By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
We attended the concerts, watched the TV clips and gobbled the gossip from Romo's second season. What we didn't hear were Cowboys officials—including owner Jerry Jones—telling the quarterback to be picky about his public appearances, especially those potentially casting him in a negative light or drawing into question his commitment to football over fun. (Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, whose quarterback is in the eternal doghouse, dreams of such dull headaches.)
Says a team source, "Tony got a pretty good talking to."
What we didn't see was Romo, three days before leaving for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, throwing passes in the team's indoor practice bubble at Valley Ranch under the watchful eye of new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.
"One of the best things about Tony is he's a gym rat," Garrett says. "He had his fun, but his approach to football and his work ethic in the off-season were fantastic."
Contrary to his reality, Romo's skewed image as a one-hit wonder shirking the playbook for the party could have been even more exaggerated. There's no YouTube evidence of his performance with Metal Skool in Dallas because he agreed to sing only if his set wasn't videotaped by the band. There are no snapshots from his participation in the Dallas Observer's St. Patrick's Day Parade or Donald Trump's celebrity golf tournament in California because he, albeit grudgingly, skipped both events. There's no dirt from his final two weeks of vacation because he spent them at home in tiny Burlington, Wisconsin, conducting his annual youth clinic and playing catch in the backyard with Dad.
Romo is at his best when impulsively scrambling and improvising, but he also knows when to stay in the pocket.
"He's very popular and very marketable right now," says Romo's Dallas-based publicist, Vivian Fullerlove. "But what he wanted most of all in the off-season was down time with his family and, first and foremost, time for football. A lot of offers came his way, and he passed on the ones that didn't fit in."
In 2007 he'll co-host a weekly radio show with receiver Sam Hurd, appear in AT&T's TV ads and likely finish with more touchdowns than interceptions and more wins than losses. Still, barring another monumental gaffe, a shoving match with T.O. or a Super Bowl title, isn't Romo's upcoming season destined to be relatively boring?
Last August, of course, Romo's private life was about as scintillating as poached eggs.
As Drew Bledsoe's backup he could've gone to a Metal Skool concert but paid cover like the rest of us. As an alum of Eastern Illinois yet to throw his first NFL pass, he would've had to spell his last name—probably twice—for Carrie Underwood's publicist. But then it happened.
Former head coach Bill Parcells yanked Bledsoe at halftime of the October 23 Monday Night Football game against the New York Giants and inserted Romo. His first pass was intercepted, and he threw two more picks in the 36-22 loss, but the fuse was lit. Led by Romo's energy and effectiveness, the Cowboys won five of their next six games and suddenly the world developed an insatiable fascination.
Who is he? (A small-town, big-values kid from a dot on the map with a population less than the average attendance at a Cowboys training camp practice. Part Mexican, a descendant of immigrant grandparents Ramiro and Felicita, now living in Crockett, Texas.) What is he like? (Lives in a condo by the Galleria. Doesn't cuss. Wears his baseball caps backward. Drives an Expedition SUV.) What does he like? (Golf. Videogames. Injecting the words "...at the end of the day" into conversations. His Treo cell phone, which has been known to feature Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" as its greeting.) Is he the next Gary Hogeboom or the next Staubach? (To be determined, but we're leaning toward the latter.) Does he still pinch himself?
"I never sit back, look at my life in the third person. I'm just living," Romo says. "At the same time, I realize how lucky I am."
Dwarfing other variables, the Cowboys' '07 fate will be directly tied to Romo's play. New coaching staff, re-invigorated owner and upgraded starters be damned, if Romo sputters it all goes to Hades in a wicker carry-on.
"More than anything, we need our quarterback to be great," Jones says during his state-of-the-union press conference on the eve of camp. "We need Tony to perform at a Pro Bowl level, and we have every reason to believe he will."
Considering how '06 crash-landed, that confidence is confounding.
Upon naming Romo the starter, Parcells admitted he wasn't "100 percent sure it's going to work." Jones labeled the switch from a 14-year veteran to essentially a fourth-year rookie "a step back."
Disgruntled fans even launched tonyhomo.com.
After his sizzling start peaked with a win over the previously undefeated Indianapolis Colts and a five-touchdown performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thanksgiving, Romo nose-dived to a 1-3 finish and entered the playoffs with stagger instead of swagger.
Then, the most infamous hold in NFL history.