Michael Silver: The Gameface

Romo aware of target on his back

Romo aware of target on his back
By Michael Silver, Yahoo Sports
July 18, 2008

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports
Like his girlfriend Jessica Simpson, Tony Romo is known primarily for two things – a pair of playoff disappointments that mar his otherwise resplendent rise from NFL nobody to star quarterback.

How much those conspicuous clunkers will weigh him down as he prepares for a season in which his Dallas Cowboys are projected as strong Super Bowl contenders is one of the biggest questions as the start of training camp approaches.

While restless Packers legend Brett Favre and presumed successor Aaron Rodgers are the quarterbacks getting the bulk of the attention in July, I'm equally interested to see how another passer with Wisconsin ties handles the heat this summer and beyond. From paparazzi to armchair general managers, Romo, who grew up in Burlington (a Milwaukee suburb), has been besieged by people who take him a lot more seriously than he claims to take himself.

"No one's going to remember me five or seven years from now," Romo insisted last weekend from the putting green of the Edgewood-Tahoe golf course, where he was in the process of finishing in a tie for third place in the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament. "Really, I'm not that important. Eventually, no one will pay attention to me, but right now it's going to be tabloids and articles and all kinds of craziness. All I can do is try to win as many (championships) as I can and have some fun in the process, and eventually it'll be somebody else's turn."

While he may be underestimating the staying power of his fame, Romo, 28, is right about the winning part. Until he leads the Cowboys, who open training camp on July 24 in Oxnard, Calif., to a playoff victory, he'll remain an easy target for critics who claim he's not sufficiently committed to his craft.

Last January, Romo set himself up for that stigma by making a celebrated border run during the bye weekend before the Cowboys, the NFC's top playoff seed, hosted their divisional-round game. Joining Romo in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico were teammates Jason Witten and Bobby Carpenter, ex-Cowboys lineman Marco Rivera, their significant others – and, oh yeah, Simpson, her parents, and a few of their camera-clicking friends.

The images of Romo, whose Pro Bowl regular season had wheezed to an underwhelming end (one touchdown and five interceptions in his final three games), chilling poolside with the voluptuous actress/singer/reality star created a stir before Dallas' meeting with the New York Giants. When the favored Cowboys suffered a 21-17 defeat that essentially ended on cornerback R.W. McQuarters' interception of a Romo pass in the end zone with nine seconds remaining, the impending fallout drove wideout Terrell Owens to tears as he defended his quarterback.

"I think Tony learned a hard lesson about fame and perception," another Cowboys teammate said recently. "It's not so much that (going to Mexico) actually affected his performance, but that it opened him up to criticism and attention that was unnecessary."

We'll have to wait until Romo's next playoff bye weekend to see if he takes a different approach, but in the six months since the defeat to the Giants he hasn't shied away from the public eye. Anyone who saw the clip of him singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" in January while onstage with the band Metal Skool – and, adding to the weirdness, actor Dennis Haskins, the man who played Mr. Belding in "Saved By The Bell" – can attest to that.

"The thing is, I still do the same things I've been doing the last 10 years – it's just that people are noticing it now," Romo said. "You can only practice and get ready for football so much; you can't do it 24 hours a day. I'm not married, and I don't have kids, so that leaves me some time to enjoy myself.

"If I want to go out or listen to some music or take my girlfriend to dinner, I do it. I don't feel like I should have to hide. I still play golf, I still play basketball and I still play soccer like I always have."

Uh, soccer? That's right – Romo, who last October signed a six-year, $67.5-million contract extension, routinely rips it up in the midfield in a Dallas-area rec league. Heaven help the Steve Bartman wannabe who takes him down with an aggressive slide tackle.

An undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois who didn't throw an NFL pass until midway through his fourth season, Romo enjoyed the luxury of not having his decisions scrutinized by a patronizing public. Now, as a two-time Pro Bowl quarterback who has chosen to date an even bigger celebrity, that's no longer an option. Like the Patriots' Tom Brady, he believes he can handle the fame while adhering to the work ethic that allowed him to rise from obscurity in the first place.

Brady, however, has won three Super Bowls and earned his place among the game's all-time greats. Romo is still looking for his first playoff victory, and strangely has more US Weekly covers (one) than he has Sports Illustrated's (zero).

Until he comes through in the postseason, at least to casual fans, Romo will continue to be known as The Guy Who Went To Mexico With Jessica Simpson – Then Tanked.

Depending on your perspective, that may or may not be a slight improvement over his previous summer's designation, Bobble Boy.

A year earlier, he was simply Tony Who?

He swears they're all the same guy. Of the Cabo trip, Romo said, "It's hard for me to explain to people. It was a bye weekend, and I wanted to get away before I started locking in on the game. I didn't want to go on a drinking binge to Vegas or New York; what I really wanted to do was relax and watch football all weekend. So a few us of decided to bring our girls down to Mexico, take them out to a couple of nice dinners and watch the playoff games.

"It was perfect. It's not like I went out to Cabo Wabo and ripped it up. It was all very mellow. People don't realize the decisions you make and why you make them. If you go out to a club and drink water, now everyone says you're partying."

Romo stopped talking for a moment, perhaps realizing that it was pointless to try to change a perception that has clearly spiraled beyond his ability to control. People can and will draw their own conclusions about his lifestyle and whether it negatively impacts his game, and the only effective rebuttal is to come up big when it matters most.

"I know exactly what I need to," Romo continued, pausing to line up a 15-foot putt. "Just realize that I don't think I deserve to be good this year unless I've worked harder than I did the (previous) offseason."

Romo's glare turned steely. He sank the putt and politely ended the interview. "Time to get serious," he explained. Six months from now, he hopes to provide conclusive evidence of that being the case.

Here are four other compelling storylines as we head into camp:

• RETURN OF THE GLASS EATERS
Last year, fueled by the fallout over Spygate and coach Bill Belichick's relentless drive, the Patriots extended a middle finger to the world while producing the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history. But proving a point every week is a tiring endeavor, and New England wasn't nearly as potent in the playoffs, finally buckling in a shocking Super Bowl defeat to the loose and undaunted Giants. Now, undoubtedly, the Pats are preparing to use that disappointing outcome as fuel for another ruthless run at redemption. They're certainly capable of pulling it off, and playing in a soft division helps. Then again, seven of the eight Super Bowl losers this decade have failed to make the playoffs the following year, and it's hard to imagine the Patriots staving off the mental fatigue that plagued them down the stretch in '07. Could this be the season the Belichick haters finally get their fantasy fulfilled?

• STRIFE OF BRIAN
Eighteen months ago, Brian Urlacher was in football heaven. The star middle linebacker had led the Bears to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than two decades, and even the lack of a dependable quarterback didn't seem to be an impediment to success. Now Urlacher is a salty man on a team that seems to be sinking fast (and which still doesn't have a quarterback). His relationship with the local media has deteriorated to the point where he routinely gives one-word answers to even the most complex of questions. In that spirit, let's try some hypothetical queries: Is he happy with his contract? "No." Did the Bears suffer last year after coach Lovie Smith fired highly regarded defensive coordinator Ron Rivera? "Yes." How did the team's decision to trade starting halfback Thomas Jones and make way for former first-round pick Cedric Benson as his successor pan out? "Atrociously." How does all of this make Urlacher feel? "Nauseous."

• CAN OCHO CINCO STAY TRANQUILO?
After the Bengals' miserable '07 season ended, mercurial wideout Chad Johnson seemed determined to talk his way out of Cincinnati. Taking a page out of the T.O. Playbook from 2005 in Philadelphia, Johnson seemed to be making an effort to become so obnoxious that the organization had to trade him. It didn't work, and now Johnson appears resigned to sucking it up and spending another year in stripes. But training camp is hot and frustrating and full of interview opportunities – a combination that could bring out Johnson's disruptive side when it's needed least. This is a huge year in the 'Nati: Two years after the team's breakthrough season under Marvin Lewis, which included an AFC North championship, the coach's job could be on the line. On a team that has lacked discipline on and off the field, a prolonged insurrection by "Ocho Cinco" would be deadly.

• SAY CHEESE
However the Brett Favre Unretirement Saga plays out, Rodgers, after three years of waiting, will be under tremendous pressure to guide a young, talented team back into Super Bowl contention. Unless, of course, Favre comes back to Green Bay and reclaims the starting job. Or maybe the vanquished legend will end up in Tampa Bay, where the NFL's resident quarterback collector, Bucs coach Jon Gruden, has a grumpy old starter in Jeff Garcia, who's unhappy with his contract after last year's Pro Bowl campaign. Is Minnesota still an option for Favre given the reported tampering charges the Packers filed against the Vikings? Is Chicago? Miami? How about one of those teams (Jets, Eagles, Ravens, Redskins) along the Eastern seaboard? Someone we haven't thought of yet? Here's the bottom line: If Favre goes anywhere, it's one of the NFL's sexier summer stories in recent memory. If he somehow goes back to the Packers? Move over, candidates Obama and McCain.

Take it to the ATM

July 16 was the only time the Jets will be first in 2008. … When Dolphins quarterback Josh McCown goes to the video store, he will get a bit queasy while walking past DVDs of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." … If the Jags' Matt Jones ends up going to jail because of his recent drug bust, he'll make a point of identifying himself to fellow prisoners as a former quarterback, rather than as a wide receiver.

Lies, lies, lies

1. Jason Taylor will show up for the start of Dolphins training camp.

2. There is such a thing as a safe lead against the Turkish soccer team.

3. Neither the Rams nor Jaguars are for sale (because their current owners kinda/sorta say they're not).

Oxygen-deprived thought from above

Friday will mark the 25th day since comedian George Carlin's death from heart failure, and that harsh reality doesn't suck any less than it did on June 23. I imagine it won't for a long time, either. Carlin was a fearless genius who often found humor in the sports world, including a precious riff from his famous "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" routine: "There are some two-way words. Like it's OK for Curt Gowdy to say, 'Roberto Clemente has two balls on him.' But he can't say, 'I think he hurt his balls on that play, Tony, don't you? He's holding them, he must have hurt them, by God.' " And has there ever been a greater opening line to an HBO comedy special than the three-word gem Carlin busted out in "It's Bad For Ya!" his 14th and last stand-up gem for the cable network last March? (Spoiler alert: The first word was one of those you can't say on TV, and the next two were the first and last name of a very famous cyclist.) That, of course, leads us into our next category, as the high-end tequila will be flowing in abundance in Carlin's memory …

Let's do some Don Julio Silver shots for …

Let's start with a life-affirming toast to Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez, who saved a 45-year-old man from choking in a Southern California restaurant last month. While everyone else in the crowded eatery froze up with fear and indecision, Gonzalez took charge by rising from his seat and giving the victim the Heimlich. Speaking of kick-ass Golden Bears, I'm lining up shots for the great Natalie Coughlin, whose brilliant performance at the recently concluded U.S. Olympic swimming trials set her up for a Beijing effort that could surpass her five-medal masterpiece in Athens. Coughlin's unlikely journey to Olympic glory was detailed in my book, "Golden Girl," which you should buy if you want to read a great story about the complex challenges that face competitive swimmers.

I'm also toasting another Cal swimmer featured in the book, Emily Silver. Silver, no relation, is part of the 40-strong Golden Bear family set to compete in Beijing; she'll try to bounce back from a broken hand suffered at the trials to swim in the 400-meter freestyle relay. Finally, I'm opening another bottle for future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who recently had a verbal deal all lined up to join the Raiders' broadcast team as a color commentator. Then Sapp, in his typically incisive and unvarnished form, made some public comments that cast the Kingdom of Al Davis in an unflattering light and received a call from one of the serfs explaining that such insolence was unacceptable. Sapp told the caller to take this job and shove it, undoubtedly smiling as he looked himself in the mirror that night.

Yahoo search words of the week

Tyson Homosexual Christian

Lyric-altered song dedication of the week

When Brett Favre announced his retirement in March, I chose a Grateful Dead standard to convey the despair of grieving Packers fans. In honor of Favre's change of tune, we once again channel the late, great Fat Man (along with lyricist Robert Hunter), this time with Favre on vocals and "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo" providing the melody.

On the day when I retired, Ted shook his head and sighed
I hit the mark just as plain as day; he felt so warm inside
They say Lombardi caught Hornung rollin' loaded dice;
Winning was the only thing – yeah that was good advice

Halfstep, Mississippi uptown toodeloo
Hello, baby, I'm gone, goodbye
Said I was done but hey I lied
Gonna kick dirt in McCarthy's eye
I'm on my way, on my way

If all you got to live for is what you left behind
Get yourself a TV gig and rob that network blind
Lost my boots in transit, baby, pile of smokin' leather
Jon Gruden loves his retreads good but I can't take the hot weather

Halfstep, Mississippi uptown toodeloo
Hello, baby, I'm gone, goodbye
Said I was done but hey I lied
Gonna kick dirt in Rodgers' eye
I'm on my way, on my way

I told Ted to get Randy Moss, keep Rivera and Wahle
He didn't even hire Mooch, can you believe the gall?
What's the point of callin' shots? Ted's cue ain't straight in line
Football's made of toxic waste and now it's A-Rod's time

Halfstep, Mississippi uptown toodeloo
Hello, baby, I'm gone, goodbye
Said I was done but hey I lied
Gonna kick dirt in Thompson's eye
I'm on my way, on my way

Across the Mississippeo
Across the lazy river
Off to Minneapolis?
Did you just feel that shiver?

Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Jul 18, 2008 1:39 pm, EDT

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