Several mainstays from the Dallas lineup in recent years — Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis — are now ex-Cowboys, while a crop of young newcomers has shown up at the Alamodome for camp, eager to show they deserve a spot on the roster.
Perhaps the most encouraging newcomer is quarterback Tony Romo. Right — he’s not a newcomer. But in 2010, he wasn’t the Romo to whom Cowboys fans had grown accustomed, so it just seems like it has been forever since he last performed at an elite level. In his eighth season with the team, Romo created three lasting images: (1) walking off the field with a grim look on his face after one of the team’s frustrating early-season losses, (2) stretched out on his back as trainers tended to his injured left shoulder and (3) standing on the sideline, out of uniform, as his understudy, Jon Kitna, rallied the team under then-interim head coach Jason Garrett.
But Romo is back after an offseason in which he continued to rehabilitate his injured shoulder, got married and orchestrated players-only workouts with his teammates during the NFL lockout.
“I’m healthy,” he said. “I’m ready to roll. I think this team had a good offseason. Guys came in in shape, and we’re excited about the opportunity ahead.
“Any time you’re away from the game for any extent or period of time, you understand why you play it, why you love it and why you love to compete and be out here with these guys. For me it’s just another opportunity, when I missed, to know that I want to work my butt off to be back out here, to be helping this football team to win. I think I’ve done everything up to this point and I think I just have to keep going.”
One of Romo’s closest friends, tight end Jason Witten, said that while Romo has grown as a team leader over the last year, his personality remains the same.
“I think it’s just (that) there was no time for lounging around,” Witten said. “There was no time for ‘we’ll get it when the season starts at training camp.’ (Romo) had a clear message when the lockout came, that ‘here’s our plan, here’s where we’re going.’
“Even during those practices, there’s nobody there to lead it for you. A lot goes in to putting on a practice for 45 guys. I think he understands where it’s at — I think we all do. Our job is to kind of follow his lead — and we have good leadership on this team — and focus on where we want to get, because we all know we have goals. I think it’s easy to say, ‘last year is behind us and we’re moving forward.’ I think there’s a commitment to putting everything we can into this opportunity and see where it takes us.”
Romo said the unofficial practices were vital to the Cowboys’ chances in 2011, and that brief gatherings would not suffice if the team was to fulfill its goals for the upcoming season.
“I just think that our team needed to do stuff this offseason, and not just a two- or three-day weekend,” Romo said. “We decided we were going to put together a month or so of on-the-field activities. We basically ran practice without pads and guys were committed to running around, being out there competing and being smart about it. I think it really was a huge benefit to us. It was invaluable to the defense having to become involved in a whole new system. We had all of the cards drawn up for every play of the offseason and I think that allowed them to learn a little bit. Offensively, guys really got to run, get their legs in shape, (so they could) be ready to go when this (training camp) started.
“I wanted to make sure the practice was scripted by the minute. If we get out there and all of a sudden guys are like, ‘let’s try … over here.’ Then we’re all going to be out there and guys won’t be as committed. I wanted to make sure we went from one drill to the next on time — seven minutes here on stretch, 14 plays here on team (drills), 10 in seven-on-seven, and things of that nature. Blow the whistle, and then you have a two-minute water break … boom, boom, boom. These guys, they’re professionals. They just want structure, and I think that’s all that we were trying to provide this offseason.”
Romo allowed that the time he spent on the sideline last season was frustrating, but said that now that he has had a chance to step back and evaluate, he thinks the interruption intensified his desire to get back on the field.
“I think you’re always analyzing how individually you can improve, and collectively,” he said. “As you get older you’re always trying to find new ideas and things that can help push your team along; that’s one thing you look for from a coach’s perspective sometimes, in the overall scheme of it. At the same token you’re always trying to get better individually. I know that the easy answer is your passion for the game, you love it, you miss it, and it’s just hard to watch the game, and you want to be out there competing and doing what you love to do.
“It’s been hard. It was great, we went out and had a month long of practices just because it felt like I was finally playing some football again. You know you do all of the stuff on your own, and you do it with some of the guys, but it’s just great to compete and get 11-on-11 and see what happens. For me, I love competition, it’s great to be back out. I’m excited as a guy could be to be playing football again.”