Romo has grown into leader for Cowboys

OXNARD, Calif. — It was one of the most surreal days in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. And it indirectly served as the launching pad for Tony Romo to become the starting quarterback.

On the morning of Aug. 4, 2004, no one could figure out why starting quarterback Quincy Carter wasn’t on the practice field. Still in his pajamas, he’d been pulled from his hotel room earlier that morning to be informed of his release after failing a drug test. Vinny Testaverde took over as starting quarterback and he was backed up by Drew Henson, whom the Cowboys paid a $3 million signing bonus.

Romo had shown flashes of the improvisational skills that would become his calling card, but some of that drove head coach Bill Parcells crazy. The Cowboys would not have kept four quarterbacks on the roster, so in a lot of ways Carter’s departure provided the opening Romo desperately needed leading up to the ’04 season.

Now, it’s easy to forget about Romo’s humble beginnings with the Cowboys. He has become one of the most recognizable and polarizing players in the league. Based on where he came from as an undrafted free agent out of Division II Eastern Illinois, Romo has been an unqualified success. But all the gaudy numbers and headlines have been undermined by his lack of success in the postseason.

His failures tend to happen on an epic scale (see last season’s losses to the Jets and Lions), but he’s still the Cowboys’ best hope of getting back to the Super Bowl. Over the past two years, he has become more and more comfortable dealing with all the pressure and criticism that comes with playing quarterback for the Cowboys. He seemed to grow in stature with his teammates during last year’s lockout because he organized and ran all the practices. And in this camp, there are hardly any signs of the laid-back Romo that took the league by storm six games into the 2006 season.

He’s more exacting during team drills, and he has no problem jumping on his teammates when they make a mistake. Fans have longed for Romo to show more emotion when things go poorly, and it appears that’s happening. Romo has subscribed to Jason Witten’s “shut up and play” mantra so far in camp.

While other players linger following practice to visit with reporters, the Cowboys quarterback has quickly exited the field. He’s been strictly business in this camp. His coaches have been praising his work ethic for years, but they admit he’s ramped things up even more heading into this season. As a result, he’ll be rewarded with even more responsibility this season.

“We’re going to give him more freedom to do things at the line of scrimmage this season,” quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson told on Tuesday. “He’s always had some options, but he’s earned the right to do more.”

If that gives you a queasy feeling to hear that Romo will have more freedom than ever, you’re probably not alone. He had perhaps his best overall season in the league (31 TDs, 10 INTs) in 2011, but he made back-breaking mistakes in those losses to the Jets and Lions. Wilson, who has been on the Cowboys staff since 2007, and Garrett have tried to convince Romo over the years that it’s OK to punt at times. They’ve never wanted to discourage him from using his remarkable improv skills, but they want him to be more selective with those moments.

“His competitiveness is a double-edged sword as much as anyone I’ve ever been around,” said Wilson. “We’ve tried to get him to only take the high-risk throw when it’s absolutely necessary. That’s where the fine line is really drawn. He can cover a lot of warts with his ability to do things when things break down. But he needs to do those things at the proper time.”

Wilson agrees that Romo has become more demonstrative with his teammates. What drives the quarterback nuts is when a young wide receiver or offensive lineman makes repetitive mistakes. But once he shouts at them for a few moments, he normally calls them over and tries to explain what they did wrong.  

Garrett and Romo have grown on the job together. During his infamous news conference following the 44-6 loss to the Eagles at the end of the ’08 season, Romo hinted that Garrett, then the team’s offensive coordinator, didn’t have the offense properly prepared. But the Cowboys broke through and won a playoff game the following season and Garrett and Romo now seem to have a genuine respect for each other.

The Cowboys head coach marveled earlier this week at how different Romo looks dropping back to pass from when they started working together in ’07. Garrett has said he believes Romo is one of the top quarterbacks in the league, but he wouldn’t bite when I asked for a ranking Tuesday.

“There’s a restaurant up there in Montecito called Lucky’s,” Garrett said. “You should go up to Lucky’s, have a couple of beverages and you guys figure out if he’s a top-five quarterback.”

Garrett knows that his coaching future is largely in the hands of Romo, and he seems comfortable with that. The quarterback has already far exceeded the expectations anyone had for him when he was clinging to a roster spot eight years ago.

Just don’t try telling that to a Cowboys fan.