All eyes on Romo now that Owens is gone

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

CARROLLTON, Texas -- A couple of years ago, the scene at the Cowboys' temporary practice home Tuesday might have made quarterback Tony Romo do a double take. But now he knows the drill.

At least 30 reporters jockeyed for position around a kicking net in anticipation of Romo's post-practice news conference. Meanwhile, All-Pros such as DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten walked toward the team bus without interruption. I have a good friend in the business who says the NFL is all about the quarterback. And with the Dallas Cowboys, that's most certainly the case now that the most controversial receiver in the game has been banished to the Canadian border.

Romo stepped onto the makeshift podium at a local high school stadium and faced the questions he had to know were coming. It was his first public appearance since the Cowboys' humiliating 44-6 loss to the Eagles on the final Sunday of the '08 season. On that afternoon, a battered Romo had tried to lend perspective to an outcome that was still too fresh in the minds of Cowboys fans. In about 10 minutes time, he undid a lot of the goodwill that he'd earned by pretty much saving the franchise midway through the '06 season.

Romo delivered a "life goes on speech" that didn't exactly comfort Cowboys followers. In fact, his words had the exact opposite effect. Utter embarrassment and anger seemed like the appropriate responses to such a thorough beating, but Romo preached patience and understanding. And that was before he got around to pointing the finger at offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

With that in mind, Romo fielded questions Tuesday about Jerry Jones' new "Romo friendly" manifesto, which the owner has attempted to explain in a variety of ways. The phrase has been repeated continually on local talk radio shows and blogs. It seemed logical to ask Romo for his definition of the "Romo friendly" offense. Unfortunately, Romo's Bloglines account must be down. With a straight face, he said he'd never heard of the phrase -- and then refused to speculate as to what it might mean.

Confused reporters (redundant) took a moment to let that sink in and then rallied with questions about Terrell Owens' departure. Even in the couple of one-on-one interviews he has granted, Romo has been curiously vague on this issue. He certainly didn't come out and call for T.O.'s release publicly, but then, he didn't exactly rush to the player's defense.

"That's not up to any of us players to decide," Romo said of T.O.'s release Tuesday. "That's why we're players. The organization and management decides those things. We're all at risk every offseason, depending upon everything. You always want to go out there and try to have all the guys you play with every year. That just doesn't happen. We have to go with the guys we have here now, go forward and keep improving."

Romo's assertion that players don't have a say in personnel decisions probably caught Troy Aikman by surprise. In reality, Romo knows how much power he wields in the organization. And he understands that Jones' decision to release T.O. had a lot to do with him. I don't think Romo called the owner and recommended the move, but there are certainly other channels to convey those thoughts.

Whether he chooses to admit it or not, Romo had lost the locker room to Terrell Owens, one of the most divisive (and talented) players in the history of the league. T.O. remained on his best behavior (by his standards) right up until the point he got paid last offseason. But when T.O. reportedly felt that Romo and his pal Witten were freezing him out of the offense, he did what he does best: He helped turn his teammates against them.

And if you don't believe it, I suggest you visit with Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb at a time that's convenient for them. But before this becomes a T.O. bashing column (am I too late?), let me say that Romo bears much responsibility for what happened last season. For starters, there's no one on the Cowboys' coaching staff whom he listens to, which leads to a lot of his careless throws. You think he'd still be playing like this if Bill Parcells (or Tony Sparano for that matter) were still in Dallas? Not on your life.

And regarding all the backstabbing going on in the locker room last season, Romo could've done something to head it off at the pass. If you don't have a strong head coach -- and the Cowboys don't -- someone in the locker room better carry a large hammer. Romo could've gone to T.O. privately and told him to cut the nonsense, but to my knowledge, that never happened. He simply tried to ignore T.O. -- and that strategy backfired.

In a sense, T.O.'s gone because Romo didn't know how to keep him in check. Most so-called experts (including me) seem to think the addition by subtraction move will eventually pay off. But if it doesn't, the finger will be pointed squarely at Romo. I still think he'll take the Cowboys deep into the playoffs at some point -- and perhaps to a Super Bowl. He has some remarkable leadership qualities and he's a tireless worker.

Unfortunately, though, he's not much of a listener. It's great to be able to tune out distractions, but Romo runs the risk of tuning out everyone. Since Parcells, Sparano and former quarterbacks coach David Lee have left the building, Romo doesn't have anyone willing to put him in his place.

All three of his seasons as the starter have ended with devastating losses. But he's not the first quarterback to have that happen. Romo's stats rival those of any quarterback in the league, but he won't be taken seriously until he wins a playoff game.

His new mantra is that the Cowboys will live in the present instead of constantly trying to look ahead to the playoffs. That's probably a pretty good place to start.

Until he has some playoff success, Romo's career will be heavier on style than substance. Can he change that perception?

We're about to find out.