- Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Ask Tony Romo, and he'll tell you there was no epiphany. No moment of clarity.
But sometime during his gradual maturation from undrafted small-school free agent to NFL star, he realized his gaudy numbers -- whether we're talking about his career passer rating or his TD/interception differential -- don't mean a thing.
Not in a league in which quarterbacks are judged solely by Super Bowl rings and playoff swag.
Romo is 1-3 as a playoff starter, which isn't nearly good enough in a city where Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach combined to earn five Lombardi Trophies and represent the standard.
Fans don't care about Romo's completion percentage. Or his leadership qualities, which are now more apparent than ever. They don't even care about his 47-30 record as a starter.
In the past, all that bugged Romo, whether he chooses to admit it publicly or not.
We started hearing him talk more about winning being the only thing that matters last season. And we saw it in his actions when he left the locker room with a cracked rib and a punctured lung to lead the Cowboys to a come-from-behind win over San Francisco.
It's a different dude who begins his seventh season as the Cowboys' starter Wednesday against the New York Giants.
"I've always cared more than anybody can imagine about us winning or losing any football game," he said. "It just matters a lot. The reason I go back into that game is because I just didn't want our team to lose because I know how difficult it is if you're at 0-2.
"As crappy as I felt, I knew how crappy it was going to feel if we were 0-2 and the hole we were going to be in. You just make the choices that you think are helping the football team."
These days, there's no doubt Romo embraces the scrutiny that accompanies being the quarterback of America's Team.
It'll make him a better quarterback, and the Cowboys a better team, because he's not trying to impress anyone. He's simply preparing as hard as he can and performing to the level of his talent.
If this team is going to make the playoffs for just the second time in five seasons, Romo must lead the way.
After all, he finished last season with 4,184 yards passing, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New England's Tom Brady, New Orleans' Drew Brees and Detroit's Matthew Stafford had a better TD/interception ratio, and each of their teams made the playoffs.
The Cowboys didn't, in part because Romo couldn't figure out how to get his teammates to match his performance.
This is now Romo's team. No doubt.
He and Jason Witten have been here longer than any other players, and it's up to Romo to show his teammates that if they prepare the way he prepares and perform the way he performs on Sundays, he'll take them where they all want to go.
He's that good.
He can make any throw you want -- back-shoulder fade, deep ball, skinny post, deep out, quick slant, end zone fade -- and his lateral quickness and elusiveness are among the best in the game.
In the Cowboys' final 11 games last season, Romo threw 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions as the impulse throws disappeared from his repertoire.
"Leadership in our league -- a lot of it -- comes down to your ability to perform on Sundays," Romo said. "If you don't perform on Sundays, it's very hard to be a leader because we care about performance and winning and losing."
As he moves into the next phase of his career, Romo carries no scars from the botched snap that led to the wild-card game loss to Seattle in the 2006 playoffs. Or the poor judgment that led to the much-scrutinized trip to Cabo San Lucas before the 2007 divisional playoff game against the New York Giants.
He's not trying to atone for the 44-6 loss to Philadelphia in 2008 and his laissez faire attitude afterward that led to harsh criticism.
Nor do any of those individual failures motivate him. He's learned from each, and they're each part of the reason Romo has developed into the player we see today.
"At the end of the day, I'm a better football player and those things will be minimized over the years," Romo said. "The game comes down to winning and losing.
"My sole objective each day and each month is to figure out how to help this football team win a championship."
Since 1997, the Cowboys are 120-120 with one playoff win and three NFC East titles. They've won double-digit games just four times, and never in consecutive seasons.
In the past 15 seasons, every NFC team except the Cowboys, Washington and Detroit has made at least one appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Eleven teams have made multiple appearances.
For a proud franchise such as the Cowboys with their illustrious history, that's pitiful.
Romo has positioned himself to change the franchise's direction. With Jason Garrett, he has the right coach. This franchise can't operate with a coach who can't tell Jerry Jones when he's lost his mind.
"When you're younger, it's about how can I get better. When you're older, you know it takes everybody," Romo said. "It's not just about me. We're going to need great play out of a lot of guys for our team to win a championship.
"If it takes me to get in people's faces and keep the thumb on them, then that's what it takes. The objective isn't for anything other than this football team to bring a championship to Dallas. That's what my thought process is about day in and day out."
Fortunately, he still has time to get it done.
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