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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Dallas Cowboys' Tony Romo is ready for the next big thing

The quarterback has matured to the point where the Cowboys are thinking about playing the Super Bowl on their turf.

August 26, 2010|Sam Farmer

For Tony Romo, the worst came first.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback began the 2010 season the way he does every season — by studying a blooper reel of his mistakes: fumbles, interceptions, sacks, botched plays.

The video footage was compiled by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who put it on the screen for all three of the team's quarterbacks, a standard exercise for NFL teams looking to work out the kinks in their offense.

"That the first thing we do when we come back together, usually in late March," Garrett said. "Quarterbacks come in and we start with, 'All right, it's going to be a bad day today. Let's look at the turnovers. OK, let's look at the sacks.' You go through all these things and try to figure out the whys of them — what can you do to make these things go away, and still play?

"After three or four days of that, they say, 'Can we watch some explosive passes?'"

Clearly, with Romo, it's sinking in. The Cowboys quarterback, who wraps up training camp in Oxnard on Friday, is coming off his best season, in which he led the franchise to its first postseason victory in 13 years, proved he indeed can play well in December, and significantly reduced his mistakes.

"You get better command of the offense every year," said Romo, heading into his fourth full season as the starting quarterback, all of them with Garrett as offensive coordinator. "Me and Jason, you grow together in the system. That's a good thing."

For all the horror footage Garrett compiled, 2009 was without question a two-thumbs-up season for Romo. He had 13 turnovers in 16 regular-season games — down from 21 in 13 games the year before — and threw for 26 touchdowns and a club-record 4,483 yards.

What's more, Romo was the NFL's only quarterback who took every snap last season. According to STATS LLC, only nine players have accomplished that feat in the past four years. (One of them, coincidentally, is Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna, who took every snap for Detroit in 2006.)

While acknowledging Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are generally considered the league's three best quarterbacks, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Romo is a Super Bowl victory away from joining that group.

"Tony is right there," said Jones, sitting in his makeshift office at the team's camp hotel. "You need that pedigree, but if he has that on his accomplishments, he's at that skill level to be right there with them."

Jones has three rings and, of course, understands how difficult it is to get them. He also believes his Cowboys have a better-than-fighting chance to be the first team to play in a Super Bowl on their home field. Super Bowl XLV will be played in February at the Cowboys' palatial new venue in Arlington, Texas.

"This may be the most exciting start of a season that I've been involved in since we won the first Super Bowl [in the 1992 season]," he said. "But we've got it to do."

So far, Romo is doing his part. Gone are the questions about his focus and judgment — remember him vacationing in Mexico with Jessica Simpson just before a disastrous playoff loss to the New York Giants in January 2008? Also gone is the notion that he's a reckless gunslinger bent on forcing low-percentage passes rather than throwing away the ball or taking a sack. He's a smarter player now with more savvy.

Think of it this way: Romo is a club-champion caliber golfer, one who made a run at qualifying for the U.S. Open and Byron Nelson Championship this off-season. What he has learned in football is, in essence, how to punch out from the trees rather than risk going for the green.

"I think that's what separates him from other quarterbacks, is he can make that hero shot," said tight end Jason Witten, Romo's best friend on the team. "But his ability to learn when to do that and when not to, and trust his teammates and our system, let's us know that he can live for another down."

That's good news for the Cowboys this season because Romo might be flushed out of the pocket more than in previous years. Why? The team has a new, inexperienced left tackle in Doug Free, taking over for longtime fixture Flozell Adams. Free was very capable in filling in at right tackle last season, but no one truly knows how well he will protect the blind side of Romo.

Romo is optimistic about the way things are coming together, even though he has yet to work out his timing with injured rookie receiver Dez Bryant, and right tackle Marc Colombo just had minor knee surgery.

"I think we're going to have a pretty good red-zone offense this year," Romo said this week. "I think we're going to have a good offense, period."

A highly productive season could pay off in February. If so, Romo can sit in that film room with Garrett and the other quarterbacks, and, instead of squirming, follow the advice of former Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens…

And have his popcorn ready.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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