ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's not a statistic you can quantify. It doesn't show up in the postgame box score. Dallas Cowboys players aren't even sure how to describe it.
But they see their quarterback take those bone-rattling hits, absorb those helmet-to-helmet shots, get driven into the turf. And then they watch as Tony Romo picks himself back up.
Again. And again. And he continues to perform.
"Some quarterbacks who take hits like that don't want to go back," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "Not him. He's just a strong guy, and he's very passionate. He's that great guy that you want to feed off. He got that fire in him, and you just want to play hard for him."
But it was, in fact, a win because of the play of the defense and because Romo kept getting up.
Romo wasn't joking when he described the rough-and-tumble victory as being "up there with one of the most physically tough games I've been a part of." But he was being coy when he shrugged and said of those hits, "It's just football, you know, it happens sometimes."
Romo delivered a gritty, tough performance in the face of a persistent, nasty Bucs pass rush. He was under duress all day thanks to a patchwork offensive line, routinely bouncing from one defensive tackle to another like a pinball.
He rose slower and slower, but he kept rising.
It might not have been the most Romo has ever been hit or the hardest. (See: Last year's win over the San Francisco 49ers in which he sustained a fractured rib and punctured lung, or the 2010 loss to the New York Giants that saw linebacker Michael Boley knock him out for the season.) But this was up there.
And the more he got hit, the better he played. Miscues abounded in the first three quarters, from miscommunications to simple misfires. Yet as the brutalizing became worse, Romo was 7-for-7 in the fourth quarter for 65 yards. In the second half, he completed 13 of his 16 passes for 183 yards. One of those was a 49-yard bomb to receiver Miles Austin to set up Dan Bailey's field goal that made it 13-7 -- a throw Romo made while falling backward and hitting his hand on an opponent's helmet.
"He gets knocked down and comes back stronger," Austin said.
That's easy to notice: Romo's persistence in the face of adversity. What goes largely unnoticed is how Romo doesn't curse out the offensive linemen who are responsible for his beatings. With his even-keeled demeanor, Romo is the ultimate leader by example.
"I don't feel like he was frustrated," guard Nate Livings said. "We've been around Tony long enough where we can tell. We can tell based off his facial expressions how he's feeling. Tony is a real good guy, a real good quarterback and he shows his emotions to us. He didn't have to say anything. He was just so determined."
The Cowboys needed help to win this game against a fierce Bucs team. They needed officials to initially botch the aforementioned Romo fumble in the third quarter, blowing the whistle to rule the quarterback down and negate what would have been a sure touchdown on the recovery by cornerback Eric Wright. (After a Greg Schiano challenge, it was in fact ruled a fumble, but the Bucs couldn't score any points on the ensuing possession.) The Cowboys needed their defense to stand tall and hold Tampa Bay to only three conversions on 15 third downs and yield just seven points off three Dallas turnovers.
But the Cowboys toughed it out and won ugly, following an embarrassing, 27-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. In their home opener, they had to have it.
And Romo thrived as the symbol, praising his team's "ability to grind it out on the offensive side when nothing was easy." No one grinded harder than he did.
"These are the kind of wins you have to have," Romo said. "We have played better on offense before and have lost football games. We have played better as a team -- and sometimes with the way that it looks -- and have lost games. To win the game the way that we did today really excites me and gives us a chance moving forward."
What else is going on? Here is a rundown:
During one of my visits to Eden Prairie, Minn., this spring, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman described the research he had done on young quarterbacks. He detailed Christian Ponder's rookie year, putting into context Ponder's 54.3 percent completion percentage while acknowledging his 70.1 passer rating over the last 11 games. In what appeared to be an optimistic statement, Spielman compared Ponder's rookie campaign to those of Eli Manning and Jay Cutler.
"It just kind of gives you an indication of what to expect," Spielman said this spring. "You're trying to predict things. That presence about him is totally different from where he was a rookie."
Ponder's play through three games is proving Spielman's research correct. He is currently second in the NFL in completion percentage at 70.1, with a passer rating of 104.9. He hasn't thrown an interception and his team jumped out to a surprising 2-1 start by stunning the powerhouse San Francisco 49ers 24-13 on Sunday.
In one of the game's more spectacular highlights, Ponder found tight end Kyle Rudolph on a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass, one made possible by the Vikes' faith in their quarterback. They know the former 12th overall pick will be on the money.
The Vikings are insanely young, and they will face growing pains this year. But they have a leader to grow old with.
Philly's offensive woes
Say this for the Philadelphia Eagles: When they earned two hard-fought wins to open their season -- despite committing nine turnovers -- they knew this was coming. They celebrated both wins, were happy with them, but not too happy. As guard Evan Mathis said a week ago, "We shot ourselves in the foot a lot. We have good potential, but we need to clean up those mistakes."
This week, Philly couldn't overcome. Three more turnovers led to an early deficit, and eventually a stunning 27-6 loss to the upstart Arizona Cardinals. Making matters more painful: Michael Vick was sacked five times, and one of his fumbles was returned 93 yards for a score that made it a 24-0 game at half.
The Eagles' offensive issues have reached a critical mass, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Some falls on Vick, whose athleticism curses him with the propensity to hold the ball too long, as he feels he can always make a play. Some of it goes to a leaky offensive line that has lost some firepower. And part of it goes to coaching, for not improving Vick's pocket awareness or imploring him to unload quicker.
In reality, the Eagles needed a loss like this. It's time to take Vick's issues in the pocket seriously, because he has it in him to improve.
Moss being Moss
The San Francisco 49ers signed Randy Moss to try and squeeze one more year out of a probable Hall of Fame career, adding a deep threat to a growing list of weapons for quarterback Alex Smith. Yet, while Moss was targeted six times in San Francisco's loss to the Vikings, Moss did find himself on the sideline for most of the fourth quarter. At one point, he was reportedly simply sitting alone.
After the game, while Moss did answer questions, his response to any queries about his playing time was, "Next question." For his part, Smith said, "We left too much out there," noting how he missed Moss in the end zone on one play.
Some players need to be treated differently. Moss, especially at this point in his career when he's sensitive about still being able to thrive at age 35, is one of them. If the 49ers are going to limit his playing time, he must know why. Otherwise, scenes of him sitting alone on the bench can dominate a week of coverage and serve as a distraction.
If the 49ers don't need him, they can move on. But Moss has value. San Francisco must bring it out by making sure to keep him upbeat and interested. Sorry, not all players are treated the same.
Some rapid-fire takes:
» With two lopsided losses to start the season, it was easy to assume the Tennessee Titans were a long way off from competing on a weekly basis. But the way they beat the Detroit Lions makes me think Tennessee is actually pretty close. Some improved blocking on the offensive line -- where they've struggled with injuries -- would give running back Chris Johnson some room and make this offense pretty complete. They can score.
» If I were a coach, I'd think twice before icing a kicker. It never works, and it could backfire like it did for Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. Ruining a blocked field goal that would have continued the game, only to pave the way for the New York Jets to make it, is enough to force one's head explode.
» Even with all that offseason animosity lingering in the building, the immediate word from the Jacksonville Jaguars was that Maurice Jones-Drew looked stellar upon returning from a holdout. Well, 177 yards in Sunday's 22-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts proved just that. If he keeps rolling along this way, that new-contract talk could come sooner rather than later.
» The Kansas City Chiefs faced an 18-point, third-quarter deficit to the New Orleans Saints in one of the NFL's most hostile environments. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Kansas City would drop to 0-3, starting off Romeo Crennel's first season with a thud. If ever there was a time to crumble, this was it. Instead, the Chiefs proved, flaws and all, they will play for him. Even when Crennel's faith in them seemed to waiver -- not going for a touchdown in the waning moments of the fourth quarter -- the players believed. That's a skill.
» Speaking of the Saints, are we seeing the residue of quarterback Drew Brees' contract-related sit-out? Maybe all that time during OTAs and mini-camp is meaningful after all. Either way, Brees is ranked 25th among NFL quarterbacks with a 77.0 passer rating. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is 24th. Can't believe I just typed that.
» The Cardinals are 3-0, doing it every which way. Quarterback Kevin Kolb wasn't special, but he made the most of opportunities. Arizona scored on drives of 38 yards and 55 yards, and on a 93-yard fumble return by safety James Sanders. They all count, especially when your "D" forces three fumbles. It's why you are a team.