He came up with only one answer. Gurode has played 45 regular-season games at Texas Stadium, but this was his first postseason game there, and he was taken aback by the change in acoustics produced by the playoff crowd. From the beginning, as Gurode called out blocking assignments to his linemates, he was straining to pick up Romo's cadence. Anytime the center can't hear the quarterback clearly, the offense can't start as one. Gurode motioned for the crowd, buzzing over their team's first home playoff game in nine years, to quiet down. But the noise only grew.
"It was the strangest thing," Gurode says. "There was this really loud echo in the stadium that day. There were times in the game I couldn't hear at all. When that happens, the snap is a split-second late. It's not a penalty, but everything is a little bit off."
Of course, the Giants made a lot of good teams appear out of whack last season. Trailing by four points in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys acted like they were down 21. Romo tried to force passes downfield, holding the ball a second longer than usual and giving the Giants more time to come get him. They obliged, blitzing up the middle with linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell, a preview of the mayhem the Patriots would face three weeks later.
"Romo hadn't seen that kind of pressure all year," says Dallas linebacker Bradie James. "It was a different kind of intensity."
In the postmortem, blame for the defeat was predictably placed on Romo, for going to Mexico with Jessica Simpson during the Cowboys' bye week; on coach Wade Phillips, for letting Romo go to Mexico with Jessica Simpson; and on wide receiver Terrell Owens, for defending Romo's decision to go to Mexico with Jessica Simpson. But criticism was also leveled at the offensive line, a group that is not used to getting much attention—not with Romo, T.O., Tank Johnson, Jerry Jones and now Adam Jones around.
WHEN JERRRY JONES returned from the Super Bowl, and the awkward encounter with Strahan, he had decisions to make about his line. He could let Adams walk as a free agent and slide Davis from right guard to left tackle. But on Feb. 28, the day before the start of free agency, Jones signed Adams to a six-year, $43 million extension, keeping the unit intact. "I think our offensive line is the strength of our team," Jones says.
That's quite a statement, considering who he has at quarterback, at receiver, on the defensive line and in the secondary. But Hudson Houck, the Cowboys' new offensive line coach, believes this group can stack up against the one in the early '90s. And Houck should know. He was the Dallas line coach from 1993 through 2001, when Nate Newton, Erik Williams and Larry Allen were scattering bodies en route to Super Bowls.
While some NFL teams have trended in recent years toward leaner, quicker lines, the Cowboys have long opted for beef. There is a reason, beyond the intimidation factor. Because Dallas traditionally employs drop-back quarterbacks, and opposing teams try to push the Cowboys guards backward to collapse the pocket, it helps to have a 350-pound guard who is about as hard to move as a cement truck.
The strategy is tested against the Giants. Dallas and New York are a genuine matchup of size versus speed, with Romo in the middle hoping size wins out. After Houck was hired in January, he watched tape of the playoff loss but did not share his observations with the players. "I won't mention it to them because I don't have to," Houck says. "They know. They don't talk about it. But they are thinking about it all the time."
THE COWBOYS line is extraordinarily talented and close-knit. Of the five starters, four were first- or second-round draft picks. But nothing came easily. Adams, who is partially deaf in his right ear, has a tendency to false start. Gurode switched from center to guard and back to center. Davis, drafted at No. 2 by the Cardinals in 2001, did not realize his potential until he arrived in Dallas last season and switched from tackle back to guard.