IRVING, Texas — The best part of Tony Romo’s last outing wasn’t setting a Dallas Cowboys record by completing 88.5 percent of his passes.
It was the zeros in his stat line, as in 0 interceptions and 0 sacks — again.
Romo just pulled off back-to-back games without either of those drive-ruining plays. It’s something no other quarterback has done this season and something he’d never done in his career.
Of course he hadn’t. This is Tony Romo, the quarterback known for his reckless gambles, especially those that don’t pay off. He’s the guy whose head-slapping flubs earlier this season prompted speculation that his coach was demanding safe passes because he no longer trusted him.
So, what gives?
Start with Romo’s recovery from a broken rib.
He’s no longer getting pain-killing shots or wearing a protective vest. He’s back to full strength, save for a case of the sniffles Thursday, which means his passes are more likely to go where he wants and with the zip he wants, and he’s more capable of avoiding would-be tacklers.
“You get used to playing hurt, but it’s just a little different (being healthy),” Romo said.
Then there’s the quantum leap the entire offense has taken since DeMarco Murray became the featured running back four games ago.
With Murray averaging more than 8 yards per carry the last month, the Cowboys are facing a lot more second-and-short and third-and-short. That changes everything, especially the way the defense lines up, and Romo is smart enough and talented enough to know how to take advantage.
“I just think that each team we play, we’re keeping them a little off-balance lately,” Romo said.
A competent running game is a new luxury for Romo.
The last time the Cowboys had a 1,000-yard rusher was 2006, his first half-season in charge. Marion Barber anchored a solid rushing attack in 2009, when Dallas set all sorts of club records for yards and points, but that unit was complementary to the passing game.
Since Murray burst onto the scene, coach Jason Garrett and Romo have done a great job of blending running and passing, controlling the scoreboard and the clock.
“When those guys are playing the run or trying to figure out (run or pass), he’s so precise and quick going through his reads,” tight end Jason Witten said.
Another aspect to all this is the offensive line.
Linemen love run blocking and they especially love it when it produces the kind of results they’ve enjoyed the last month. (Murray’s 601 yards the last four games are 50 better than Emmitt Smith ever had over a similar span.) Success breeds confidence, which manifests in their pass blocking, too.
“We all play together and hopefully we all do what we’re supposed to do to help our football team be better and take the burden off one individual unit or one individual guy,” Garrett said.
That’s another piece of this puzzle.
The Cowboys’ last four games have all been routs, three in their favor and a loss at Philadelphia that got out of control early. That’s a huge change from the first five games, which were all decided in the final minute, all by four points or less.
Romo’s gambling nature cost Dallas in two of the losses, a blown 14-point lead against the Jets and a blown 24-point lead against Detroit. Perhaps fearing more mistakes, Garrett took an overly conservative approach that prevented the Cowboys from protecting a late lead at New England.
In Romo’s crisply played last two games, Dallas never trailed.
He mostly managed the game against the Seahawks, going 19 of 31 for 279 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Bills, he could do no wrong.
He completed his first 13 passes, three for touchdowns, and was 18 of 19 at halftime, having led Dallas to touchdowns on its first four series. He finished 23 of 26 for 270 yards. Being interception-free was even more impressive considering the Bills came in with the second-most pickoffs in the NFL.
“You continue to get better each year that you play, just the understanding of the game a little bit, all that stuff continues to grow,” Romo said. “You reach a certain point where you continue to feel very confident every time you step on the field, and I think our team has continued to do that.”
The next trick is keeping it going.
No quarterback has gone three straight games without a sack and interception since Buffalo’s Trent Edwards in 2007, according to STATS LLC, so it’s not realistic to expect Romo to keep that streak going.
But with Washington, Miami and Arizona coming up, the Cowboys are counting on Romo to send them into December with a chance to win the division.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve kind of thrown a lot early and moved up and down the field and then DeMarco has been able to kind of close games out,” Romo said. “If that continues to hold true, we’re going to be a very tough team.”