San Antonio: Chicks and birdies have been usurped by X's and O's.
At least that's what the Dallas Cowboys and quarterback Tony Romo want us to believe. After the first two weeks of training camp at The Alamodome, it's difficult to argue otherwise.
For the first time in a long time, the Cowboys' camp isn't about Hollywood girlfriends, golf handicaps, HBO's cameras, irrationally lofty expectations or prima donna agendas. It's football over fame. Substance over style. Romo the quarterback over Romo the celebrity.
"I believe in Tony," Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said early in camp. "Look, the guy didn't miss a minute of off-season stuff for us. As for golf? We have guys that play a lot of video games or whatever. As long as it doesn't take away from his focus, and I've seen nothing to suggest that it does. The guy has done everything we've asked of him. It's time we gave him some help."
Romo-friendly on the field.
Romo-reality in the stands.
Each day at camp it happens. While the special teams are going through drills before practice, you hear the roar. As Romo jogs out of the locker-room tunnel, onto the field and through the end zone to begin his warm-up, the crowd erupts in adoration. But—and you don't even have to listen that closely—there is also a smattering of boos.
Romo's rise from undrafted free agent to elite quarterback and TMZ regular is well and good. But last year he regressed during a disappointing 9-7 season. After the year-ending loss in Philadelphia, he frustrated fans with an "aw shucks, life goes on" post-game press conference.
For the most part, fans are done with the fawning, replacing it with hard-line demanding. They see owner Jerry Jones release troublemaker receiver Terrell Owens and label the 2009 Cowboys as "Romo-friendly." They see Romo arrive at camp sans girlfriend Jessica Simpson, convinced the absence of baggage will crystallize his concentration and upgrade his performance. And they see maturing, diverse weapons such as Martellus Bennett and Felix Jones and salivate that this year's offense can somehow gobble up Owens' departed production and push the Cowboys into December success and perhaps the team's first playoff victory since 1996.
It could happen. In fact, it should happen.
Despite, that is, an underwhelming debut in San Antonio.
After the first couple practices in which Romo's throws were high and/or late, he hunkered down to address the media about his eventful off-season. I wanted fire. I looked for motivation. Determination. I craved enthusiasm. I got...
"I'm still myself," he shrugged, surrounded by cameras and microphones and notepads while sitting on the back of a golf cart. "Nothing about me I'm going to change."
"It's just another season."
From canoodling with sexy blond starlets to seemingly limp leadership, William Wallace or Tim Tebow he isn't. So certain of a sun'll-come-out tomorrow regardless of today's outcome, I dub thee Annie Romo.
After the December 28 loss in Philly: "I wake up tomorrow and keep living. You don't deal with it. We're going to try to win next year. We're going to try and get back in the playoffs, and we're going to try to win a Super Bowl. If you don't, OK. If you do, OK. If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, then I'll have lived a pretty good life."
Sound like a captain with a broken heart? A hardened resolve? An unyielding desire to eradicate the misery? Wait, it got worse.
In a January interview with a Racine, Wisconsin, newspaper: "If I'm never going to win the Super Bowl, I'll be content in life. I'll be disappointed because that's what I wanted to do. At that same point, it's not going to be something that makes me a better human being."
Jones, of course, looked us square in the eye in The Alamodome and supported his quarterback and also his team's undeniable leader.
"Tony's our hardest worker in the off-season," he said. "To say he isn't a good leader just isn't fair. It's just wrong. He's a great leader."
Romo exhibited at least some defiance during his first press conference. Director of Public Relations Rich Dalrymple wanted Romo to stand on the back of the golf cart for his interview.
Dalrymple: Seriously, stand on the step.
Romo: Seriously, I just finished practicing.
The quarterback conducted the session sitting down.
All this meticulous criticism, of course, comes with the territory of being quarterback of America's Team. Romo talked with Troy Aikman in the off-season about how to handle the pressure and the demands and the scrutiny.
Aikman's advice: Enjoy the moment.
"He reminded me that a lot of the fun happened on the practice field, just getting better day to day and practice to practice," Romo said. "You've got to handle all the stuff off the field too. If you can't, you won't be around very long."
Gawk at Romo's raw statistics and accomplishments in his two years as a starter and you'd be convinced he's a Top 5 NFL quarterback. Only he and Peyton Manning have quarterback ratings of more than 90 in each of the last three seasons. In 2008 he missed three games with a broken pinkie and still finished with more touchdowns than any quarterback in the NFC East. In his 39 career starts, the 29-year-old has two Pro Bowl appearances and a .700 winning percentage (27-12).
But then there's that little thing. The one called 0-2 in the post-season. The one that screams Joe Flacco has more playoff victories.
While his supporters laud Romo's accuracy, athleticism and ad-libbing, critics fault him for being more famous than accomplished. After bursting on the scene to whispers of Staubach and Aikman, Romo now gains more notoriety for his flings than his football. He's the "celebrity quarterback" Bill Parcells warned us about.
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"Stop with the leadership stuff and the Jessica stuff, just stop," Michael Irvin begged early in camp. "He made a mistake by what he said after Philly, I'll give you that. But the guy is an elite quarterback. He's 27-12, and he's just getting his feet wet. I know he's 0-2 in the playoffs, but he gives the Cowboys a chance on every play and in every game. We take him for granted already? Already? Maybe we should bring Drew Bledsoe back out here for camp so you guys can fall back in love with Tony Romo."
Whether it's less Jessica or more production from a running game, Romo has to be better if the Cowboys are going to exceed this year's 9-7 expectations. Romo needs to protect the ball in the pocket. He needs to minimize high-risk throws that led to damaging interceptions in late-season losses to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. He needs to, well, lead.
"If we execute and play better, everything will be OK," Romo said from that golf cart. "I think we have a very good team. We're kinda overlooked, an underdog for a change. That's a new role for us. But our focus—my focus—is to stack good practices on top of each other. Before you know it, I'll be a better player and we'll hopefully have a darn good football team."
Like it or not, the honeymoon is over.