Romo aiming to be included among NFL's elite passers

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- He isn't quite there yet.

A Super Bowl win would change that. Maybe an NFL Most Valuable Player award. Definitely both.

Until Tony Romo adds those sort of credentials to the body of work he has put together through seven NFL seasons, he can't be considered an ultra-elite quarterback. Not in the same way that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees are viewed as the position's best of the best.

Romo isn't even the most accomplished passer in his own division, the NFC East. That distinction belongs to Donovan McNabb, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles and currently of the Washington Redskins. The New York Giants' Eli Manning has a Super Bowl ring and Super Bowl MVP award. And then there's all of that he-could-be-the-next-Aaron-Rodgers hype surrounding Kevin Kolb, McNabb's replacement in Philly.

Romo has gone to three Pro Bowls. He put up some impressive numbers last season while leading the Dallas Cowboys to their first playoff victory since 1996. His career passer rating of 95.6 puts him in third place on the league's all-time list behind Steve Young (96.8) and Philip Rivers (95.8). It's actually better than the passer ratings of Peyton Manning (95.2), Kurt Warner (93.7), Brady (93.3), and even Joe Montana (92.3).

But without any premiere hardware, Romo finds himself beginning training camp with reporters asking him and others on the team what he needs to do before he can move into that Manning-Brady-Brees neighborhood.

"Well, you're judged at the quarterback position by wins and Super Bowls," Romo said. "But I love the tradition and the history of the game, so for me, I set out to accomplish certain goals, and right at the top, the only way to be included in any talk in anything is to go out and win championships. And Step 1 is to go out and get better today. The only way I know how to do it is to keep working hard."

Hard worker. That's what they all say about Romo at Cowboys camp: Coaches, teammates, the man who signs the paychecks. They love his work ethic. They know it can lead to considerable productivity, as was the case in 2009 when Romo surpassed his own record for single-season passing yards with 4,483. He also became the first Cowboys quarterback to throw for more than 20 touchdowns and fewer than 10 interceptions in a season.

"He is totally, mentally focused on being a better quarterback and doing anything he can to get this team where it needs to be," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.

Romo's eight 300-yard passing games last season broke a team record he set in 2007. What did he have to show for it? An NFC East title and a postseason win. Nice, but not nearly enough. To get more, Romo and the Cowboys need to do more, such as playing in -- and winning -- Super Bowl XLV in their own stadium.

For now, he is going to be measured more by effort than achievement.

"He just has to keep improving in all areas," Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "Obviously, he made great strides. He had a very productive season last year, made a lot of positive plays, threw for a lot of yards, threw for a lot of touchdowns, he won games, all that. And then he kept the bad plays to a minimum. His turnovers and all those things really were reduced. He has to continue to do that.

"That's a daily challenge in the NFL. Defenses are trying to get the ball out -- take it from you, intercept it from you, all those things. So continue to improve in his command of the offense, his decisiveness once the play starts, his decision-making, and his fundamentals -- his footwork and how he's throwing the football. All those things can be improved upon and hopefully we'll get the results we want."

The Cowboys didn't get those results last season. Sure, Romo led them to a 34-14 pounding of the Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs, posting a 104.9 passer rating in the process. A week later, however, Dallas suffered a humiliating, 34-3 divisional loss to the Minnesota Vikings. In the process, Romo lost two fumbles and threw an interception.

One of Romo's biggest defenders is his veteran understudy, Jon Kitna. He doesn't think Romo gets nearly enough credit for his toughness.

In 2008, Romo missed three games with a broken pinkie on his right (throwing) hand. In '09, he became the first Cowboys quarterback to take every snap for a full season. However, according to Kitna, Romo paid a physical price that few outside the team knew about.

"He played hurt last year, never talked about it. Played very hurt," Kitna said, although he didn't specify the nature of the injuries nor did the team ever report that Romo was dealing with any serious physical issues last year. "The backup quarterback's always sensitive to that. And those are the kind of things that just cement you as the guy for your football team."

Given his supporting cast, Romo has a good chance to improve on his numbers from last season. The Cowboys used their first-round draft pick on a dynamic wide receiver, former Oklahoma State star Dez Bryant, who has been highly impressive through the early part of camp. Miles Austin continues to look like the dominant force he became last season. And there is still Jason Witten, one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the game.

Romo looks extremely comfortable as he consistently finds open targets in camp drills. He offers the promise that he could, in fact, deliver the sort of season that would allow him to be recognized for more than just working hard.

"Just watching the command he has of this team, it's clear that this is his football team," Kitna said. "And that makes the world of difference for a quarterback -- when everybody is looking to you to be the leader, to be the guy out front, and they expect greatness out of you and you expect more out of yourself than what they expect out of you. That's who he is."

Until he gets that Super Bowl ring and/or MVP, Romo will continue to be known only for who he is not: An ultra-elite quarterback.

OBSERVATION POINTS

» The Cowboys insist it's no big deal that Bryant refused to carry the pads of veteran teammate and fellow receiver Roy Williams after practice. I disagree. Bryant, at the very least, has potentially driven an unnecessary wedge between himself and Williams, who seemed genuinely willing to offer him help. At most, he might have alienated himself from multiple veterans who went through the same process when they entered the league. The whole point is to remind a highly touted rookie that, despite his lofty draft status and hefty guaranteed money, he has yet to earn his NFL stripes. As demeaning as carrying pads might seem to Bryant, doing it and picking up a dinner or lunch tab for veteran teammates is a sign that he does, in fact, understand his place with them ... even if he is making one spectacular catch after another in practice.

» Here's a risky proposition for a presumed Super Bowl contender: The Cowboys are going to entrust place-kicking duties to someone who has never kicked field goals or extra points in an NFL regular-season game. Technically, David Buehler is in his second year in the league, having handled kickoffs for the Cowboys last season. But he does qualify as a rookie in the pressure-packed role he'll be filling this season. "The way that I approach it is I go on the practice field and I put myself in those pressure situations," Buehler said. "Mentally, I'll visualize myself in that stadium. Three seconds left on the clock. Down by two, and we need the field goal. Besides, it's pressure enough as it is at practice, kicking in front of Jerry, guys like Tony Romo, Witten, Wade (Phillips). The way I see it, I have more pressure in practice than I do in the game."

» I go along with Brad Childress' assessment that Brett Favre only needs two to three weeks to be ready for the regular season. Favre has a tremendous grasp of the Minnesota Vikings offense and proved last season that he is more than capable of jamming considerable preparation into a short amount of time. He will put in the extra hours at team headquarters studying videotape and working with his receivers, accomplishing in 14-21 days what other quarterbacks can't get done in a month or more. Of course, there seems little doubt that Childress will welcome Favre with open arms even if the gap between his arrival to Minnesota and the start of the season is smaller.

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