The Cowboys' season hinges on the performance (and health) of a small number of key players.
On defense, the story of Ware, Hatcher, Lee, and Carter is going to determine the ultimate success of the team more than the rest of the players combined.
On offense, it's Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Dez Bryant, and Demarco Murray.
And Tony Romo is more important than all of them.
No player can do more to bridge the gap from 8-8 to the playoffs.
No player can do more to bridge the gap from playoff also-ran to contender.
No player can do more to bridge the gap from contender to winner.
For better or worse, the team's fate is heavily entwined with Romo's.
You might be rolling your eyes at me now, and that's OK. I can't readily think of a player that inspired a greater split in opinion than Romo. Some people hate him. I love him.
See, the thing about Romo is he's fantastic about 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent sticks out more than it probably should, because it has this bad tendency to happen late in games.
Here's the thing, though: No quarterback is great 100 percent of the time. Tom Brady is probably the best we've had for the past decade, and he's probably great 95 percent of the time.
That five percent is the question. If Romo can find that five percent, the ceiling on this goes up a little bit — and the floor goes up a lot.
(Wait — singularly talented focal point of the team carries his team throughout most of his performance, but occasionally falters due to lack of support, and takes an undue amount of media criticism for it despite an overall great performance? Tony Romo and Yu Darvish should hang out.)
Things are well set up for Romo to have a career year. I won't rehash the off-season discussion about Romo's role in the game planning or the “Payton Manning Time” quote, but the fact does exist that Romo is being asked to take a larger role in the film room, in the coach's meetings, and probably in planning lunches out. It's tough to see how that's a negative, in turns of how Romo will perform.
As well, Dez Bryant looks poised to break out and be the best X Receiver this team has had since that last guy to wear 88 (and not throw that number in the Hall-of-Fame coach's face).
DeMarco Murray looks like the best runner Romo's had since Barber and Felix combined to look like one really good runner.
Jason Witten remains Jason Witten.
There's hope Tyron Smith takes the next step, as well, in terms of matching his performance with his physical skills, and an ever better amount of hope that Travis Frederick and Brian Waters plug the sieve in the middle of the line.
More than that, it seems like the Vulcan mind meld Witten and Romo have always shared has morphed between Dez and Romo. Watch closely; you'll see Romo release a throw to Bryant before Dez makes his cut. Dez is one of the most physically capable and imposing receivers in the NFL; teams will be charged not only with covering that specimen, but having to guess where he's going to go.
It's no guarantee, because this is football and football is unpredictable; but it's a reason for hope.
And, let's be frank, this team hasn't been forthcoming on reasons for hope lately.