Commentary

Can Romo make jump to elite level?

Cowboys QB considered one of league's best, but still must add to his résumé

Updated: May 26, 2011, 10:20 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

On Wednesday night, Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki was standing at midcourt inside the American Airlines Center celebrating a second trip to the NBA Finals. His first trip resulted in his team losing a 2-0 lead and the series to the Miami Heat.

Nowitzki and Jason Terry are the only players remaining from that 2006 team. Both players will tell you how they've matured over the years on and off the court, and how it has helped them reach the title series again.

All of this had me thinking of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. The man is getting married Saturday and seems to have everything going for him away from the field.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesTony Romo is a top-10 NFL quarterback, but he has a ways to go to become truly elite.

On the field, Romo is considered one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the game. Yet, there are some things Romo must do to reach the elite level Nowitzki is climbing toward.

Romo got closer to that level in 2009 when he helped the Cowboys win their first playoff game in more than a decade. After a blowout loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional round, it seemed the Cowboys were still not ready as a group to take the next step in their development.

Last season, the team regressed. It started 1-7, saw its coach get fired and lost Romo to a season-ending injury in a loss to the New York Giants in October.

At the time of the injury, Romo had completed 69.5 percent of his passes, and thrown 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His best game was a Week 3 victory over the Houston Texans. If Romo is moving to the next step, the maturity he's showing away from the field must translate to the field. He has to show more leadership, in public and behind closed doors. He's been doing that during the lockout by getting his teammates together to practice.

He's had dinner with wayward soul Dez Bryant, and he's not worried about what anybody says regarding his love for golf. In fact, there are other players on the team who play just as much golf as Romo.

Romo's skill set gives the Cowboys confidence he can lead them to another playoff victory. But North Texas wants more from its NFL team.

Much like what Nowitzki has done for his fans and his organization -- bringing them to his league's title showcase, again -- Romo has to do the same thing. Time is running out for him. He has three years left on his contract and will be in his mid-30s when it ends. At some point, the team must address the quarterback position. Romo can't play forever. Just ask Troy Aikman.

It took Nowitzki five years to get back to the NBA Finals. With three years left, will Romo push his team to a Super Bowl?

Now to the mail.

Q: Is there a possibility Bruce Carter will move to strong safety when he gets healthy? This would allow [Gerald] Sensabaugh to move to free safety, where I think he'll be better at. Carter is explosively quick and good in coverage, while being big and tough enough for run stoppage. -- Jesse (Altus, Okla.)

A: Nope. Carter is more suited for the weakside linebacker spot in the 3-4 and isn't as physical as you might think. He is athletic and will get to the ball carrier. Carter, along with Sean Lee, was signed to eventually start at inside linebacker when it's time to replace Bradie James and Keith Brooking. If those veterans continue to play at a high level in 2011, Lee and Carter will be viable backups. Sensabaugh is an unrestricted free agent, and it isn't determined how much the team is willing to pay to re-sign him. Sensabaugh plays better closer to the line of scrimmage, and I don't think the team trusts him at free safety.

Q: C-Wat, what are the Cowboys' chances of acquiring Nnamdi Asomugha and Michael Huff in free agency when the lockout ends? Logically, their comfort and knowledge of [Rob] Ryan's system should contribute to their decisions, not to mention that the longer the lockout lasts, the less likely the NFL is to impose a salary cap in 2011. -- Brad (New Orleans)

A: Of those two names you mentioned, I would say the team would try to sign Asomugha. If it happens, salary cap or not, the team won't keep Terence Newman. I don't see the team keeping two players in the defensive backfield who would command an average of $6 million to $8 million a season. Huff is an interesting choice, but I think Abram Elam and maybe Danieal Manning are better players.

Q: Why did the Cowboys pick a running back other than a safety or one more cornerback in the draft? -- Reggie (Wilmington, Del.)

A: The Cowboys were looking to upgrade the running back position and in reality wanted to draft Alabama's Mark Ingram if they had been able to make that trade with Jacksonville. The Cowboys would have used that second second-round pick and gotten back in the first round with the goal of getting Ingram. Instead, the team didn't make the deal and got DeMarco Murray, somebody who will challenge Tashard Choice for playing time in 2011 and quite possibly Felix Jones. (Yeah, we don't think Marion Barber will be with us in 2011). When it comes to safety, this was a weak class at the position and the Cowboys weren't going to force anything just to say they had a safety. Fifth-round pick Josh Thomas from Buffalo is described as a scrappy, physical corner who plays well in man coverage.

Q: Why do the Cowboys seem so reluctant to give Tashard Choice a chance to play more? Is this an example of some locker room turmoil or other off-the-field activities we as fans aren't aware of? -- Doug Mikuska (Sioux Falls, S.D.)

A: Since he's been in the league, Choice has played behind Barber and Jones. When given full-time opportunities, Choice has done well. Now, the Cowboys would like to see their third running back play well on special teams, and Choice isn't very good at it. Saying that while also noting the team drafted Murray in the third round, it's reasonable to believe the team is trying to challenge Choice.

Q: Cal, what is the general feeling about the developmental players on the roster like Sam Young, Ogletree, McCray, McCann and Owusu-Ansah? Further, do Hatcher and Bowen have the potential to explode onto the scene in Rob Ryan's new system? -- Brad (New Orleans)

A: Brad, this is a heavy question. I would say the team doesn't know what it has in Young. It didn't play him last year, when it should have -- especially late in the season. Hopefully the team will give him a chance to become the swing tackle this year. Kevin Ogletree got hurt toward the end of last season, and the team has hopes for him. Bryan McCann and Danny McCray need another year of development, although McCann showed some flashes that he can be productive. Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was injured, so the team didn't see enough of him, although special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis thinks he has a bright future as a returner.

Q: Everybody keeps talking about how Jason Garrett will be a tough and hardnosed type of coach. He did not show me anything last year besides practicing with pads. He ignored [Marion] Barber's helmet removal/penalty and nothing ever came about with his dress code violation. It doesn't take much to be tougher than Wade Phillips, but why are people assuming Garrett is tough like Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells? -- Seth (Waco, Texas)

A: It's not so much being tougher; it's holding the players accountable. And that was something Phillips didn't do on a consistent basis. Phillips did a lot of things behind the scenes, but it didn't necessarily translate on the field in terms of having a disciplined team. Phillips seemed sensitive when it came to tough questions from reporters, and at times it looked as though the team was running without a leader. That won't happen with Garrett. He commands the respect of his players, and at least in the last two months of the season, the respect was there. Barber's helmet issue was addressed on the sidelines when he apologized to Garrett after committing the violation. In terms of the clothes violation, Garrett said at the time that Barber didn't violate any team rules, but it was clear the running back didn't adhere to the new policy. So there is some confusion there. How Garrett fares as a coach is uncertain. We do know he will be vastly different from Phillips but won't command the respect from the players the way Parcells did.

Q: How much do you think the rookies are getting to learn their new schemes and teams without coaches in these player workouts? Do you think they will benefit from learning their offense/defense from veteran players instead of coaches more or less? -- Caleb Criner (Andrews, Texas)

A: It's hard to say because not all the rookies are in attendance. It's better, of course, to learn a new scheme from the coach, especially on the defensive side. Rob Ryan is teaching a new way of running the 3-4 scheme, so even the veteran players need some teacher-student study time. As far as the offense, a rookie such as DeMarco Murray can benefit from having running backs coach Skip Peete help him understand what's going on rather than one of the veteran players. What the young players can get from the vets is a little fine tuning, and that always helps.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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