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Dallas: Tony Romo’s Time to Shine?

IRVING, Texas - Two books were on the bench in front of Tony Romo's locker during a busy lunch hour this week.

One was the Dallas Cowboys playbook, including the quarterback's plan for leading the Cowboys into Saturday's make-or-break playoff opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

Next to the playbook was a coffee table-sized book, The Meaning of Life: Wit, Wisdom and Wonder from 65 Extraordinary People. That seemed fitting, considering the rags-to-riches journey of Romo, 29, who grew up in a small town, Burlington, Wis., and wasn't drafted out of Eastern Illinois yet has become the face of the NFL's most popular franchise.

The book about life, with voices from an eclectic cast including Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicholson and Rodney Dangerfield, came courtesy of Cowboys strength coach Joe Juraszek.

"We're always talking about stuff, the importance of different things," Romo said. "There needs to be a balance in life, in what you do. That's part of the process, having an understanding that there are a lot of things that are more important than yourself."

That humble disposition might contrast with the vibe in football-crazy Texas as the Cowboys - who could draw more than 100,000 for a game at their new stadium for the third time this season Saturday - seek their first playoff victory since 1996.

For Romo and coach Wade Phillips - winless in four playoff games as coach in Denver, Buffalo and Dallas - Saturday represents a chance to prove they can win when it counts the most. If the Cowboys beat the Eagles for the third time this season, they could be a serious contender for the Super Bowl. If they lose, a season of hand-wringing will begin in Dallas, with questions about Phillips' future in particular.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones thinks this is his most talented team since the franchise's last Super Bowl championship, after the 1995 season. He says Romo - a seventh-year pro with an improvisational knack for turning busted pass plays into big completions - is having his best season and appears to be better equipped mentally to win, fortified by setbacks in recent years.

Dallas has lost its last two playoff games amid circumstances that cast heat on Romo, who became the starter in 2006 and is 0-2 in the postseason.

In a wild-card playoff game at the Seattle Seahawks in the 2006 season, he mishandled the snap on a potential go-ahead field goal in the closing minutes, the enduring image of Bill Parcells' final game as coach.

Two years ago, when Dallas was upset by the New York Giants in a divisional playoff game, Romo made headlines when it was revealed that he and then-girlfriend Jessica Simpson - along with tight end Jason Witten and his wife - had vacationed in Cabo San Lucas during the team's week off before the game.

"I would never have the confidence I have in him today had he not had his adversity," Jones said as he watched practice Tuesday. "The fact that he's been through that, that he's had serious criticism, you don't have the same guy today if you don't have that."

Romo borrows a line from a 2001 movie, Vanilla Sky. "Every passing minute is another chance to turn it around," Romo said. "You take that approach, and you can always be excited about becoming what you hope to be."

Jones suspects that Romo, who averages $11.25 million a year on a contract that runs through 2013, isn't as naive as he might appear. The owner says he has encountered few players as passionate about improving as Romo, who, perhaps to compensate for his relative lack of height (6-2) for an NFL quarterback, once spent an offseason throwing footballs into his living room sofa from unorthodox angles to try to improve his accuracy.

"That criticism knocked a little of the naivete out of him," Jones said. "He can still give you the impression that he has a certain youthfulness, because he's always looking for the best to happen. You don't hear 'naive' when it's a pessimistic personality."

'It's a different year'

There's plenty for Romo to be upbeat about this week.

The Cowboys (11-5) won their second NFC East title in three years Sunday with a 24-0 shellacking of the Eagles, securing a home playoff game - against Philadelphia, it turned out. The Cowboys are the only NFC playoff team with a three-game winning streak, a contrast to recent Dallas teams that suffered late-season meltdowns. They've been propelled by an improved defense and a more balanced offense adept at running and passing.

"It's a different year," Romo said. "I'm a different player."

The numbers show a progression. Romo set franchise records for completions (347), passing attempts (550) and passing yards (4,483). More telling, though, are the reduced turnovers. Romo's tendency to cough up the ball hampered him in previous seasons. Yet after throwing three interceptions in a Week 2 loss to the Giants, Romo threw six in the final 14 games to finish with a career-low nine. He hasn't fumbled in seven games.

"When we lost the Giants game (on Sept. 20), I felt like I was a major reason why," Romo said. "I needed to improve, and (I) committed myself to taking better care of the football."

Trent Dilfer, the ESPN analyst who won Super Bowl XXXV as the Baltimore Ravens quarterback, has noticed. He says Romo played better during the final month of the regular season than any other quarterback in the playoffs - including MVP candidate Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts and Philip Rivers, whose San Diego Chargers have an 11-game winning streak.

"He's being aggressive, without being careless," Dilfer said of Romo. "He's in that rhythm. He's become the poster boy for the new Cowboys."

Romo has reached new heights without controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens, whose offseason release was one move to develop what Jones calls a "Romo-friendly" offense.

Owens sometimes became contentious when he thought he wasn't used enough in the offense. This season, Romo has spread the ball to several targets and the offense set a Cowboys record for total yards (6,390).

"It's too strong to say that the difference is because Terrell is gone," Jones said. "That's notable, but there are others who aren't here now."

Another subtraction was cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, whom the owner gave a second chance despite legal issues and a year-long suspension. Also gone are defensive tackle Tank Johnson and linebacker Greg Ellis.

Phillips echoes several players in citing a different chemistry on this season's team, which undoubtedly benefits Romo.

"We're better off than we were last year," Phillips said. "This team, they're very cohesive. They stick up for each other. They're very accountable."

The chemistry was tested in early December, when back-to-back losses to the Giants and Chargers set the stage for another late-season collapse.

Last season, an early-December loss at the Pittsburgh Steelers triggered friction among Owens, Romo and Witten.

When December started with a thud this time, there was no such drama.

"That's a time when stuff could have hit the fan," said Miles Austin, who has emerged as the team's top receiver. "That shows you the resiliency and how much everyone is focused."

Still, credit or blame for the team's playoff performance eventually might land in Romo's lap. There's no book on how to handle the scrutiny attached to one of the most glamorous jobs in sports, quarterback of the Cowboys. Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman won Super Bowls in that job en route to the Hall of Fame.

Never mind that the team hasn't won a Super Bowl in 14 years. When Parcells replaced Drew Bledsoe with Romo in Week 7 of the 2006 season, the bar of high expectations was part of the package.

"It's different being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys than it is for some other franchises," said Brad Sham, the team's radio play-by-play announcer since 1976. "You've got two Super Bowl-winning, Hall of Fame quarterbacks in town, visible in the community, and that's all you have to live up to. . . . People bring signs to the stadium, 'You're no Aikman or Staubach.' "

Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, one of the quarterback's closest friends, points to consistency as a defining trait for Romo. Carpenter, a fourth-year pro, said he has seen Romo take losses hard but is impressed that laid-back Romo doesn't appear to allow outside influences to distract him.

"He takes a lot of heat," Carpenter said. "But to his credit, he's stepped up and taken the criticism. That's why some guys are successful and some guys aren't. Is he the most talented guy to walk through the door as a quarterback? Probably not. It's competitive drive and desire, the ability to step up and make the plays. He seems to get better in the face of adversity."

'You've got to be secure'

Romo says his approach to the job is simple: Be yourself.

"You've got to be secure in who you are," he said. "People are going to judge you playing the position. That's just part of playing quarterback in the NFL."

Maybe so. His road from Burlington - which has a motto, "The Town with Tall Tales" - wasn't typical of most NFL stars.

"The moral of Tony's story is faith, hard work and never lying to yourself," said his father, Ramiro. "That's the bedrock of who Tony Romo is."

Romo finished his career as winner of the Walter Payton Award, the small-college equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. He attended the NFL's scouting combine in 2003 and was told by several teams that he was projected as a late-round draft pick.

Draft weekend came and went, though, without Romo getting a call.

"You're hoping to get drafted, but it's not like I was a first-round guy who slipped to the fourth round," said Romo, now a two-time Pro Bowl pick. "Coming from a small school, you're always . . . having to prove yourself. Things like that shape the person you become. And it's worked out well."

The Cowboys signed Romo as a rookie free agent, in part because an assistant on the staff, current New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, knew of his potential. Payton also played quarterback at Eastern Illinois.

"The whole process for me has always been about improving," Romo said. "If you're not good enough, you're not good enough. Before my first start in the NFL, against Carolina, I was like, 'Hey, I can do it.' But I didn't know until I went out and did it. . . . That's the reality of this sport. It tells you who you are."

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