IRVING, Texas -- Twice in the final 10 minutes Sunday night, all Tony Romo had to do was throw the ball away or simply fall down. Had he done the smart, safe thing on either play, the Dallas Cowboys likely would have come away with a stunning start to their season.
Instead, Romo fumbled 3 yards from the end zone and threw an interception that set up a field goal, leaving the Cowboys with a different kind of stunning finish: a loss to the New York Jets that marked the first time in 248 tries that Dallas couldn't cash in on a fourth-quarter lead of at least 14 points, according to STATS LLC.
"I cost us a football game," Romo said afterward.
Cowboys fans and critics took to the Internet and airwaves Monday to wholeheartedly agree, dredging up all his past mistakes. Inside the locker room Monday, the view was completely different.
Teammates insisted the Cowboys wouldn't have been in position to win had Romo not played so well the first 50 minutes and that there were plenty of other mistakes that contributed to the loss. They also considered Romo's mea culpa as proof that he's a leader.
"That is him trying to create his identity and show, 'I am going to be responsible for how far this team goes,' " defensive end Marcus Spears said. "I think that is something he put on his shoulders, and I personally like it. ... It will only help him to feel that way."
Linebacker Keith Brooking didn't even know Romo took the blame or that the quarterback has a reputation for making risky decisions with a game on the line.
"That's not the rap in this locker room," Brooking said. "Who cares what everybody else thinks? ... That wasn't Tony Romo's loss. ... That's not the way this team looks at it."
"I'll take that guy over anybody in this league," Brooking added. "Y'all might think I'm crazy, but I'm telling you right now, he's going to have an all-time year. He'll probably shatter every record. ... I've seen enough football to know the guy's ready for the next level."
Romo is 31 and entering his sixth season as a starter. His storybook rise from an undrafted player to a Pro Bowl pick has been overshadowed by what he hasn't done (1-3 in the playoffs) and how he hasn't done it. A common theme in all his disappointing losses has been late-game turnovers, usually while trying to force a play he probably shouldn't have tried.
Romo cut way down on his mistakes in 2009, and the Cowboys went 11-5, won the division and picked up his first playoff win. He broke a collarbone six games into a disappointing 2010 season and has said his time on the sideline left him craving the competition.
Tight end Jason Witten broke into the league with Romo and remains a close friend. Nothing he saw Sunday night dimmed his opinion of Romo.
"Obviously, it was a disappointing couple of plays, but that doesn't define who he is," Witten said. "We know what type of player he is, so we'll get back on track. We have all the confidence in the world in him."
Witten said he has "no filter" when talking to Romo, so he would tell his buddy if he believed the quarterback blew it. Witten described the emotion as "more of a disappointment than it is more anger, frustration toward him."
"I think that's across the team," he said. "That's not just the tight end talking, or a teammate or a buddy. You go around this room, there is a lot of confidence in him and what he does and what he creates for the team. Nobody is pointing the finger, and it's not just saying the right thing. I think everybody in this room believes it."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press