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Dallas Cowboys hope Tony Romo's injury won't sink season

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PHILADELPHIA -- Jerry Jones' quarterback walked into the locker room, his head down, his left arm in a sling and a blue jacket draped over it. There was a small smile on Tony Romo's face as he spoke to Jason Witten, and teammates gently tapped Romo's shoulder in support -- his right one, carefully avoiding the left.

The Dallas Cowboys are 2-0 and atop a dumpster fire of a division, but their hold on prosperity is dangling as limply as Romo's arm was in a sling. Jones had watched Romo get sacked, fumble, and then lay on his back at Lincoln Financial Field, instinctively grasping his left shoulder. It turned out his left clavicle was fractured, the second terrible injury the Cowboys have suffered in as many weeks, with Dez Bryant tweeting his prognosis Sunday for the broken foot he sustained against the Giants a week ago. The Cowboys lead the NFC East in both victories and losses, and Jones, limping from his own hip-replacement surgery, could describe exactly how he felt watching Romo -- and perhaps his season -- writhing on the ground.

"Just about as low as a crippled cricket's ass," Jones said. "I thought the world was picking on me."

Romo called Jones as soon as the X-ray indicated the break, and Jones said they both were sick about it.

"Broke his heart. Broke my heart."

But Jones is an eternal optimist swathed in a finely tailored suit. He had already started contemplating what the Cowboys would do about quarterbacks before the game had even ended. For now, Brandon Weeden is the only other quarterback on the roster -- Jones raved about his arm and accuracy -- and at the least, the Cowboys will need to sign a veteran to back him up.

While all this conversation with Jones was going on in the middle of the locker room, the players dressing around him were not as downcast as expected. After a big win on the road over a division rival, they were strangely at odds with the grim medical report.

"Coach [Jason] Garrett has done a good job of instilling fight in everybody," said receiver Cole Beasley, who was to be one of Romo's prime targets without Bryant. "We still have to go find ways to win, no matter how we do it."

They, as well as Jones, know the Cowboys may be able to tread water, to at least stay at .500 until Romo can return. They reside in a division that features a Giants team that has blown two double-digit fourth-quarter leads, a Redskins team whose franchise quarterback is on the sideline and an Eagles team whose head coach has raced from genius to madness and inspired furious hand-wringing in Philadelphia with his moribund offense. The Cowboys were already prepared for a season of adversity. Defensive end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain are serving suspensions. Randy Gregory, the prized rookie pass rusher, is out for at least a month with a high ankle sprain, and Bryant's foot could keep the receiver out all the way until December.

So before Romo had even receded to the trainer's room to get an ice pack on his left shoulder for the plane ride home, Jones was already spinning the season forward, anticipating the arrival of reinforcements.

"We've paid a high price for those two wins," he said. "I was naïve enough to say if we can get two or three more wins in the early games, we'd have all of the guys coming out of the penalty box. That was like child's play. But we do have help on the way. My entire strategy was, just don't get eliminated early. We do have depth coming at the end. We've got to hang around long enough."

Every game, all season

How to do that is the big question. The Cowboys got a good, long look at life without Bryant on Sunday, and it was a predictable struggle, even when Romo was leading it. Their first touchdown of the game came on a blocked punt in the third quarter, after all. But they also got an extended preview of how to win without much offense, and that lesson might be reassuring in the next few days.

The Cowboys beat the Eagles with the formula they will need for the foreseeable future: a defense that stifles the run (Eagles back DeMarco Murray, whom the Cowboys could use now, had 2 yards on 13 carries), forces turnovers (they had three against Philly, including a Sean Lee interception in the end zone that ended the drive that resulted from Romo's fumble and subsequent injury) and plays special teams with a heads-up mentality (the blocked punt). A potent running attack would do the most to take pressure off Weeden, although that may be harder to execute, considering the current running-back-by-committee formula netted just 109 yards on 33 rushes against the Eagles.

There is little question, though, that Romo's injury casts a pall over the Cowboys' quick start. Jones said last week that his greatest disappointment would be Romo never winning a Super Bowl, and the odds against winning it this year certainly lengthen with Romo's absence, however long he's gone. The thinking for this season was to build upon Romo's nearly flawless play last season, when a strong running game and good health allowed Romo to be a surgical tactician. Now Weeden will be the starter, and he faces an uphill battle against history. He last won a start in Week 14 of the 2012 season with the Cleveland Browns, and he's started eight games since.

And since Romo became the starter in Week 8 of 2006, the Cowboys have struggled without him. They are 77-48 with Romo and 6-9 without him, averaging 45 fewer passing yards per game and three fewer points per game.

"The NFL is about adversity in general, the way you handle it, approach it day to day," Romo said. "I think the job for our football team is to find ways to win. We have a group of guys in that room that I think can do that."

Perhaps they do, but the schedule won't help the Cowboys. They might be able to slip past some of their reeling divisional opponents, but it is hard to imagine they can score enough points without Romo and Bryant to keep pace with the Patriots next month, or to find a way around Seattle's defense in November or stay with the Packers in December, if Romo and Bryant are still unavailable by then.

The Cowboys probably won't know exactly how big a hit their season took until further tests determine what kind of treatment Romo will need. (UPDATE: NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Romo won't need surgery, and that the quarterback is expected to miss about eight weeks.) Jones called the injury a real disappointment and a setback.

But it might not have been a season-killer. It is a comforting idea, the notion that Romo and the others will eventually ride in to the rescue -- and it might not be a figment of Jones' fantastic imagination. The season is long and the NFC East is a mess. The Cowboys do not have to win the division without Romo and Bryant. They merely have to make sure they don't lose it while they're out.

As Romo walked to the team bus, his right hand in his pocket, an ice pack taped to his left shoulder, his head still down in disappointment, the Cowboys' season looked a lot like him: stricken and wounded, but seemingly still reparable.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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