In the offseason, Dallas coach Jason Garrett visited the Yankees' spring-training home in Tampa, and sought out Derek Jeter. Garrett was raised in Yankee country, so he has great respect for the Yankee shortstop, and he wanted to ask him about leadership. In this way: We have guys on our team -- Tony Romo and Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware -- who are well-respected, and guys in the locker room look up to them, but they're not holler guys. They're not leaders in the classic sense of the word. What's your take on leadership and how vocal guys have to be?
According to Garrett, Jeter said this: "It ain't about what you say. I've been around guys over the years who talk a lot, and they weren't necessarily considered leaders. It's about what you do, how you practice, how you run out ground balls hard every time.''
Garrett liked that, because he's around guys like Romo and Witten and Ware, and he sees them doing the right things. And on Sunday night in Washington, they'll have one more chance to do the right thing on the field and get into the playoffs when they play an NFC East championship game for the third time in four seasons.
Dallas won the NFC East on the last day of the 2009 season, 24-0 over Philadelphia. The Cowboys lost the NFC East on the last day of the 2011 season, 31-14 to the Giants. Now they complete the NFC East title trifecta, playing the last team in the group, Washington, at what will be a nutty FedEx Field, nuttiness fueled by the excitement of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III running the option offense called by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
It's no secret I like Romo as a player a lot. I know he won't be considered among the best in the game until he plays better in the playoffs; no quarterback is an all-timer if he's invisible in January, and Romo's won only one playoff game in an eight-year starting career. When I posted a note this week on Twitter that Romo, in the last two Decembers, has thrown 20 touchdowns with two interceptions, a familiar barrage came back. Many wrote some form of: What's he done in January? A few said something like: Yeah, and the Cowboys are 4-5 in those games. He leads the Cowboys on two long drives in the last five minutes last week to tie the Saints and force overtime, but the Cowboys allow 562 yards to New Orleans and lose. Again, Romo can't win the big games.
This weekend, there's little doubt in my mind that Romo, and the Cowboys, will have to score 24 or more to win -- and maybe in the thirties. Not only is Ware ailing with shoulder and elbow injuries that will limit his effectiveness, but the way Washington runs its offense makes it difficult for a good pass-rush to get home anyway. Watch the way the Redskins call their offense, both with Griffin under center and in the Pistol (four yards behind center). And watch how often Griffin either hands it to Alfred Morris, who is third in the NFL in rushing attempts, or play-action-fakes it to him and throws. The Redskins' passing game is a very basic one, but part of its design is to make is hard for any defense to tee off on Griffin, who's either play-actioning or rolling out so often that he's really not the kind of target a defense can isolate.
Romo's going to have to make the most of what may be limited chances. Washington watches tape. The Redskins see what a sieve the Dallas run-defense has been recently -- 5.1 yards per rush allowed over the last four games. With Morris averaging 4.7 yards per carry, it's natural to think Washington will try to mash the ball more than throw the long ball. Dallas' best hope may be to force turnovers, and it would be uncharacteristic to think Griffin and Morris, who have turned it over by fumble or interception just 10 times in 15 games, will be generous Sunday night. As eerie as it sounds, the absence of nose tackle Josh Brent with his DUI manslaughter charge could be more of a factor in this game than the ailments plaguing Ware.
So for Dallas to win a very tough game Sunday night, Romo will have to lead by example. He'll have to score on more than half his possessions, and not settle for more than a field goal or two. Because Washington isn't going to be held down.
Players You Need To Know This Weekend
Ten Things I'll Be Watching For This Weekend