Tony Romo story is unfinished thriller

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony Romo went from hopeless goat to gutsy hero in NFL record time.

His wild start of the season has been an extreme example of life in the fish bowl that comes with being the franchise quarterback for America's Team. The truth, as Romo tried telling us while folks were still flogging him for his Week 1 fourth-quarter failures and before his suddenly famous rib was fractured, is that the story is still being written. His legacy is a long way from being determined.

Some are certain that Romo will be remembered as a choke artist, that his lowlights in high-profile moments will be the lasting memories of a career that ends up falling far short of the standard set by Super Bowl-winning predecessors Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.

More rational minds, not to mention Jerry Jones, can point to convincing statistics as proof that relying on Romo is a smart bet. Romo has a 40-23 record as a starter and the best fourth-quarter passer rating among active quarterbacks, facts that indicate the Dallas Cowboys at least have a decent chance to enhance their championship tradition during his career.

That logic seems to make much more sense after Romo rebounded last week, returning with the fractured rib and punctured lung to light up the San Francisco 49ers, leading a thrilling rally from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Funny how that works, huh?

There has been plenty of time and energy spent speculating about how the story of one of the NFL's most polarizing figures will end. And that will continue to be a popular topic on bar stools, TV sets and anywhere else folks talk football.

This much is certain as Romo prepares to play in pain Monday night against the Washington Redskins: The Cowboys have never relied more on Romo, and he's never been more ready and willing to fully embrace his role as the team's focal point.

"We are going to rise and fall based on what Tony Romo's about over the next several years," Jones said recently, "and I'm excited about that."

This really isn't about Romo's talent. That obviously wasn't apparent when he went undrafted before signing with the Cowboys for a $10,000 bonus -- even though fellow Eastern Illinois alum Mike Shanahan offered a little more to come to Denver -- but Romo's skills have been impressive since he was promoted to the starting role in the middle of the 2006 season. Just look at his stats.

It's about other things required of an elite NFL quarterback, a level Romo is trying to reach.

His work ethic has never been a question, at least not to those who know him. Sure, his off-field activities, such as golfing and an ill-advised bye-week getaway with a celebrity girlfriend, have received a lot of attention.

But Romo has always been the football equivalent of a gym rat, a guy who leads the team in hours spent grinding away at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch practice facility.

The biggest and best change in Romo has been in the leadership department, an area he was occasionally dismissive of earlier in his starting tenure.

The days of Romo, who is in the middle of his prime at 31, feeling like a self-described sophomore surrounded by a lot of upperclassmen in the locker room are long gone. They actually ended with Terrell Owens' departure, one of the primary reasons Jones made the difficult decision to dump the prima donna after the most productive three-season stint by a receiver in franchise history.

This is Romo's team. Romo doesn't only feel the right to take charge now, but he understands that it's a requirement.

Dez Bryant isn't going to develop into the Pro Bowl playmaker the Cowboys need him to be unless Romo aids the educational process. An offensive line featuring two rookies and a second-year center needs a lot of help from the veteran quarterback. It's on the quarterback to set the tone for the rest of the team, too.

Romo hasn't morphed into a rah-rah guy, but that's overrated. He's critical when necessary, but Romo's leadership style was best captured by his calming conversation with Jesse Holley on the Candlestick Park sideline just before the receiver/reality show winner made the first three catches of his NFL career, keying the last two scoring drives of the comeback.

"There's a sense of urgency there," said perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, Romo's security blanket and close buddy. "It's, 'Hey, I'm asking everybody else to do it and I'm going to do it, too.' There is no stone unturned with the way he approaches it and communicates, but most of all the way he plays with that will."

Romo doesn't hesitate to say -- or type -- what needs to be said. Take, for example, the email he sent to teammates in the spring explaining why the player-organized workouts during the lockout were so important.

Aaron Rodgers' Packers obviously didn't need offseason practices coming off a Super Bowl championship. Tony Romo's Cowboys clearly did coming off a 6-10 debacle, which is why Romo organized the workouts with the vast majority of his teammates in attendance, down to blowing a whistle between drills.

It's that kind of commitment and competitiveness that drives a quarterback to fight through the pain of a fractured rib during the first month of the season.

"As you play the position, and you've been here a while, you just know how precious each game is," Romo said this week. "How important each season is."

Romo also knows how fragile public perception can be for a man in his position, not that he worries about it. If that sort of thing weighed on Romo's mind, he'd be a hopeless goat a heck of a lot more than a gutsy hero.

The Cowboys are confident that Romo will be the latter a lot more often. They're counting on it, and Romo's more ready than ever for the challenge, busted rib and all.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.