With Owens gone, T.O. stands for 'tremendous options' for Cowboys


The Week 1 deliverance of harmony and precision -- in a Tony Romo-friendly offensive scheme -- has the Dallas Cowboys, their fans, and those who witnessed them defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemingly convinced life is exponentially better without T.O.

Six receivers caught passes in Romo's 353-yard, three-touchdown carving of Tampa Bay's secondary last Sunday. Nobody sulked because they didn't get more touches. The focus was on the sum of the parts, not a part for just some. And look, Terrell Owens only caught two passes in a Monday night loss with his new team, Buffalo, and he's already drawing attention to himself for, of all things, not talking.

Kumbaya in Big D.

Upon further examination, the Cowboys were singing the same song after last season's opening victory over Cleveland, when seven receivers caught passes. Romo threw for 320 yards and a touchdown and the strong running game set up the play-action pass. Sound familiar?

About the only difference is that Owens caught Romo's only touchdown throw and had five receptions for 87 yards against Cleveland. As is the case now, Dallas was 1-0.

The real test of how much -- or how little -- things have changed, could come as early as Sunday, when the Giants, a much better opponent than Tampa Bay, show up to christen the regular-season Grand Opening of Cowboys Stadium. The Giants' focus will be on stopping the running game and putting pressure on Romo. New York, with Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and Justin Tuck, among others, has the defensive horses to make things difficult for Dallas.

Now is when we'll see how effective the new-look Cowboys offense really is. Based on what Dallas showed in Week 1, there's no reason to think there will be a major dropoff. A key reason is because Romo and/or offensive coordinator Jason Garrett won't feel the need to get any specific player involved.

There were times when it was clear Dallas was trying to force the ball to Owens last season; one of those occasions coming in a loss to the visiting Redskins. The intent seemed to take away from the flow of Dallas' potent running game and the overall rhythm of the offense. And say what you want about Romo, when he's feeling it, he's just about as good as any quarterback in the NFL. Forcing the ball to a certain player is a problem the Cowboys hope has been corrected.

Now, at least after one game, there's no single player other than Romo who has to have his hands on the ball. Maybe if Roy Williams, Patrick Crayton or Miles Austin string together five or six breakout games - or if they hit their plateau against the Bucs and become unreliable -- that thinking will change.

As it stands, they've got options. Everything starts at running back, where Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice butter the bread. If Dallas can make waves running the ball, it will continue to do so until a safety or linebacker gets a little too aggressive attacking the line of scrimmage. Then the Cowboys have a variety of plays and players who can exploit the vacated area and make big plays.

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Williams has already shown he's got some big-play ability. If he's consistent with it, then that makes Dallas that much better. The real area where the Cowboys can keep teams off guard, even if the running game isn't working, is with tight ends Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett.

Both are excellent pass receivers who can play on the line, flexed in the slot, split wide or as H-backs. The ability to shift both tight ends around gives Dallas an edge between the 20s, but also in the red zone and in short-yardage.

It can show run formations it used one week and the next game release one tight end, if not both, on passing routes. The ability to confuse by alignment is a dangerous weapon. As important, most teams don't have defenders who can match up on both tight ends when they're in the game at the same time.

The Giants will be in better standing than a lot of teams because they have versatile weak-side linebacker Michael Boley in the mix. Boley, who was signed in free agency, is expected to start after he served a Week 1 suspension for a domestic incident last year. Boley is gifted enough to cover either player one-on-one. He's also a threat on the pass rush from the edge, where his length and speed are tough to manage.

However, the Giants don't have another player like him on the other side should Dallas scheme with both tight ends. The ability to run a variety of schemes with two tight ends, one tight end, no tight ends and five wide receivers is a luxury the Cowboys have week to week. But it was there before, too -- with a high-maintenance receiver who caught 38 touchdowns in three seasons. In fact, Owens would draw double-teams to free up other players.

Execution, not schemes and a fair and balanced set of skill players, will determine whether life is better without Owens. Sure, the locker room will be a better place, as long as Dallas is winning. Let things go south for three or four straight games and check back on that locker room harmony. That's not just Dallas' locker room, either. Things tend to come unglued when success is hard to come by.

Since Owens was jettisoned, the typically circus-style atmosphere that has been part of Cowboys' culture for years has been very businesslike. The change in persona was driven more by a new approach from the top than T.O.'s departure.

The directive seems to be working, as the Vikings, Patriots, Broncos, Eagles and Jets have driven news cycles and made the Cowboys something of an afterthought.

These days in Dallas, it's about spreading the wealth.



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