Backup Plan

No. 3 QB Tony Romo is just happy to be here. Seriously. No, seriously.

This won't do. This won't do at all. Tony Romo is absorbed in the book he's reading, which would otherwise be fine, except this is football, not nerd camp. The newly named third-string quarterback of your Dallas Cowboys sits on a cushy blue couch in the Valley Ranch locker room. His legs are crossed and his head is cocked and his look is...pensive. It's the stare of the contemplative man, the intellectual. In his wallet, surely, is a photo of Stephen Hawking.

This is not what you expect from a quarterback, and it's certainly not what you want. What you want is a towering personality, someone who swaggers bowlegged because his huge balls are constantly in the way, someone whose mouth spits barbs the way his arm slings touchdowns--frequently, with flair. Then again, none of the quarterbacks currently employed by the Pokes is flamboyant. A few feet away, Quincy Carter is engulfed by the media crowd and whispers soft clichés into their ears, taking care to thank God for this, that and the third. Booooring.

I suppose it could be worse. Romo's not smacking the female reporters on the ass or rocking beer bongs, but he's not training to be an evangelist, either. (What I wouldn't give, by the way, to remake these choir boys in the image of their mid-'90s predecessors...where are Mark Stepnoski and his dealer when you need them?)

"That's not me," Romo says. He's the Middle America type, the sort who probably grew up eating fluffernutters and walking a dog named Spot--short-cropped hair, clean-shaven, easy personality. He looks me in the eye. He's genuine and polite and humble. "I really am just happy to be here. I know that sounds funny, or, you know, rehearsed, but it's true. I came here in the hopes of earning a job, but I wasn't sure what to expect. I just wanted a chance to compete. Now that I've gotten that, it's not necessarily a complete relief, but it is pretty great. You know, but I have a long way to go."

Maybe not as far as he thinks. He's a bit vanilla with his interviews--he's from Wisconsin, so it figures--but he's something altogether different on the field. He's more confident and assertive. You could see it in his preseason successes, like the long touchdown pass he threw against Houston. You could see it in his failures, too, like the shovel pass he had intercepted earlier in that game. The latter prompted a quick and thorough ass-chewing by head coach Bill Parcells, but neither the play nor the reaction arrested Romo's development. He rebounded and played well, never hanging his head in defeat. That's why he's here now and why castoff Clint Stoerner was, well, once again cast off.

Romo played college ball for Eastern Illinois, a Division I-AA school. He excelled there, and last season he won the Walter Payton Award, given annually to the division's best. But he watched the draft come and go without hearing his name called, and so he went the free-agent route--not an easy task for a quarterback coming out of college. You hear about safeties and linemen making it that way but rarely QBs. Which is why all the hubbub surrounding Romo is so remarkable.

During the preseason you could feel support for the 23-year-old swell. Why mess with Carter and Chad Hutchinson, so many wondered? They're known losers. Why not take a shot with this kid instead? That was the thinking of various media members, myself included. It's not as though he's playing behind Joe Montana or Troy Aikman, right? (Jerry Jones' blunt words from training camp apply, and they still make me laugh: "These guys aren't Troy.") There is a reason why the Cowboys have sent seven different starting quarterbacks onto the field since 2000--the most of any team. Could be that Carter and Hutchinson get injured, or more likely they'll just blow it (again), leaving Parcells with no other option. And what then? Can this milk-and-cookies boy scout really be as good as some of the fans and journos would like to believe?

"I think he's going to be a good quarterback," Babe Laufenberg says. "The way he carries himself, he's grounded. He throws a nice ball. And I'll be honest with you. Romo at this point in his career is better than Quincy was at the same stage. Now I don't know what that means, but that's my take. The difference is, he's going to have to fight that battle because he was a free agent coming out of I-AA. That's always a negative. In the NFL, it's like this: If you're a first-rounder, someone is always going to see the positive in what you do, and if you're a late pick or an undrafted free agent, they're going to see the negative. It's like, if you're a high pick, like Quincy, and you go 5-for-10, people will say, 'Did you see those five passes he completed?' Whereas if you're undrafted and you go 7-for-10, people will say, 'Did you see those three passes he missed?' That's the biggest difference, and that's a hard thing to overcome. But I think guys like Kurt Warner and Jeff Garcia have opened a lot of doors and a lot of eyes."

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