Tony Romo started nine Week 1 games as a Dallas Cowboy. One of his most exciting season openers came in 2015 with a touchdown pass in the final seconds to beat the Giants. He broke his collarbone the next week and Dallas would ultimately finish that season last in the NFC East with a 4-12 record. The year before? An 0-1 start after an embarrassing first loss to the 49ers. But that team went on to win the division with a 12-4 mark and the top seed in the NFC postseason bracket.
The point is this: Week 1 isn’t a reliable predictor of anything.
That may be a good mantra for those among Cowboys Nation who were ready to write off 2020 as another wasted season after a disappointing opening night loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
During a private videochat this week with Cowboys Wire and two other outlets, Romo held court in his trademark backward ballcap and covered a wide range of topics: Dak Prescott’s contract drama, the hidden ways COVID-19 will affect players across the league, his own (surprising) fantasy football skills, even his return to the Corona Hotline in a new series of televised beer commercials.
Romo on Week 1 overreactions:
Befitting the cool and unflappable attitude he exudes while manning the beachside phone line in those popular ads, Romo warns against reading too much into whether the team wins or loses their first game of the season.
“I’d be very careful for people to base everything on Week 1,” Romo said. “Just every year in the NFL, everybody, before the season starts, is going to be amazing. Everyone’s figured it all out: they all have a plan, everyone has everything great. Every new team has the new coach or the new players, they’ve got the new scheme or done whatever, and everything is going to be great. And then everyone watches Week 1, and from a fan perspective, we all go, ‘They’re not going to be any good. Did you see that? Terrible.’”
The lead analyst for CBS points out that the global pandemic that’s impacted everything else will mean a longer learning curve for teams that are still just now coming together.
“This is a very unique year. These guys have not been been together all offseason. Right now, you’re trying to figure out your own system.”
He was referring to Tom Brady in his first year with the Buccaneers, but it’s easy to swap in Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys and see some parallels that should talk a few Dallas fans off the proverbial ledge after Team Fortyburger failed to show at SoFi Stadium.
“We pretend like they should have this down because they’ve been together for a month. That’s not realistic,” Romo cautioned. “When the bullets start flying and you’re going through real games, that’s when you start to learn what’s really going to hold up and what’s really not. During the preseason, during practices and training camp, you get all this. But during the offseason, you start to learn about your players. When you’re the quarterback, you start to see, ‘This kid can run this route; this kid can’t.’ In training camp, you really have already assessed all of that, so now you’re like, ‘Okay, let’s put it in these situations to see if it works in these situations. In training camp. In preseason. Or scrimmages against other teams.’ There’s been none of that.”
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott readies to take a snap during the first half of an NFL football game Los Angeles Rams Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Romo believes that it typically takes four games for everyone to get on the same page. But he also thinks McCarthy’s willingness to not only retain Kellen Moore as the team’s offensive coordinator but leave his playcalling responsibilities intact should accelerate the usual getting-to-know-you process between new coach and roster.
“With the Cowboys, the verbiage is the same. So the Cowboys are, kind of, the same offense. They’re not going to be behind when it comes to the verbiage,” the 4-time Pro Bowler said. “As long as the verbiage is the same, you know the offense, you know the rules, you know what people are supposed to do. So that part of it isn’t really different. The difference with Mike McCarthy coming in was that he kept that. So he allowed Kellen Moore to kind of do the same thing, because they were successful last year, offensively. The production was where they wanted it. So I think that’s a good thing.
“Now, as a head coach and you’re an offensive guy, if the production isn’t equaling what you think, then you might start to influence it a little bit more. But right now, Mike’s just trying to see how this goes, watching what’s happening with Kellen and the team. I think is trying to put in a couple things that he knows he likes, so Kellen will put that in. But the majority of it’s going to come from Kellen and the offense. And they’re going to be more similar to last year than they would be [with] a new guy and changing everything. If the verbiage was different- because Mike comes from a West Coast background, and that verbiage is very different. But he decided to come in and keep it the same way. And that allows the players to not have to think as much. That, alone, I think will help them early on. If they ever struggle, I think he’ll put his influence on it very quickly as the head coach.”
Romo on adjustments for players during COVID-19:
Of course, COVID-19 didn’t just scrap preseason exhibition games and abbreviate training camp. The worldwide health crisis hasn’t gone anywhere, so the league is having to adjust on the fly, trying to conduct business as usual in times that are anything but. And while Week 1 may have felt like the finish line and a welcome return to normalcy from the vantage point of fans’ rec room sofas, Romo says the players themselves are still in the very early stages of figuring out just how different the 2020 season will be.
“I don’t think they know yet,” Romo explained. “Really, it’s just beginning. When you’re in the NFL, you’re creatures of habit. Everything is set up for you, timewise. A year in advance, you know what you’re doing next August 21st, next September 11th, 12th, 13th. You can map out your entire schedule. The difference now is the timing of everything is just a hair different. What you do with your normal routine is just a hair different. If you’re used to waking up and getting into the facility at a certain time, now that changes. You’ve got to get up a little bit sooner to do the test, do a lot of other things. You decide not to go out to eat with your family on Friday night. Your family comes in town for a home game, you’re used to going out with [your] parents, [your] wife’s parents, your aunts and uncles, everybody, Are you willing to risk that and go to dinner?”
Romo downplays the notion that it will be difficult for players to pump themselves up for games played in vacant or nearly-empty stadiums. The Cowboys and Rams conducted their Week 1 contest without fans in attendance in Los Angeles; Dallas returns home to host Atlanta at AT&T Stadium, where estimates suggest a crowd of around 20,000 on Sunday.
Sep 13, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; General overall view of SoFi Stadium before the NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Los Angeles Rams. at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The ex-quarterback doesn’t think it will make much of a difference to the players on the field.
Or, at least, it shouldn’t.
“As far as gameday, people were talking about fans in the stands. Some coaches talk about the energy, stuff like that. I don’t know. If you’re a player, and you’re in the NFL, and you can get hit, or you have to go hit somebody, it’s a fight-or-flight feeling.
“So with or without fans,” he continued, “you’re exposed to that feeling. There’s nerves, and a lot of it is because you can get hurt. Like, right away. You’re going to get hurt, and you’re going to be in a position to be exposed in multiple ways. As far as how we evaluate you on Monday, your coaches are still evaluating everything you do. The fans may add energy and stuff. I know it’s a little bit different when you’re watching it, but as a player, I really believe these guys can’t go into a game and go, ‘Oh, there’s no fans; I just didn’t have it today.’ You’re going to get dominated.
“These guys, their lives are on the line, and someone’s going to come and attack you. And if you’re not bringing it every day?… It’s not like a different sport where it’s just, ‘Well, I didn’t feel the energy.’ If you didn’t feel the energy, there’s a good chance you could get hurt. I think the players are going to go just as hard. They’re going to give just the same effort.”
Romo on Dak’s deal in an evolving NFL:
In 2007, Romo was rewarded with a lucrative six-year contract extension with the Cowboys after just 17 starts. Another big-money six-year pact was reached before the 2013 season. Conversely, Dak Prescott started 54 games under his rookie contract and got a one-year prove-it deal on the franchise tag for the effort.
The will-they-or-won’t-they drama surrounding Prescott and the Cowboys front office’s long-term commitment to him was the rollercoaster ride of the summer. But Romo, who has made a name for himself with his predictive abilities in the broadcast booth, forecasts a happy ending for Prescott and America’s Team.
“I think with Dak, it’s going to be very easy for the Cowboys to get that done. It’s just one of those things.”
One could argue that if locking up Prescott’s services were truly very easy, the Joneses would have checked that box on the to-do list long before it became the lead story on sports reports everywhere. Instead, the Chiefs inked Patrick Mahomes to a groundbreaking contract in July, and the Texans secured Deshaun Watson earlier this month. That likely ensures that Prescott’s paycheck will get even bigger than it would have been had the deal gotten done in the spring.
Aug 19, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and quarterback Tony Romo (9) talk during the pregame warmups against the Miami Dolphins at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
“I think Dak Prescott bet on himself,” Romo posited. “But I don’t think it’s just him. I think a lot of quarterbacks are doing that right now. The seven-year, eight-year contracts are probably going away. And what’s happening is, teams are having to adjust. That always helps the salary cap when you can have a guy who you know is going to be there a long time because you can always roll the money back to next year, you can always push it back, and that position, you always knew he’d be there…
“So Dak bet on himself. And I think in a lot of ways, that’s what a lot of people are doing, just betting on themselves and saying they know they’re unique and they have the ability to help a football team win.”
“I understand both sides,” Romo offered. “I understand Dak’s side, because he’s right. And the Cowboys are right. There is no perfect answer here. It’s hard because the salary cap changes each year… It’s just a different time right now where quarterbacks are understanding their leverage, and teams are having to adjust what they’re doing. I think it will still get done. It’s obviously not ideal for anyone, but I think it will get done.”
The Cowboys’ career leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns believes that the league is currently in the middle of a rare quarterback renaissance. And that is contributing to the delay in a deal for the man trying to get there.
“It’s a different time. Quarterbacks have always been something that has driven the league. You want great quarterbacks, and the more great quarterbacks you have, the league is better off. It’s just rare when you get the older quarterbacks who are finishing up their careers who are really good, and you get a bunch of young quarterbacks, and they’re all kind of mixed in; these guys aren’t way better. For a long time, it was like, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; they’re just so much better. Then you throw in Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees: there’s the four, and then there’s everybody else who’s trying to knock on the door. There might be a guy or two, but there’s never been this much depth.”
Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson greet each other at midfield after their NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 24, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Despite proclamations from the top that Prescott is the future of the franchise, passer depth across the league and in the college ranks may be a small part of what’s kept the Cowboys ownership from wedding themselves to their 2016 fourth-round find.
But Romo also thinks the current QB boom helps the truly special signal-callers prove their worth when it comes time to re-negotiate.
“There are so many guys that have the ability to lead their team to a championship, if their team is in a position to really win,” he said. “Saying all of that, yes, I know about the contract stuff. I’ve been through it before with the Cowboys. Quarterbacks now: it’s nothing more than they’re understanding their position in the sport. And they’re starting to get to a point where they understand the influence they have on the organization and, really, their contribution to the football team and what that means.”
The analyst with the reputation for breaking down hot reads and blitz packages so that the casual fan can grasp complex football strategies managed to do the same for the financial side of the game, using the NBA to draw an easy-to-comprehend analogy.
“In basketball, it’s been happening for a while now,” said Romo. “LeBron James, years back, decided to, instead of taking this seven-year or long-term guarantee, he decided to say, ‘I’m going to go two years.’ Because who’s not going to want LeBron James in two years? So it’s a position where you have the ability to kind of control your environment, I guess you could say. But, more than that, you can control your situation.
“And quarterbacks are starting to do the same thing basketball players have been doing, a little bit. Instead of taking the long-term guarantee, they’re starting to do less years. Quarterbacks forever took the guarantee just in case they were injured. What you’re finding is they’re not doing that near as much anymore, because they’re rare. Really good quarterbacks are rare. And if you’re rare, you can trust that someone’s going to like you enough to make you their quarterback, and multiple people will want you, because it’s hard to have a really good quarterback in the National Football League.”
Romo on 2020’s expanded postseason format:
It may be hard to have a really good passer in the NFL, but starting this season, it just got a little bit easier to make it to the big dance. Seven teams from each conference will now receive a playoff berth, up from six.
Detractors say it runs the risk of watering down the level of postseason play. Romo does not agree. Rather than assume a No. 7 seed must be a mediocre squad who backed into their undeserved wild card slot, the gritty underdog hero of so many improbable Cowboys comebacks instead sees the opportunity for a late-blooming team to make an exciting run.
Feb 3, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Vince Lombardi Trophy is handed off after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
“Think about that team that makes it, that extra team who gets in,” Romo imagined. “What happens if your starting quarterback is Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes? And now all of a sudden, that team sneaks into the playoffs and he gets healthy in Week 16 or 17. And that team snuck in. Do you want to play that team? They just became a very formidable opponent.
“If you say it dilutes it, I would say it depends on who you’re talking about… I don’t think it dilutes it at all. The more playoff football games you have, it’s better. And more people are going to watch. And it just makes more money for the players, the owners, everybody else, your coaches. That just helps the NFL.”
Romo on his own fantasy football prowess:
Of course, Romo’s role within the NFL is now one of a lead analyst for his network’s marquee game of the week. That’s his official role, anyway. Unofficially, he’s the all-knowing (and wise-cracking) brains behind the Corona Hotline, the beermaker’s imaginary help desk where Romo assists everyday fans with their fantasy football dilemmas.
The 2020 ad campaign gives real-life viewers the chance to call in and instantly win a Corona-branded championship trophy for their league. And one lucky grand prize winner will get a four-day, three-night beach vacation for up to 11 guests for the purposes of holding their 2021 fantasy draft in style.
But fans looking to put Romo’s keen football insight to use on their fantasy squad may want to reconsider. As brilliant a mind as Romo is with the actual Xs and Os, he admits that his fantasy expertise is only a fictional construct for the Corona beach ads.
With permission from Corona
“I’m actually in a fantasy football league with [CBS broadcast partner] Jim Nantz,” Romo explained. “He’s the head; he spearheads our team. They had the draft last week. So we talked before the draft, and he asks some questions. And I’m like, ‘Why don’t we just take this guy? I think this is going to be great.’ And he goes, ‘Uh, they’re saved on [someone else’s] team.’ And I’m like, ‘What does that mean? Saved?’ He’s like, ‘Well, each person gets to save two people from the year before.’ And I’m like, ‘How many years do they get to save them?’ He says, ‘Two years.’ I’m like, ‘Why two years? Is it six years? One year? How do you even come up with these rules? It’s endless, the rules they have. So I’m like, “Well, who’s the top ten picks?’ And the top ten picks are not even a part of the top 20, 30 guys because 15 teams have the top 30 guys saved. And there’s one guy who slipped through the cracks, maybe. And if you don’t have the number one pick, then you don’t get that guy. And I’m like, ‘This is much harder than I thought.’”
Besides apparently being new to the concept of a keeper league, Romo went on to confess that he struggled with the notion of point-per-reception play.
“I didn’t realize… PPR league: do you guys know what that means? I’m always like, ‘He’s going to run the football great.’ [Jim] is like, ‘Oh, that’s great. But he doesn’t catch the ball.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, well…’
“‘That matters more than running.’
“‘Then why aren’t we drafting only the best pass-catchers in the league?’
“‘Oh, well, rushing matters. Just not as much. Touchdowns matter [in] rushing.’
“And I’m like, ‘I don’t know the rules to this whole thing. I can’t even help you.’ It’s actually really hard for me to help. I’m not that smart in fantasy football. Unless you want to call the Corona Hotline.”
You can follow Todd on Twitter @ToddBrock24f7.