Tony Romo is Cowboys' leading man
QB's critics remain, but inside locker room there's no question whose team this is
He will always be the guy with late-game mistakes. He will always be the guy who plays too much golf in the offseason. He will always be the guy who is a fantasy-football dream but a reality-football nightmare because he can be so good and so wrong in one game.
And there's this tag that Romo has not been able to shake free, like a piece of tape stuck to the bottom of his shoe: He is not a leader.
Danny McCray is like a lot of young twentysomethings, glued to the television, watching as much sports as possible even if his day job is to be the Cowboys' best special teams player and a backup safety.
"You hear on TV before I got to Dallas and I had no idea and now I'm here and I see it and I'm like, 'Well, maybe it's just something to just start an issue,' because I've seen the exact opposite since I've been here," said McCray, who is entering his fourth season.
As Romo begins his sixth full season as the Cowboys' starting quarterback Wednesday night at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants, this is more his team than any other. In the past, Romo has likened the growth of a leader from a sophomore starting on the varsity team to a senior.
He is now in grad school, if you want to carry the analogy a little further.
Gone are the petty jealousies that came with his sudden rise in 2006 from players who felt Romo had not earned the praise and celebrity he received. Gone are the vibes from players who felt Romo was more concerned with things other than football.
This roster is as Romo-friendly as any owner and general manager Jerry Jones has put together.
To this team, Romo is the guy who ran the offseason practices at Southlake Carroll High School's Dragon Stadium during the lockout last spring. He is the guy who played with a punctured lung and cracked rib for six weeks last season and still excelled.
"It's really not something he does," McCray said. "It's the respect he gets from teammates. I know. I see how they respect him, so I know he's done something before I got here and had a role before I got here. If they respect him, then people coming in new are going to respect him.
He's the leader of the huddle. He just pretty much takes control of it. I haven't had a vet quarterback like that since Carson (Palmer) in Cincy, so just to hear Tony's presence and whatnot, his leadership is outstanding.” -- Cowboys gaurd Nate Livings on quarterback Tony Romo
"With Romo, to get the whole room like that, you've got a D-Ware, you've got Jay Ratliff, for those guys to (say) 'Romo's the guy. He's the leader of the room,' you know he's done something or led by example or said something to them to get them on board."
In the offseason, Romo was one of the first players to arrive at the Valley Ranch facility for workouts -- something he learned Tom Brady did in New England from strength and conditioning coach Mike Woicik -- finishing before most of his teammates arrived.
Once considered aloof by some ex-teammates, Romo will joke with teammates on both sides of the ball. Before training camp began, he attended the birthday party of defensive end Jason Hatcher. He lends himself to charity events held by teammates.
But there is also a seriousness about how he goes about his work that is another part of the narrative that gets lost. He will show up on an off day during the season to go over the game plan with the coaches. He will pick the brain of coordinator Rob Ryan to get the whys and hows of a defense. He will share his knowledge to cornerbacks about quarterback play.
Fullback Lawrence Vickers knew of Romo before signing with the Cowboys but had to take the word of former teammates and coaches who knew Romo.
"Everybody leads in his own way," Vickers said. "Everybody's not really loud or vocal. That doesn't make you a leader because you're loud and vocal. He leads by his type of personality. Ro's not a big yeller. He'll talk to you quiet and humble and subtle. That's the way he does it."
But Romo is not reticent to hold players accountable for mistakes. During training camp he showed disgust with the offense during several walk-throughs, and in the final practice of camp at San Diego he angrily spiked the ball when Dwayne Harris did not alter his route on a fourth-down play.
"He's the leader of the huddle," guard Nate Livings said. "He just pretty much takes control of it. I haven't had a vet quarterback like that since Carson (Palmer) in Cincy, so just to hear Tony's presence and whatnot, his leadership is outstanding."
But the narrative won't change unless the Cowboys not only win but make a playoff run. Romo has accepted that fact and shrugs off the criticism as something that comes with playing his position.
"Part of the deal is what we have not done as a team," third-year linebacker Sean Lee said. "If we start winning big games and making big plays in big situations, all of us, then the leader issue will not be an issue."