didn't see the field after getting hurt in Week 6 and Tashard Choice stepped up and averaged 76 rushing yards per game over the last five weeks of the season. More than anything else, the main reason that Romo will not be a No. 1 fantasy quarterback is because of the trio of backs, now all healthy, who are sure to see an increase in carries in 2009.
There's no way around it. "Tash, Dash and Smash" are going to cause Romo's stats to crash, and we're not sure that will sit right with him. Plus, he has to deal with his reputation as a "choke artist." In the three seasons Romo has been under center, the Cowboys have finished each campaign with a 1-3 stretch over their final four games (that includes two playoff defeats). Even if the team has success with the run over the first three months of the season, when the calendar flips to December, Romo may well take it upon himself to attempt to change that perception. And without Owens to help bail him out when his wayward passes end up in the hands of defenders, Romo may once again end up near the top of the "passes intercepted" leaderboard (he finished tied with Kurt Warner for fifth with 14 INTs in 2008, in 148 fewer attempts). There's simply no room for Romo in a fantasy starting lineup.
Sorry, Romo. Now someone else is gettin' all your best, and for fantasy owners. These boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do -- to someone else for all their 2009 fantasy quarterback needs.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.