OXNARD, Calif. – The pity about Tony Romo is he's actually something of a football savant. Those who know him, who work closely with him, say he has a vision that is unique even by the standards of an NFL starting quarterback. The face of the Dallas Cowboys is forever seeking, scouring tape, searching for solutions others might not see.
Because of this, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has bestowed upon him a piece of the team's offense.
And yet the brilliance is lost in a haze of superficiality. Whatever great brain Romo might have in the film room disappears with the next tabloid rumor or misguided improvisation late in an important game.
On Sunday, the first day of Dallas' training camp, the questions should have been about Romo's mysterious new role in designing the team's offense. Instead, they were about less meaningful matters like his weight and the cryptic group with whom he recently ran mountains. In a way this was his fault.
When prodded about the mountain running group – a fact recently revealed by Jones who can never keep a secret – he turned vague. And when Romo gets vague he looks like a nervous schoolboy hiding something lurid.
Who were these people?
What do they do?
Who is the leader?
Romo kept ducking, smiling as he walked away from his news conference, across a patio filled with corporate tents, around a fence, between some buildings, down a sidewalk, around another building revealing … well … nothing.
These people run, he said. Their routine is a workout. Actually a very good workout. He wouldn't give the name of the leader because he isn't sure the group wants the publicity despite having spent days with an NFL superstar.
"They are into a Zen aspect," he said evasively.
Well where are they?
He stopped and looked around.
"Are we in Southern California?" Romo asked.
Yes, he was told.
"It would be in Southern California," he said smiling again before ducking behind a fence where head coach Jason Garrett stood, leaving behind the swirling intrigue.
And that is unfortunate because the more significant story with Romo is that he is playing a bigger role than ever in the Cowboys' success or failure this season. His new involvement in the offense is real and it is substantial. You can be sure that whatever plays the team runs this fall will be plays that Romo wants.
How exactly he will fit in the design of the offense and even the choosing of plays is like so much else that surrounds him, a mystery. Answers from various people involved in the building of the offense are ambiguous. Even quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson seemed unsure saying on Sunday: "I'll see how it works and adjust."
What is clear is that Romo has already been more involved in the structuring of the offense this year than he has been in the past. In fact, it might be more involved than almost any quarterback anywhere.
He attended most of the coaches' offensive installation meetings this winter. In other years he might have dropped in for a few minutes but this time he sat through the bulk of the sessions offering his opinions. Eventually he gave his ideas to Wilson who then spent several days researching the concepts before cutting up tape to illustrate them. He then distributed the tape to the other offensive coaches so they could consider them.
When asked what those concepts were Wilson grinned.
It's a secret.
The coach's lone revelation is that Romo will have more control at the line of scrimmage.
"He's got a phenomenal football mind, now," Wilson said. "And there's also this: If it's his idea he takes more ownership of it to make it work."
In other words, Romo is going to do everything he can to be sure his additions to the offense – whatever they are – will succeed.
"I think anytime the more you are involved I think there is no question the more comfortable you are with anything, I think that just goes with the territory," Romo said in explaining his role. "You gain a lot over the years with experience. You understand a lot offensively. You start to understand what has made us successful, you understand what can make our lives easier, what can make my job easier and you just go hammer things out."
He started talking about the number of years he has played, entering 11 now, and of the things he has seen. He said he has a grasp of what works and what doesn't, and what the Cowboys must do to get better. This led to a question of whether his decade of discovery has brought him to demand more control.
"Ahhh," he replied, then paused for several beats.
"I just think if you have played long enough and you have experiences out on the field you know what things are easier and what things we do well and what things are trouble spots," he continued. "You have a certain understanding and thoughts on those subjects, so to me it's no different than you just believe that and you want to communicate that."
Now that he has, whatever happens on the field will rest more than ever on him. Garrett has already yielded the play-calling. So much is new now, including the wristbands with plays on them Dallas' quarterbacks will wear this season supposedly to streamline the process of getting plays from the coach's box to the field.
No one has ever questioned Romo's determination or his savvy. He has always seemed to have a good sense of what works in concept. It is the superficial that gets in the way – whether the starlets in the old days or the exotic mountain running club that is too Zen to be identified. He can never duck a good tabloid story anymore than he can help himself when a play breaks down and he thinks he has the perfect improvisation.
Until that improvisation turns into an interception.
More than ever the success or failure of the Cowboys will be on him.
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