The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 16, but I believe their offense is rounding into postseason form heading into a massive NFC East showdown with the Washington Redskins. In fact, I'm convinced that the unit is so scary that the rest of the NFC should hope that the Redskins knock them out. Otherwise, the Cowboys become the NFC team no one wants to face in the playoffs.
1) Tony Romo has become a clutch player.
Oh, I know that statement will make the Romo haters cringe, but the 10th-year pro has been outstanding during the second half of the season. Since Week 9, Romo has completed 66.7 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and just three picks. Those numbers put Romo on par with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers during that stretch, suggesting that he is playing at an MVP level for the Cowboys.
While some will dismiss Romo's recent production and point to his miserable performances against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants as signs that he remains prone to faltering in big games, I would contend that Romo has been at his best this year when the Cowboys have needed him the most. Romo raised his game during the final month of the season, guiding the Cowboys to three wins in their past four games. Romo has completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and just one interception during that span.
Romo also has shown development as a playmaker and leader in 2012 by repeatedly leading the Cowboys back from huge fourth-quarter deficits. Romo has directed five fourth-quarter comebacks or game-winning drives. He narrowly missed guiding the Cowboys to another come-from-behind win against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16, when the Cowboys erased a 14-point deficit with a little more than four minutes remaining in the game, before ultimately losing in overtime.
I've been impressed by Romo's poise, accuracy and ball placement under pressure. He has repeatedly delivered pinpoint passes between multiple receivers for key conversions. From laser-like strikes to Jason Witten down the seam to his high-arcing, tear-drop tosses to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin on back-shoulder fades and go-routes, Romo has dropped dimes to his receivers when it has counted.
In the video on the right, pulled from the Cowboys' Week 13 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Romo connects with Witten down the seam. The timing and placement of the throw is perfect, based on the defender's proximity to Witten.
Romo excels at making these throws between the hashes, particularly to Witten. The duo frequently connects on seam routes down the middle of the field against single high-safety or two-deep looks to take advantage of the open void behind the linebackers. Although Witten isn't a blazer at this stage of his career, Romo consistently throws him open with his pinpoint throws.
The Cowboys have also capitalized on Romo's superb ball placement by routinely executing back-shoulder fade routes near the end zone. The route is nearly impossible to defend because the quarterback is instructed to throw the ball away from the leverage of the defender. If the defender is playing on the receiver's upfield shoulder, Romo will intentionally underthrow the ball, giving his receiver the best chance to make the catch. If the defender is in trail position, Romo will throw the ball down the field, over the shoulder of his intended target.
In the following screengrab, taken from the Week 16 matchup against the New Orleans Saints, the Cowboys break the huddle in trips formation, with Dwayne Harris aligned on the outside. At the snap, Harris will run a fade route using a stutter move early in the route:
Romo will read the positioning of the cornerback and decide whether to throw the ball up the field or intentionally underthrow it to Harris:
With the cornerback maintaining leverage on Harris' upfield shoulder, Romo throws the ball to the front pylon, underneath the defender:
Harris adjusts to the underthrown ball and tap dances to stay inbounds for a 16-yard touchdown:
With Romo playing at the top of his game, the Cowboys have an offense that is capable of striking quickly from anywhere on the field, which means they are always in the game, regardless of the score or circumstance.
2) Dez Bryant is a superstar.
When the Cowboys selected Bryant with the 24th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, there were no questions about his immense talent or potential. However, critics wondered if he could avoid distractions successfully enough to become a dominant playmaker on the field. After showing intermittent flashes of brilliance during his first two seasons, Bryant has blossomed into a legitimate superstar in 2012, ranking second in the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions and eighth with 1,311 receiving yards.
Bryant's spectacular seven-game run has convinced me that he is a dominant player. Since Week 10, Bryant has totaled 808 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, scoring at least once in each game during that stretch. Most impressively, Bryant has shown the ability to single-handedly take over the game from the split end position. From his sensational catch-and-run bursts on slant routes to his spectacular over-the-shoulder grabs on deep throws, Bryant has been nearly impossible to defend with single or double coverage.
When I broke down the All-22, Bryant's talent and explosiveness jumped off the screen. Few receivers in the league have his combination of size, speed and skill. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Bryant overpowers defenders with his strength and physicality while also showing the quickness to run away from tight coverage out of breaks. He excels at winning contested balls down the sideline and is a playmaker adept at producing big plays with the ball in his hands. While Bryant remains a work in progress as a route runner, he is so talented that the Cowboys have been willing to feature him as the No. 1 option in the passing game, despite his technical flaws.
The Cowboys have capitalized on Bryant's skills by getting him the ball on an assortment of routes over the middle of the field. Bryant routinely runs shallow crosses or dig routes, so that he gets the ball on the move against the grain of the defense. In the video to the right, taken from the Cowboys' Week 14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Bryant is targeted on a 15-yard dig route against the "2-Man" coverage. With his size, strength and running skills, Bryant generates a big play for the Cowboys on a simple "pitch-and-catch" over the middle.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Cowboys' Week 16 matchup against the New Orleans Saints, Bryant is positioned on the left as part of a dubs formation. Bryant is instructed to run a quick slant across the face of Patrick Robinson:
At the snap, Bryant takes a hard angle to the outside before planting on his outside foot and working underneath Robinson:
Romo delivers a perfect strike to Bryant, who quickly sheds Robinson's tackle and races upfield:
3) DeMarco Murray changes the way opponents defend the Cowboys.
Romo and Bryant deserve plenty of credit for making the Cowboys' offense more explosive, but Murray's return from injury has truly ignited the unit in recent weeks. Murray is a sneaky inside-outside runner with terrific vision, instincts and cutback skills. He excels at bouncing runs around the corner, utilizing his quickness and burst to run away from defenders.
Although Murray is at his best when running on the perimeter, he has been effective grinding between the tackles on inside runs. This has given the Cowboys the capacity to run traditional power plays and isolations to soften the defensive interior, while also giving Garrett the flexibility to utilize toss sweeps and stretch plays to get his most explosive runner to the corner.
Murray's numbers for the season are not necessarily impressive (144 rushing attempts for 587 yards with four touchdowns), but the fact that he had a few big games in 2011 and shows flashes of big-play ability prompts defensive coordinators to use eight-man fronts on early downs when he is in the game. This is significant because it leaves the corners isolated on Bryant and Austin on the outside, and prevents Witten from having to face bracket coverage between the hashes. As a result, Romo can connect on high-percentage passes against favorable looks and avoid making the kinds of risky throws against loaded coverage that resulted in a number of turnovers earlier in the season.
More importantly, the threat Murray presents as a runner opens the field for big gains off play-action fakes. Opposing linebackers and safeties still aggressively fly into their assigned gaps when Romo fakes the ball into Murray's belly, despite the fact that he hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since Week 1 and has just four 20-plus yard runs on the season. Most defensive coordinators still subscribe to the theory of stopping the run at all costs on early downs, so using Murray as a decoy is a brilliant move by Garrett.
I studied some of the Cowboys' most effective plays. It is not a coincidence that use of play-action was a part of the play design. Take a look at the following screengrab, from the Cowboys' Week 15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys break the huddle in a dubs formation, with Witten aligned in his customary tight end position:
At the snap, Romo will execute a play fake to Murray in the backfield, which draws the Steelers' linebackers and safeties to the line of scrimmage:
Witten sneaks past the second level of the defense and catches a bullet down the seam:
This results in a 17-yard touchdown for the Cowboys:
With Murray serving as a legitimate threat as a runner in the backfield, the Cowboys have the ability to play with balance or use deception to create big plays in the passing game. Given the importance of explosive plays, Murray's presence could be the reason the Cowboys sneak past the Redskins and into the postseason.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks