Defense will define Dallas

Tony Romo didn't play well Week 17 last season. Will he turn it around in 2013? Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys last went to the playoffs in 2009. They went 11-5 that season, dominated their first playoff game and were knocked out on the road by a Minnesota Vikings team that was, to anybody who watched football that year, capable of playing for a Super Bowl. Because of the Supreme Court ruling in 2006 that declared all Cowboys seasons thereafter must be viewed through the prism of how Tony Romo performed, many view that 2009 season as a successful year because it was played at Peak Romo.

In 2009 the Dallas QB threw for 4,483 yards and 26 TDs, totals that put him in the Pro Bowl and made him a league MVP candidate. But the more important numbers to Romo's closest observers were the scant nine interceptions and 1.6 percent INT rate, the lowest number in either category in any year he has started at least 10 games. Since then, of course, a critic can peg the fact that Dallas hasn't been back to the playoffs on the return of the Romo-coaster.

In 2010 he got hurt and started only six games; in 2011, Dallas started well but got sidetracked in games such as the home loss to Detroit, where the Cowboys blew a 27-3 third-quarter lead with the help of two pick-sixes by Romo. Last season it was more of the same -- the highs of a brilliant Week 1 win over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants on the road, followed the low of two losses in Weeks 16 and 17 that dropped Dallas to another 8-8 season.

It's a QB-driven league, and more than we do with almost any other team we've been trained to view the success and failure of the Cowboys through the success and failure of their QB. The question always seems to be whether the Romo-coaster will steady near a peak. It's about whether he'll become "elite" enough to get them back to where they belong.

But something else happened in 2009, and it's far more instructive about what Dallas needs to contend in 2013.