SAN ANTONIO -- No Jessica Simpson, no Terrell Owens. Gee, how will Tony Romo get any attention now?

Oh, wait. He's still the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

"There's always something new around the corner," Romo said Thursday.

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Going into his fourth season on the job, Romo knows all about the spotlight that comes with it. He soaked up plenty of rewards for two seasons, but for the last nine months, he has become a pinata, being bashed for things real and perceived.

The downward spiral began in December with a 1-3 flop of a finish that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs. The last game was a real stinker, a 44-6 loss in Philadelphia filled with the kind of sloppy mistakes that coaches have tried to have Romo avoid for years.

Afterward, Romo said something about losing a football game not being the end of the world. Bloggers and talk-radio hosts were all over him for that, and they have hardly let up now.

Romo was accused of masterminding T.O.'s release, paying more attention to golf than football and not staying in shape. Even those who were glad Romo dumped Simpson took offense to how he did it (the day before her birthday and not long after she bought him a $100,000 boat), calling it further proof of his poor leadership skills. Or maybe it was another turnover under pressure.

Romo's new reputation was summed up pretty well at a training-camp kickoff party Monday night. More than 20,000 fans came, and when Romo was announced, the majority gave him a nice ovation. But as the noise faded, another chorus began. Boos.

"It's just part of playing the position," Romo said. "As you get older, you start to realize that not everybody is going to like you. Not everybody is going to want to root for you."

Starting a new season is a relief for Romo. His life is all about football now.

"I wish we practiced year-round," Romo said. "Practice is a lot of fun. It's enjoyable. You get to compete. We're out here twice a day. I talked to (Troy) Aikman this summer, and we were talking about that some of the funnest times you have is on the practice field, getting better and enjoying the competition of it each day."

Aikman has said that he has talked to Romo about understanding the huge responsibility that comes with the role as the face of "America's Team." It's something Romo has learned the hard way, going back to when he and Simpson went to Mexico the week before a playoff game that Dallas ended up losing.

Asked Thursday if he has grown up on the job, Romo said he'd like to think so -- but he's not sure.

"When I was 25, I thought I was mature, and I'm sure I wasn't," he said. "When I was 22, I thought I was mature, but I probably wasn't. I'm 29 now. I think I'm mature. Am I? I don't know. ...

"I'm still myself. There's not going to be anything that I'm going to change. I don't think you get to this position, you don't be successful, being someone you're not. The only way you can get better and continue to try and achieve your goals is just to keep going forward, keep plugging away. The secret is usually just hard work. You do that and you've got a chance."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips have made it clear that they still believe in Romo.

"I know firsthand how Tony is approaching this season, visiting with him on a very personal basis, and how he's approaching the preparation, how he's approaching his role," Jones said. "You can call it leadership. You can call it execution. You can call it protecting the ball. It's all there."

Phillips said he doesn't understand how anyone could question Romo's leadership or work ethic.

"He was at every workout during the offseason," Phillips said. "The rest of the players look at that, and if you have anybody slacking off during the offseason you can go to them and say, 'Look, Tony Romo is out there working; you need to be working.' That really helps with your football team. ... To me, that's showing leadership."

Romo has a lot to accomplish in training camp.

Romo and Owens hooked up for more touchdowns than any quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL over the last three years, so the quarterback needs to develop another big-play target. Roy Williams is the new lead receiver, and their on-field relationship can use some work. Coaches also are expecting big things from second-year tight end Martellus Bennett. Everyone already knows how comfortable Romo is throwing to the other tight end, Jason Witten.

There's also the chance that Romo will throw less this season because the Cowboys are talking about running more. Will fewer passing plays mean fewer turnovers for Romo? Or could it have the opposite effect -- the guy who never gives up on a play becoming even more reluctant to do so because he knows there won't be as many chances?

Only time can answer that question. The same is true for the other obstacle he faces: December and January.

Romo is 22-2 from August to November, then 5-10 in the final two months, counting the playoffs. He has never won a postseason game, extending Dallas' drought to 12 seasons in a row.

"I think for us it's just about going forward and improving," Romo said. "It's not about our first game, it's not about next week, it's about today and this practice. Did we improve right here, what we just did? I think we did. Now we've got to go back and do the exact same thing this afternoon and put forth another step forward. I tell the guys, you just keep stacking days together and you'll be able to add them up at the end of the year."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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