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Romo has love, but does he have game?

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- As Tony Romo worked his way around the perimeter of the Alamodome -- hurriedly signing autographs for scores of beaming men, women, and children jammed into the bottom section of seats -- the chant became almost deafening.

Ro-mo! Ro-mo! Ro-mo!

No one in this bunch wanted to talk about the fact the No. 1 quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys -- and in their hearts -- has made all of 11 career NFL starts, including a playoff game. These weren't the people to engage in a discussion about the fact that the Cowboys' six regular-season victories in that stretch came against teams with a combined 44-52 record. And this certainly wasn't a crowd seeking further analysis of that fumbled snap on a potential game-winning field goal that cost the Cowboys their wild-card playoff game against Seattle last January.

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Ro-mo! Ro-mo! Ro-mo!

No, this wasn't a time for objectivity. This was a time for unbridled adoration.

Ro-mo! Ro-mo! Ro-mo!

They wore No. 9 jerseys, by far the most popular apparel among the thousands of fans on hand for the Cowboys' first practice of training camp. They held giant posters bearing his photo. And they chanted … and chanted … and chanted.

Ro-mo! Ro-mo! Ro-mo!

As training camps go, this one had the feel of something much larger -- and not simply because everything's bigger in Texas. One would never guess the Cowboys hadn't won a playoff game in 10 years or were starting over with a new coach with a much lower profile than his successor or … or … had a fairly significant question mark at quarterback.

"I appreciate them coming out and supporting us," Romo said. "It makes it so much more fun being out here practicing. The game, itself, is fun, but it's like a mini-game when you're out there and the fans are cheering. I'm glad they're here."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is all for Romo's rock-star status, which has been enhanced by dating singers Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood and an appearance as a celebrity judge at the Miss Universe pageant.

"It's good for the Cowboys and good for football," he said. "There is an element here that is entertainment, (but) you have to back it up with action."

And that is the essence of the question mark. Is Romo truly ready to step up to the challenge of leading a team whose 9-7 finish in 2006 and off-season additions to the offensive line and secondary have fueled expectations of a Super Bowl run?

It's hard for anyone -- including Jones or new coach Wade Phillips -- to say with any certainty, which only contributes to the notion that the Cowboys' greatest attraction also represents their greatest concern. Even Jones admits that he might very well "rue the day" he passed on selecting former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn in last April's draft. Yet, he chose to press forward with Romo.

Whether that means Jones is ready to acquiesce to the quarterback's desire for a lengthy contract extension that would pay him about $7 million per season remains to be seen. After Romo's up-and-down performance last season, Jones just might want a little more proof that that would be a wise investment.

Soon after replacing Drew Bledsoe as the Cowboys' starter last season, Romo looked as if he would give the team the best quarterback it had since Troy Aikman. He won four of his first five starts. During that stretch, he completed 71.2 percent of his passes, registered a passer rating of 115.6, and threw 10 touchdown passes against only two interceptions.

But then, through the final five games of '06, Romo only led the Cowboys to two victories. Along the way, he threw six touchdown passes but was intercepted eight times, and had a passer rating of 77.1.

 And, of course, there was that costly botched snap in the final seconds of the playoff loss against the Seahawks.

None of that unpleasant recent history seems to bother Romo. He appears very comfortable with himself and the abundant pressure that comes with his job and how he is expected to perform it. For all of his heady experiences off the field, Romo presents the image of someone who is still pretty well grounded, who hasn't forgotten that there are fewer people living in his hometown of Burlington, Wis., than attended the first practice of the Cowboys' training camp.

"What I try to do is work as hard as I can and do things right in life, try and do things the right way," Romo said. "And I can put my head down on the pillow at night and say, 'I did it the right way.' Even if I'm not a good quarterback, even if I don't do well, I can at least go on and live life. What I can't do is have regrets in some ways about what I should have done or could have done differently, and I feel like I don't do that."

A huge part of Romo's success will depend on Jason Garrett, the Cowboys' new offensive coordinator, and Wade Wilson, their new quarterbacks coach. Romo already has worked with three other tutors -- Sean Payton, David Lee, and Chris Palmer -- since joining the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2003.

Romo credits Garrett and Wilson with helping his development so far, although his greatest strides come from the fact that for the first time in his pro career he enters a season as the defined No. 1 quarterback and is, therefore, seeing the lion's share of work in practice.

"The offense probably comes quicker because I'm a firm believer in repetition," Romo said. "You study until you're blue in the face, but until you see how the 'Sam' linebacker blitzes, all of a sudden you need to be able to react to it fast. You can tell yourself, 'When he comes, I'm throwing to the hot receiver,' but until you're out there and you see him do it you just really can't react to that same speed."

"He doesn't have as much to prove as a guy coming in who hadn't played," Phillips said. "Most of the time when you come in during the middle of the season, like he did last year, you're trying to prove something the next year, that you can play quarterback. I think he's proven that he can play quarterback. Whether he can play great quarterback all the time, that's where we need to get him to."

But Phillips is enamored with Romo's skills, especially his ability to make plays under duress. Phillips sees qualities in Romo that he saw in two quarterbacks he watched on a regular basis when he was defensive coordinator and head coach in Buffalo, Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly and Doug Flutie, and another Hall-of-Famer that he was around during his years as a defensive coordinator and head coach in Denver, John Elway.

"Certain quarterbacks can make plays when everything breaks down, whether it's (with) their feet, whether it's their movement (in the pocket)," Phillips said. "Even (Dan) Marino moved around in the pocket. (Romo) is one of those guys. He made plays last year that other guys can't make."

Ultimately, that is why most Cowboy fans are thrilled to have Romo at quarterback. They no longer could tolerate watching Bledsoe stand in the pocket like a giant statue waiting to be leveled by a wrecking ball.

Romo runs and throws well on the run. He brings excitement and exuberance to the field, a spark that was large enough to at least a temporary fire in the Cowboys last season. Romo's passion for the game runs so deep that he can actually keep a straight face when he professes his love for training camp, which for many NFL players is at best, a necessary evil.

"To me, it's a fun time of year," Romo said. "I know sometimes it's a grind for some of the old offensive and defensive linemen. For me, you can compete twice a day. You go out there and throw the ball and try and beat the defense or a guy. It's exciting to have the emotional side of being happy when you leave practice or sad or upset or whatever. To do that two times in one day, I just love it."

So do his many, many fans.

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