Since botching the hold on a short field-goal attempt in Seattle and crying about his flub ending the Dallas Cowboys' season, Tony Romo has gone all over the map to satisfy his competitive nature.
He played in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. He was a judge at the Miss Universe pageant in Mexico City. He was in a celebrity golf tournament near Lake Tahoe last weekend. He even went to Las Vegas for the Country Music Awards, where he did a solid job holding the purse of his date, Carrie Underwood, when she went to collect her prize.
OK, so those things aren't as intense as playing in the NFL. And they speak more about Romo's growing fame than his ability to lead a football team. However, they provide a good bridge to look at Cowboys training camp -- because once Romo returns to his real job, the spotlight will be on him more than it was at any of his glitzy vacation destinations.
With all due respect to new coach Wade Phillips and headline-hungry receiver Terrell Owens, Romo is the most compelling story line once the team gathers in San Antonio on Tuesday, hits the field Wednesday and probably throughout the fall.
A waiting-in-the-wings backup to Drew Bledsoe this time last year, Romo goes into camp as the starter for the first time since he was a senior at Eastern Illinois. Although he is not fighting for his job, he still has a lot to prove, and he knows it.
"You're not really established ever in this league, unless you win a couple of Super Bowls," Romo said. "Daunte Culpepper had an MVP-type season a few years back, the next year he doesn't play very well and then he's gone. That's the reality of this game. It's the NFL and they're always looking for someone better. What you try to do is get yourself to such a high level they can never replace you."
Romo sent expectations soaring by winning five of his first six starts after replacing Bledsoe. Then he lost four of five, including the heart-wrenching end in Seattle that kept the Cowboys without a playoff win since 1996 and turned out to be the final game for coach Bill Parcells.
While teammates, coaches and team owner Jerry Jones insist they believe in Romo, there has to be an inkling of doubt about which is the real Romo -- or if the answer is both, meaning they can never know what to expect.
Jones tops the list of people Romo must win over because the quarterback is going into the final year of his contract.
The owner-general manager may want to get a new deal out of the way before the season. Or maybe Jones will wait to make sure Romo is worth the investment. Of course, he'd do so at the risk of the price going up and the potential for messy negotiations.
Jones already has made a huge good-faith gesture toward Romo by not drafting Brady Quinn. The Notre Dame product was still available when Dallas' turn came around at No. 22, but Jones peddled that chance into a future first-rounder from lowly Cleveland.
The final angle to Romo's saga is the perception that his A-list offseason indicates he's more interested in being a playboy than a Cowboy.
Truth is, Romo played golf, stared at pretty women and hung out with friends every summer since coming to Dallas -- the paparazzi just didn't document it. They did this time and the slow news cycle of an NFL offseason plus the proliferation of talk radio and blogs turned his social calendar into an item of grand inspection.
Romo finds it pretty humorous.
"I had to learn a little while ago that not everyone is going to like you, say good things about you, not everyone is going to think you're all that good of a player," Romo said. "If I work as hard as I can and try to be as good as I can be in this game, and do things the right way in life, I can go to sleep at night and be content with whatever happens."
Anyone wondering what Parcells might have thought about his longtime backup becoming a "celebrity quarterback?" Phillips calls the shots now with a sunny disposition that seems even brighter to an organization that spent four years darkened by Parcells' steely glare. A good example of his new way of doing business is how he defused the issue of Romo's gallivanting.
"He must've put us on the calendar somewhere," Phillips said. He also added, "I've seen him here probably more than anyone else, so I believe in his commitment."
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