QB transforms into cautious playmaker
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo has found two things he needs to fulfill his potential as the franchise quarterback of America's Team.
Six games into the season, Romo has benefited from the emergence of a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver while learning how to balance his freelancing instincts with his goal of becoming a smarter, more cautious decision-maker.
The result: The Dallas Cowboys are rolling with Romo playing at a superstar level.
Romo's performance in Sunday's 37-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons proved that he can be a playmaker who protects the ball. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 311 yards and three touchdowns and didn't commit any turnovers.
One of the touchdowns came after a classic Romo escape act, when he eluded two would-be Atlanta sackers before finding Patrick Crayton wide open in the end zone. The other two scores came on strikes to Miles Austin, who followed up his franchise-record 250-yard, two-touchdown performance with a six-catch, 171-yard, two-score afternoon.
"You can be a two-hit wonder," Austin said, keeping his head from swelling with his sudden success.
We're wondering how prolific the Cowboys' offense can be now that Austin has proved to be capable of filling Terrell Owens' shoes as Romo's primary playmaker.
That was supposed to be Roy E. Williams, who has 428 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games with the Cowboys. But there's no question that Austin (421 yards and four touchdowns in the past two games) is by far the Cowboys' most effective and exciting receiver.
"It was just a matter of time with him," receivers coach Ray Sherman said. "I just have to stay on him and just keep working with him. The light is on."
Something has clicked with Romo the past couple of weeks as well. He had a sporadic first month of the season, as he wrestled with when to let loose while placing an emphasis on protecting the ball. And he didn't even protect the ball well in his worst performance, a three-pick, no-big-play nightmare in the Cowboys' home-opening loss to the New York Giants.
During the Cowboys' two-game winning streak, Romo has thrown for 662 yards and five touchdowns without being intercepted. It's the first time since 2006 that he hasn't been picked off in consecutive games.
It certainly helps a quarterback's cause when he has a big receiver who can get behind cornerbacks or turn a short pass into a long gain, the rare combination Austin has accomplished in the first two starts of his career. But Romo has often found a comfort level, relying on his instincts while taking calculated risks.
"There's always a mix and I've been trying to find it for some time," Romo said. "In some ways, when you're playing this position, the ball is so valuable. You can't give it to the other team. When you do, it's tough to overcome. But at the same point, I've played the other way before, too, where it's like, I'm never going to turn the ball over.
"Safe is death as well. If you play too safe, you can only be so good. There needs to be a time and a place that you're going to do certain things to separate yourself."
Austin's two touchdowns came on perfectly executed plays. The first, a 59-yard strike that gave Dallas the lead for good in the second quarter, came when the Cowboys caught the Falcons with a perfect play for that particular zone blitz. Romo's eyes lit up when he saw the Falcons show the exact look the Cowboys wanted for the deep crossing route to Austin, who ran right by overmatched safety Thomas DeCoud and caught the ball in stride for an easy touchdown. The 6-3, 214-pound Austin powered through cornerback Brent Grimes' tackle after catching an accurate, well-timed comeback route for his 22-yard score in the third quarter.
And Romo's other touchdown was really fun to watch. He spun away from one defensive lineman, stepped out of the grasp of another, cut inside another and hushed the voice in his head that told him to throw the ball away. The throw to Crayton in the back of the end zone was the easy part.
"That's exceptional," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "And we've got to use it. We have to use it. And we will use it."
It was a classic Romo play. The gunslinger is back, smarter than ever and with an explosive new sidekick.
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.