Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL [Print without images]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007
The Great Improvisers: Romo picks up where Favre leaves off

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, left, says Dalals QB Tony Romo reminds him a lot of himself.
Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre, left, says Dallas QB Tony Romo reminds him a lot of himself. "He has the same mentality I did," the future Hall of Famer said. "There's never a bad play."
IRVING, Texas -- Careening in that already familiar goofy, loose-jointed style, Tony Romo bolted from the pocket on the Dallas Cowboys' first drive against the Giants on Nov. 11. There were two red-shirted defenders lurking in the middle, however, and he instinctively ducked.

"I was afraid for my life there," the 27-year-old Romo said recently. "As I was going through the line, I took a look at one guy who went to [tight end Jason] Witten.

"There was no one to really throw the ball to, so I started to go down with it because I could feel someone at my side.

"As I go down, you kind of see a guy's hand waving over here, and the first thing that goes through your mind -- this is a split-second thing -- instantly, I just look for red, to see if there's a defensive player over in that vicinity. I don't see any red, so I just kind of shot put it over there."

To a certain degree, his rise is in some ways like mine. He was virtually unknown and all the sudden has success.

--Brett Favre on Dallas QB Tony Romo

Sure enough, tight end Tony Curtis had worked himself free in the left corner of the end zone and Romo, in a marvelous piece of improvisation, found him for a 15-yard touchdown. How, exactly, did he do that?

"He has no idea," Witten said. "I think the best thing about it is, he doesn't know what he's going to do."

Sort of like another, amped-up, make-it-up-on-the-fly quarterback we've seen over the years?

"I think you have to say Brett Favre," Witten said, describing an uncanny free-form resemblance also noted by Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs and a host of others. "There's not a throw he doesn't think he can make. He's got a lot of confidence, like Brett does."

Romo and Favre collide Thursday night, leading their 10-1 teams into a highly anticipated game that could determine home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Favre, at age 38, is already on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- he has started 268 consecutive games, including playoffs, compared to only 21 career starts for Romo. The two quarterbacks, however, share a number of similarities beyond mere confidence.

Romo grew up in Wisconsin and was a Packers fan. They are both 6-foot-2 and weigh roughly 225 pounds. Both come from schools -- Eastern Illinois (Romo) and Southern Mississippi (Favre) -- that aren't exactly football factories. Round out the angled edges of Favre's No. 4 jersey and you have Romo's No. 9.

Favre leads the NFL in pass attempts (425) and completions (291) and is second in passing yards (3,356), right behind Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Romo, meanwhile, is fourth with 3,043 yards. He has 29 touchdown passes (tying the franchise record), second to Brady, while Favre is tied for fourth with 22. Their passer ratings -- 105.3 for Romo and 101.5 for Favre -- are No. 3 and No. 5 in the league, terrific numbers for guys who typically live by the seat of their silver and gold pants.

"I am sure he's about tired of answering these questions," Favre told reporters Sunday regarding Romo comparisons to himself. "He's his own player.

"When I see him play, it reminds me of myself. Making something out of nothing. He's much faster than I was. ... He has the same mentality I did. There's never a bad play."

Of course, Favre, in his 17th season, has calmed down a bit. He can still break containment, but he is making better decisions than he used to. He's not forcing the ball into places it won't fit. He has thrown only eight interceptions and is on pace to post his best passer rating ever.

With five credible targets on the outside -- some believe that the Packers' big five package of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Koren Robinson and Ruvell Martin is the league's best set of receivers -- Favre, for the first time in his career, seems to be letting the game come to him.

Tony Romo
Some of Tony Romo's most memorable plays come when he's scrambling out of the pocket.

Romo, of course, is just hitting his helter-skelter stride in vintage Favre fashion, circa Super Bowls XXXI and XXXII. In less than a season and a half, Romo has already authored an archive of breathtaking plays. The one the Cowboys still talk about came Sept. 30 against the St. Louis Rams.

He was lined up in the shotgun formation when center Andre Gurode snapped the ball over his head. It sailed from the 50-yard-line to inside the Cowboys' 30. Instead of falling on the ball, Romo stumbled and kicked it back to the Cowboys' 17-yard-line. There, he scooped it up, wheeled down the left sideline and, channeling Steve Young, made a few Rams players miss. Officially, it was a 4-yard run, but Romo probably ran a total of 70 yards to make the play.

"As I'm watching this play, I'm like, 'Tony, just fall on the ball and let's punt,'" Witten said. "His mind's thinking, 'I'm picking this thing up, and I'm going to throw it for a touchdown.'"

Said Favre: "I'd like to think I could do that. I still believe I could or at one time was able to. I thought that was very impressive. To me, that shows creativity."

A smart quarterback falls on that ball, right?

"Yeah," Romo said, laughing. "That's why us dumb ones, we pick it up and run around.

"Probably a dumb decision, really, but we got the first down."

The previous sentence underlines the risk-reward essence of Romo. His teammates aren't always sure what he's thinking in the heat of the moment.

Growing up, I was given a gift, my ability to see things very quickly. I could see it, and react very fast.

- Tony Romo

"You know what?" asked Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens. "I have no clue. I'm pretty sure he can answer that question better than I can."

Maybe not. Great artists are rarely adept at explaining their own greatness. Romo is no different.

"These are all questions I can't explain. It just happens," Romo said. "Your brain clicks fast and you say, 'All right, do this.' And you kind of just go with it."

It all begins with vision.

"Growing up, I was given a gift, my ability to see things very quickly," he explained. "I could see it, and react very fast."

Just before the snap, Romo takes a mental picture of the 11 defenders. What distinguishes him is the ability to imagine -- based on film study, or the subtle way a defender is leaning, or the body language of a backpedaling safety -- their probable paths during the typical three or four seconds of a play.

"It's the ability to feel in the pocket when someone's around, even though you can't see them," Romo said. "You just kind of get that sense that, 'Hey, someone's around me.' And you move and slide and try to make something happen."

Romo's personal favorite improv sequence came on Sept. 23 at Chicago:

"Tommy Harris broke through the line quickly, and as he was coming in, I kind of took a jab one way, took it left, then kind of rolled out and got him to bite on it. He went inside and I found T.O. for 20 yards. It happened so quickly, it was a natural decision. I stopped and then went that way -- that was my best little basketball move."

Witten calls this "Romo making athletic players look unathletic."

Said Owens, "Improvisation is part of the game. Every play is not going to go as designed. When a play breaks down, Tony gets out of the pocket. If there's nothing there, he's going to run it. If he sees something there, he's going to throw it.

"It's something that I would call it. What it is, I don't know."

Charisma. Confidence. It.

Romo and Favre have "it," even though Romo's Dallas teammates sometimes wish he somehow had less of it.

"As a teammate, the coaches -- they all want to control him," Witten said. "We want him to be controlled and to be a pocket passer. But you have to step back and say, 'Wow, what a player we have. Just keep doing it, Tony.'"

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. ESPN.com pro football writer Matt Mosley contributed to this report.