By Jim Corbett, USA TODAY
Terrell Owens couldn't watch the New York Giants' Super Bowl XLII sacking of MVP quarterback Tom Brady and his previously unbeaten New England Patriots.
Rather than exacerbate the ache of what might have been after the eventual champions dealt the NFC's top-seeded Cowboys a 21-17 divisional knockout, T.O. got away Super Bowl night to ease the pain of a second consecutive one-and-done postseason flameout.
"I treated myself to a movie," Owens revealed at the Pro Bowl. "I watched The Bucket List.
"Good movie. Two of the best actors ever (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman). A must see.
"It was a tear-jerker."
Owens has his own experience with tear-jerkers beyond the aforementioned comedy about two terminally ill old guys who go on a life-affirming road trip to fulfill as many dreams as possible before they kick the bucket.
The wrenching ending to a 13-3 season left Owens sobbing and deflecting insinuations that quarterback Tony Romo's Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, bye-week getaway with pop star girlfriend Jessica Simpson and teammate Jason Witten and his wife played a role.
"You guys can point the finger at him, you can talk about the vacation, and if you do that, it's really unfair," an emotional Owens told reporters, referring to Romo. "That's my teammate. That's my quarterback. … And if you guys do that, that's unfair. We lost as a team."
Owens explained in Honolulu why he pulled a Dick Vermeil.
"Tony's a good friend," Owens says. "From Day One when he wasn't a starter, we established a good bond. And we talked about getting to the Super Bowl."
Care to guess what's atop T.O.'s bucket list?
"A Super Bowl title," he smiles.
Suffice it to say, winning Super Bowl XLIII is foremost on nearly every Cowboys' 2008 to-do list.
From T.O. and Romo to owner Jerry Jones, coach Wade Phillips and creative offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who declined head coaching interest from the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, America's Team is rededicated to raising a record sixth Lombardi Trophy.
Everything is big in Texas. But after adding suspended cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, first-round running back Felix Jones and former Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas to a roster studded with 13 Pro Bowlers, expectations are bigger than at any time since the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s.
"The pieces are definitely there to go ahead and finish the way we want to," linebacker Greg Ellis says.
They are considered early favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLIII.
"They're so close," CBS analyst Boomer Esiason says. "The Cowboys, Seattle and the Giants should be the best three teams in the NFC."
Romo the best fit so far for Owens
The Owens-Romo bond is the best the star receiver has enjoyed with a quarterback; he took shots at Jeff Garcia in with the San Francisco 49ers and Donovan McNabb with the Philadelphia Eagles.
His friendship with Romo is another reason people are compelled to peer behind the Cowboys' curtain.
With their mix of star power, swagger and potentially combustible character risks, the Cowboys are not just America's Team. This summer, they will be HBO's poster 'Boys, starring in the cable network's training camp reality series, Hard Knocks.
From their flamboyant receiver to their fun-loving quarterback and his singer/actress girlfriend to the talented and troubled "Pacman" Jones and rehabilitating defensive tackle Tank Johnson, America's Team is a producer's dream.
"It's fair to say this should go through the roof," HBO Sports president Ross Greenburg says of ratings.
Hardest hurdle might be a more appropriate title considering the Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since 1996.
Will a high-profile team finally play up to its potential?
"There's a lot of extra motivation," Owens says.
Sealing the deal is one reason Garrett returned. Another is because his owner made Garrett the league's highest-paid assistant at $3 million a year. His first season as a play-caller Dallas averaged 28.4 points, second to the Patriots.
"I just have a really fond feeling for what's happening," Garrett says. "It's what we can accomplish.
"I work for a great owner, with a great head coach and assistant coaches. And when you have leaders like Tony Romo, T.O. and Jason Witten, when your best players set the tempo for what your work ethic is, you really have a chance."
The rising coaching star was Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman's backup on two Super Bowl winners.
"All of our star players were so committed and worked so hard it became easy for the rest of us to follow that example," Garrett says.
"We have the same kind of things in place with our marquee guys."
Romo is the marquee Cowboy
The 28-year-old from Burlington, Wis., is a third generation Mexican-American on his father Ramiro's side. His rise from 2003 undrafted free agent to face of America's Team is testament to the American dream.
"He's done it the way you really want to see it done, and that's the hard way," Jerry Jones said before signing Romo to a $67.5 million extension in October.
But twice with his team's Super Bowl dream on the line, Romo fell hard. His 18-for-36, one-touchdown, one-interception passing against the Giants wasn't exactly a screen-saver moment. His fourth-and-the-season pass was intercepted in the end zone.
The previous January against the Seattle Seahawks, Romo mishandled the snap for a potential game-winning field goal and was tackled a yard short of the goal line in a 21-20 Seahawks wild-card win.
So, yeah, Romo and his teammates are driven to follow the Giants' lead.
"You wouldn't be competitive if that loss didn't affect you for a while," Romo says. "At the same time, I've always been a guy who looked to take the next step and figure out what I have to do better.
"If we're two plays better, we're hopefully in the Giants' situation."
Romo has only been the starter for a season and a half and is 19-9.
Beneath his baseball-cap-on-backwards, unassuming personality is a stone-cold competitor teammates rally around.
Romo has the same kind of quiet fire that drove Super Bowl XLII MVP Eli Manning to answer his critics with a postseason epiphany in his fourth season.
"You can never take for granted what going through these experiences does for you as a team and an individual, as far as learning and getting better," Romo says.
"I'd like to think the next time we're in those playoff situations, we're going to succeed."
This time last year, the question dogging Romo was how he would recover from "The Botch."
He rebounded all right, setting franchise records for touchdown passes (36) and passing yards (4,211).
Garrett was a huge catalyst.
"He's been a quarterback before and understands what goes through your brain," Romo says. "He gets that the rhythm of the game is very important … take two, three steps, throw it in rhythm. We worked a lot on footwork. It was definitely key to my development."
When Jerry Jones retained Garrett at $3 million, it was an investment in a bigger payoff.
"Jason was so meaningful to Tony's progress," Jones says. "Tony really hasn't had the same guy working with him two years in a row. Not to take anything away from Jason's potential as a head coach, but that's how meaningful it was for him to return.
"Frankly, that's just part of my plan to make Romo as good as he can be as quick as he can be."
Asked if he's surprised Romo is more remembered for the trip to Mexico than for throwing 36 touchdowns, Aikman says: "No, I'm not surprised. Do I think it impacted his performance against the Giants? Absolutely not.
"When he went to Cabo, he opened himself up to scrutiny …
"We all know perception is perception. There are times you do have to make decisions based on perceptions, or else you have to accept whatever criticism comes."
Romo also caught heat when Simpson showed up in her pink and white No. 9 Cowboys jersey at Texas Stadium for a 10-6, Dec. 16 loss against Philadelphia.
Romo shares something in common with Brady, last year's league MVP: the intense news media scrutiny a star quarterback attracts by dating a celebrity.
Fox analyst Howie Long has a phrase for the relentless paparazzi blitz Brady, Romo and other quarterbacks such as Arizona's Matt Leinart face in this time of camera cellphones and celebrity websites.
Long calls their lives constantly in the spotlight, The Truman Show, referring to the 1998 movie starring Jim Carrey, whose character's life became an unwitting 24/7 reality show.
Still, Witten felt bad for his good friend.
"I didn't take any flak, and I went on the same trip," says the franchise record-setting tight end, who had 96 catches. "The best thing Tony could do was get away, get his mind off football and focus on the next few weeks when we got back.
"Tony prepares really hard, just like Tom Brady does. To catch that flak was really undeserving."
Even President Bush couldn't resist, when he cracked at the White House ceremony honoring the Giants, "We're going to send Jessica Simpson to the Democrat National Convention."
Romo shrugs off the Cabo criticism. "I thought that was better than going to Las Vegas and drinking," he smiles. "I don't fault people because I'm sure if I was in that position, I would see and read things and go, 'Oh, what are they doing?'
"Nobody's going to remember me in five or 10 years anyway. I'm OK with it."
Thing is, the Cowboys have invited more potential distractions after Jones traded for "Pacman" Jones. The former Tennessee Titans cornerback seeks reinstatement from commissioner Roger Goodell after his indefinite suspension for multiple violations of the league's player-conduct policy.
Owens recently made his sitcom debut on the MyNetworkTV show Under One Roof, playing the long-lost brother to Flavor Flav, the show's star.
Romo got Simon Cowell-ish reviews from the Wrigley Field crowd for his off-key, Take Me Out to the Ball Game during the seventh-inning stretch of a recent Chicago Cubs game. Maybe he should have let Simpson handle that one.
After Romo failed to qualify for the U.S. Open golf tournament, some wondered if he was spreading himself too thin.
But his mentor is not concerned.
"He's dedicated and wants to get better," Garrett says. "Tony wants this team to be great.
"He's been a really good example for the rest of the group that way.
"It all starts with the work ethic you have. Tom Brady is the greatest example of that with what he's been able to do.
"We're trying to get to that level. And Tony's approaching it the right way."
Wide receiver Patrick Clayton wondered if a team that went 1-3 down the stretch "got a little complacent." Eleven penalties worth 84 yards in the playoff loss to the Giants could be an indicator.
Owens and Terry Glenn were hobbled and, after rushing for 101 first-half yards, running back Marion Barber gained just 28 second-half yards.
The Giants' run to the championship re-emphasized the importance of getting hot late.
"We didn't finish the way we had hoped," Romo says. "But the great thing about sports is you usually have another year.
"We're going to keep trying to realize our goal of winning the Super Bowl.
"It'll be fun trying to win it this season."
With all those cameras, potential distractions and the Giants motivated to repeat, it figures to be much harder as well.