Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tony Romo has quickly emerged as an elite quarterback and team leader for the Dallas Cowboys

By Bob Buttitta (Contact)

Talk about climbing the proverbial corporate ladder.

Two years ago, Tony Romo was an obscure backup quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys when they arrived up in Oxnard for their 2006 training camp.

Since then, Romo has replaced Drew Bledsoe as the team's starting quarterback, has been voted to the Pro Bowl twice, has set team records for passing yards and touchdowns in a season and has been romantically involved with country singer Carrie Underwood and pop star Jessica Simpson, with whom he is currently dating.

"It's a different world for him, and I think it should be," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "And I think that we're going to be a benefactor of that."

The Cowboys are favored to win the NFC title this season and go to the Super Bowl, where they have not been since 1995. Romo was just 15 years old then.

In order to accomplish that goal, the Cowboys will need Romo to continue building on the progress he's made over the last two seasons, which won't be an easy task considering how far the young signalcaller has come.

In his first full season in 2007, Romo passed for 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns and was the NFC's top-ranked passer with a rating of 97.4.

Beyond the statistics, Romo became the team's undisputed leader and a player even seasoned veterans like Terrell Owens rallied around.

Linebacker Bradie James, who came in as a rookie with Romo, enjoys watching the quarterback do to other teams what he's done on the practice field since he was running the scout team.

"He had been tearing us up since we've been here," said James, who admits he never imagined Romo would have this much success. "I don't think anybody would have. That's why it's been such a phenomenon."

The person least impressed by Romo's success is Romo, who said despite all his accomplishments and fame he feels no different than he did when he was fighting for a spot on the Cowboys roster in 2003.

"There is always a little nostalgia in some ways about the process and what it took to get where you are. It's funny, you still have a long way to go," Romo said. "I'm trying to play. I'm trying to get on the field and get better. ... The exciting thing really about the game is just improvement.

"I've had some success, but I think once you think you've arrived or reached your potential, you're destined to not go much farther. One thing I've been able to do in my career is look at myself from a realistic point of view, all right, what do I need to do to get better, what do I need to do to improve."

While Romo is the 10th starting quarterback for the Cowboys since Troy Aikman retired in 2000, it's evident that Jones and everyone else within the organization believe he's the real deal.

Last October, Dallas signed Romo to a $67.5 million contract. Since that point Jones has spent another $70 million to lock up other key players on the roster.

Jones admits many of the signings were a result of having a large amount of faith in Romo.

"There's no question that having a competitive quarterback does inspire you if you're in my shoes and you're trying to make those decisions," Jones said. "The closer you feel like you're getting (to a Super Bowl contender), then the more you're motivated to go ahead and extend."

While his off-the-field exploits have garnered him plenty of attention, those close to Romo say he's still the same guy he was when he arrived as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Illinois.

"His personality is very much the same," said tight end Jason Witten. "Obviously his life's changed 100 percent, but he's the same guy. A little bit more guarded maybe, but for the most part, he's the same guy."

While Romo and the team have had plenty of success since he took over as the starter midway through the 2006 season, the Cowboys have failed to win a playoff game in either of those seasons.

After going 13-3 and earning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last year, the Cowboys were upset in the first round by the New York Giants. Romo was criticized for not being able to rally his team.

Romo believes the disappointment of a year ago should help him and the team in their quest this season.

"You go into each season thinking that you can. You just have to take it one step at a time," Romo said. "We realize after not getting it done last year, you can't look to the playoffs. It's not about the playoffs right now; it's about today.

"It's about improving out here right now. So when the first game comes, we are ready. It's just a stepping stone each day to get yourself in position to be better for the next day."

Romo believes he and his offensive teammates can improve on last season's record-setting performance.

Nearly every starter is back, and even though the Cowboys lost running back Julius Jones, rookie Felix Jones has been impressive early in camp and looks like he will be able to pick up the slack.

"We were very productive last year from a statistical standpoint, but we are very balanced in our attack," Romo said. "We have certain guys who give us a chance to compete every day.

"When we step out there, we have the feeling we should put the ball in the end zone consistently. I like to think each time we get the ball we have a dangerous offense."

While he's more used to the spotlight than he was a year ago, Romo insists that once he's done playing, no one will remember him or even care what he's doing. When he's reminded people still talk about Aikman and Roger Staubach, Romo is quick to respond they were little better quarterbacks.

"I'm gonna live hopefully another 30 or 40 years, and for five of those years, people will talk, but after that, no one is going to say anything" Romo said.

"I honestly don't think I'm that important anyway. I think when I'm definitely done playing, you guys won't care at all."

If he and the Cowboys win the Super Bowl in the next few years, there will be plenty of Cowboys fans who care for a long time.