Improvements evident for Boys' Romo

IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is playing better in the most significant stretch of the season.

With his playmaking ability magnified because of previous struggles in December, Romo made improvements in his game that the Washington Redskins will see Sunday night in Landover, Md.

Since becoming the starter in 2006, Romo led NFL quarterbacks with 24 December turnovers, compiling a 5-8 mark in the month leading into this season.

This December, Romo is 1-2 but hasn't turned the ball over. In fact, Romo has six touchdowns this month, has posted the second-best quarterback rating (109.7), behind the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning and has completed 68.9 percent of his passes.

Last December, Romo threw five touchdowns with six interceptions and had a quarterback rating of 67.9.

Romo said he has done subtle things to improve his play in the NFL's most important month.
He won't tell exactly what he has done, but watching him on the field tells you he's not taking as many chances with the football.

He has reduced the number of throws into coverage, and he will take off and run when he's under pressure. His pocket awareness has improved. When he feels defenders around him, he tucks the ball closer with a tighter grip in an attempt to keep from getting stripped.

Last year, Romo fumbled three times, including twice in the regular-season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which he committed three total turnovers.

Romo was sacked 12 times in the season's final month last year, with most takedowns and fumbles coming as he was attempting to pass. This December, Romo has been sacked just six times in three games, and he hasn't fumbled.

Trust is another factor in Romo's improvement. He believes in his receivers, defense and coaches.

Last year, he worried about whether Terrell Owens was upset about not getting the ball. With Owens now playing for the Buffalo Bills, Romo doesn't care about who gets the ball. He has completed passes to 10 players in the first three weeks of December.

A comfort level with the offensive system also helps Romo. In 2006, he worked under coach Bill Parcells' safety-first play calling, in which running the ball was the key. In 2007, one of the best offensive years in Cowboys history, Romo had offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and running game coordinator Tony Sparano helping him.

In 2008, Romo had only Garrett, as Sparano left to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins.

Last season, Romo's numbers dropped in comparison to that 2007 season, which was expected, but a bond developed between him and Garrett.

"I've been in the system awhile, so yeah," Romo said regarding a comfort level with the offense. "Jason and the staff, I work closely, obviously, with them. We have a great feel for Jason and the way he likes to do certain things. I think he's very good at what he does. Just because it's his system, he's smart enough to understand that players like certain things and there's certain things the players will make things go because they're good at it."

Romo's health also has proved vital to his playmaking. Last year, Romo fought through back pain and the recovery of a broken pinkie on his throwing hand.

This year, he's healthy. He can move around freely and work on his conditioning by lifting weights and running pain-free.

The Cowboys' defense is also much better this year, putting pressure on the opposing quarterback and turning offenses away on third down. Romo is less likely to gamble knowing his defense will get him the ball back.

"I'm sure he's like, 'If we punt, I might get the ball back, especially this month,'" backup quarterback Jon Kitna said.

Kitna also said that limiting the amount of second- and third-and-long situations makes things easier for a quarterback to complete passes and prevent turnovers.

Everything seems to be working for Romo in December. Whether this helps him lead the Cowboys to the postseason and a possible win in January remains to be seen.

"The goal each week is not to give the other team an advantage with the ball in bad situations," Romo said. "The importance of the ball matters. For me, I'm seeing it; I'm doing some things a little differently that I'm not going to tell you. But they've helped me to minimize certain decisions that I've made in the past, and that's part of growing up and being experienced on the football field."

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