Romo made leadership a priority

IRVING, Texas -- Just when it seemed matters couldn't get any worse for the Dallas Cowboys, Tony Romo took the podium in Philadelphia.

His postgame press conference was as painful for Cowboys fans to listen to as the 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the win-or-go-home game was to watch.

Romo, minutes after collapsing in the shower because of pain from a rib injury, proceeded to deflect blame for yet another December debacle. He philosophically rambled about football's minor meaning in the grand scheme of life, not exactly the sort of perspective people want to hear in the aftermath of an embarrassing loss.

A common conclusion: Romo could never be the leader the Cowboys needed. Funny, but that isn't a complaint that's being heard a year later as the Cowboys enter what amounts to the NFC East championship game against the Eagles.

"It's obvious he's the leader of the offense," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "Not that he wasn't before, but there were a couple of distractions there, and he doesn't have any of that."

OK, enough about Terrell Owens. Let's focus on the changes that Romo has made over the last year to become a better leader.

First, he made leadership a priority. He had discounted the importance of leadership in the past. However, after weeks of reflection following the disappointing end of a season that started with Super Bowl aspirations, Romo vowed to take a more active leadership role.

In hindsight, Romo says that was a natural part of his progression as a quarterback.

"It's just growing into it," Romo said. "When you're a freshman or sophomore in high school, it's tough when guys are established, they've been there, been through it all, and you haven't. That's part of understanding it and gaining that understanding, gaining experience."

The foundation for Romo taking a stronger leadership role was set during the offseason. As usual, he spent more free time at Valley Ranch than any of his teammates, studying with his coaches and working with his receivers. But Romo's declaration that he had to cut down turnovers was a big difference.

Gone was his live-with-the-bad-and-the-good attitude about throwing interceptions. Without any prompting from the media, he admitted after the first minicamp practice that he needed to make protecting the ball a priority for the Cowboys to fulfill their potential.

That harsh self-critique set the tone for accountability, something the Cowboys lacked last season. That tone was reinforced when Romo had a four-turnover "hiccup," as he called it, in a loss to the New York Giants in the second week of the season.

When Romo took the podium at Cowboys Stadium that night, he pretty much delivered a message that was the polar opposite of his Philadelphia rambling. He talked about how much the loss stung. He accepted all the blame. He promised he would make sure he didn't play that poorly again.

"If he's going to evaluate himself that way, how am I going to hold my end up?" tight end Jason Witten said of how teammates interpreted Romo's comments.

You won't hear Romo, who has accepted that the responsibility for winning ultimately falls on the quarterback's shoulders, criticize his teammates publicly. Nor will you see him scream at a teammate in the huddle or on the sideline.

Romo doesn't believe those types of demonstrations do any good. He's not hesitant to give a teammate constructive criticism, but he doesn't need the world to see it. The only harsh words the media has heard from Romo's mouth this season have been directed at himself.

"The other guys have to realize that you're not a prima-donna-type guy that's getting on everybody else and not making your own mistakes," head coach Wade Phillips said. "I think people get carried away with some guys that seem to be leaders but are really just gripers."

Perhaps the most important part of Romo's development as a leader is his production. Witten said he believes that Romo has never played better.

Romo has remained one of the league's premier playmaking quarterbacks while drastically dropping his turnovers. He should break his franchise record for passing yards in a season in the first half Sunday. His interception total (eight) is by far the lowest since he's become the starter.

"l ultimately think leadership comes from leading by example," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "People follow the lead of a quarterback. They follow how he behaves, how he conducts himself in the huddle, how he approaches the line of scrimmage, how he handles success, how he handles things that don't go quite so well."

Romo didn't handle failure well in Philadelphia a year ago. A lot has changed since then, including the perception of Romo's leadership ability.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.