- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Dallas Cowboys began this season cavorting before HBO cameras as the consensus pick to win the Super Bowl. On Sunday, the Cowboys begin a new episode - The Return of Romo - they just hope can save their tumultuous season.

Quarterback Tony Romo and his broken right pinkie rejoin the Cowboys’ lineup after a five-week span in which pretty much everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for a team many predicted would take home the Lombardi Trophy:

- Pro Bowl cornerback Terence Newman underwent surgery Oct. 11 for an abdominal strain and has missed five straight games.

- The Cowboys suffered a wild, heartbreaking loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 12 on a blocked punt in overtime.

- Romo broke the pinkie on his throwing hand against the Cardinals and missed the next three games.

- Two days later, cornerback Adam Jones was suspended for at least four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the result of an alcohol-related altercation with a bodyguard the team had hired to keep him out of trouble.

- The high-scoring offense crashed without Romo, averaging 11.3 points in three games with backups Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger.

- The Cowboys suffered an embarrassing blowout loss to the hapless St. Louis Rams and a beating from the New York Giants before the bye week mercifully gave them a break.

“Right now, we stink all across the board,” receiver Patrick Crayton said after the 35-14 whipping the Giants laid on the Cowboys on Nov. 2 - a defeat that gave the club one more loss at midseason than it had all of last year.

Linebacker Bradie James located the problem a little more precisely.

“When you go [to the Meadowlands] with a backup and another backup, you don’t really give yourself too much chance to win,” James said. “They ran the ball. They controlled the clock on us. And our offense turned the ball over, so we were on the field a whole lot.”

Re-enter Romo - and the Cowboys’ hope of salvaging their season.

The quarterback, along with Newman and guard Kyle Kosier, returns to the lineup Sunday for the Cowboys’ critical NFC East rematch with the Washington Redskins.

“It was a good time to regenerate and get going again,” said coach Wade Phillips, whose job could be in jeopardy despite the 18-8 record he has compiled in Dallas.

James said the locker room at Valley Ranch had more energy this week. And yet …

“We don’t know what to expect,” James said. “[Romo’s] been out for a little while. Hopefully, it will give us a spark to where we can play like we [should]. We play to give our offense the ball, and with him being out there we have a better chance of being successful. If the team can come together through this stuff that we’ve gone through, I’d rather be coming together now then to be dwindling and falling off toward the end.”

Such was the case last season.

The Cowboys entered December with an 11-1 record, the lone loss coming at the hands of the unbeaten New England Patriots. But they then narrowly beat the sinking Detroit Lions, looked listless in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Redskins, and dropped their playoff opener to the eventual champion Giants.

This season, the Cowboys looked strong on offense at the start, averaging 32 points and 440 yards a game en route to a 3-0 record.

The defense, however, has been off. The Cowboys allowed 24 points and 319 yards a game in Weeks 2 through 5 even while Romo was at quarterback.

“We can play better defensively,” said Phillips, who took the defensive playcalling duties away from coordinator Brian Stewart after the Week 7 loss to the Rams.

Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache expects the Dallas offense, which added top receiver Roy Williams from the Lions before the Rams game, to pick up where it left off before Romo got hurt.

“It’s like an automobile getting its engine back,” Blache said.

Still, getting to the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 1 will be difficult.

The Cowboys have gone 11 seasons without a playoff victory - longer than any NFC team other than the lowly Lions - and they now trail the Giants, Redskins, Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons in the conference playoff chase.

The Cowboys, Eagles, Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings all have 5-4 records. Four of the Cowboys’ next six opponents - the Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Giants and Baltimore Ravens - have better records.

So there’s a good chance the Super Bowl favorites won’t even make the playoffs. But the Cowboys also know the past three titles were won by teams - the 2005 Steelers, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the Giants of last season - that didn’t look like world-beaters in November.

“We have a chance to control our own destiny,” James said. “If we go out there and play our best and play as hard as we can, the results will be there.”

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