Romo Holiday

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"Tony can make plays other guys can't make," Phillips says.

Romo threw while jumping. He slung it under defensive linemen side-armed. He lofted it over defensive backs—seemingly ill-advised—while in reverse. He passed for 2,903 yards with 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and, despite only 10 regular-season starts, became the first Cowboys Pro Bowl quarterback since Aikman in '96.

"He's not the most orthodox guy, but in his case that's an asset," Aikman said during a Fox broadcast late last season. "The bottom line is he's got a great feel for the game, a nice touch on the ball and he consistently makes plays. Looks like the Cowboys have found something with him."

Now, what exactly do they do with him?

Romo, who grew up idolizing the rocket-armed Brett Favre (nobody's perfect, eh?), often tries to squeeze a watermelon through a keyhole. When moving around in the pocket he sometimes forgets to protect the ball. And with only 11 starts under his belt and five different tutors in his head, his confidence isn't yet unshakable.

"I still think of myself as somewhat of a question mark," Romo says.

With Garrett and new quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, Romo has worked this off-season on a quicker escape from under center and ball security amongst traffic in the pocket. He remains a gifted and instinctive athlete, seemingly with eyes peering out his ear hole. His release—reminiscent of Dan Marino—is perhaps the NFL's quickest and, evidenced by a gorgeous 60-yard bomb that landed perfectly in Owens' cradle during camp's first practice, his accuracy has dramatically improved.

"We're not going to tinker with his throwing motion, because he's got a good stroke," Garrett says after a workout. "With Tony it's about being as fundamentally sound as possible with his footwork and instilling some pocket discipline. It's an ongoing process and one that will never end. The things we're working on with him are the same things I remember Troy working on in his 12th year."

Says Romo, "My goals have changed. I want to get to that next level. If you're content, you're in decline. I know I'm not there yet. I'm not 'now,' as they say. But in the bottom of my stomach I've got a yearning to get better."

It's Romo's talent and temperament that led to Sports Illustrated recently ranking him 11th among NFL quarterbacks. It's why Jones passed up Notre Dame's Brady Quinn in the draft. And it's why expectations in San Antonio are again flirting with a championship season.

"We've got the key pieces in place to do something very special," Romo says. "If I play like I'm capable, I can see us having a lot of success. I'm not ready to say it's Super Bowl or bust, but I expect us to be a darn good football team."

Says Owens, "This is our year. We've got more than a good chance of this team getting to the Super Bowl."

As with any franchise without a playoff win since 1996 and coming off a 9-7 season that forced the retirement of a Hall of Fame coach, the Cowboys will encounter hurdles.

Grounded as he seems, Romo enters the season in the final year of a contract paying him a relatively paltry $1.5 million. While he'd like a new, long-term deal in place before the September 9 opener against the New York Giants, Jones is waffling between locking up a rising superstar and waiting to see if Romo is indeed the real deal.

"I know it's impossible, but I want it both ways," Jones says. "I want to pay him now and get him some security, and I want to wait to see how he'll respond to being a full-time starter. That said, it won't be a distraction. In my 18 years Tony's as impressive a guy as I've come across as far as his coolness and his business sense."

Romo, who scoffs at the suggestion he could increase his negotiating leverage by holding out of camp, promises his contract status won't affect his performance.

"I'm indifferent, honestly," he says. "If the team feels like paying me now I'm fine with it. If not, that's fine too. It won't change my daily approach to helping this team win one bit. My agent doesn't like to hear this, but I love playing this game. If it's for $100 or $1 million...whatever. I don't need reassurance through money. I don't want the game to become about money. Sometimes when that seeps in it takes away the fun."

And with Phillips—or is it without Parcells?—training camp is decidedly more enjoyable. Inheriting a playoff team returning as many as 20 starters, Phillips' casual style is an about-face to his prickly predecessor. Bill was New Jersey bully, Wade a cornier-than-Fletcher's Texan.

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt