Can Romo reach next level in his 30s?

Tony Romo will turn 31 on April 21, and as he celebrates his birthday with friends and loved ones, things seemingly couldn't be better for the Dallas Cowboys quarterback.

He's entering the prime of his career and has three years remaining on his contract. However, moving into your 30s isn't necessarily a good thing for quarterbacks.

Last season, Romo suffered a season-ending injury and saw his team finish 6-10 and go through a coaching change.

It seems to be a trend among elite quarterbacks that as soon as you hit 30, things go downhill.

Tom Brady was 30 when the New England Patriots finished the regular season 16-0 but lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. Since that time, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener of the 2008 season and hasn't been to the title game.

Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl in the 2006 season when he turned 30, but after that he's been knocked out of the first round three times and lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl for the 2009 season.

Donovan McNabb went 5-5 in the 2006 season when he was 30, but since has compiled only one winning record as a starter, going 10-4 in 2008. He missed the playoffs last season with the Washington Redskins.

Now, this is not to say turning 30 means bad news. John Elway won two Super Bowls in his late 30s before retiring. Roger Staubach didn't become a starter until he was 31 and he went to three Super Bowls in his 30s, winning one.

Troy Aikman, however, did go 10-5 for the 1996 season and won a playoff game. After that, Aikman's health became a factor, and he was never the same.

We're not sure how Romo will play in 2011, but we do know he's among the top 10 quarterbacks in the game. And when you see an Aaron Rodgers win the Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers and know young quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez are about to move to an elite level, it makes you wonder: Will Romo take the next step in his development?

"The strides that he's made in the last four years is significant," coach Jason Garrett said. "When you watch him play a few years ago he did a lot of really good things, but I just think he's at a different level now as a quarterback. He'd be the first one to tell you that. We'll go back, for whatever reason, in a cutup or watching tape from a few years back and he'll say, 'Hey that's not me, I'm a different guy now.' And you can see that in his play."

Before Romo suffered a broken collarbone, which eventually ended his season, his play had been OK. His best game was a Week 3 victory over the Houston Texans in which he commanded the pocket and the team. He threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns and compiled a 127.6 quarterback rating. The next two weeks, sacks (six) and interceptions (five) were issues. When he went down in the New York Giants game, Romo had completed five passes for 39 yards with one touchdown.

And spending 10 weeks watching Jon Kinta and Stephen McGee lead the Cowboys might have given him a different perspective of the position. Garrett said Romo can learn a lot from the way Kitna leads, and being away from the game should make the starting quarterback hungry to return.

But if reaching 30 begins a downward spiral for quarterbacks, as it seems in some cases, maybe Romo can't lead his team to a title.

"I think Tony is a very natural leader. People respond to him, and you see that in his play," Garrett said. "You see that in his play right from the start, but there are always things in every phase of your game so to speak, physically also in terms of your approach and if you are in a leadership role, you can always get better in those areas … coaches and players."

Now to the mail.

Q: Who would you take? Tyron Smith or Mike Pouncey? -- Pearson Martine (Albuquerque, N.M.)

A: Interesting question a few weeks before the draft. Smith would fill a need at tackle for the Cowboys, especially with the uncertainty of Marc Colombo's health and skill level. Pouncey is a good selection as well, but I wouldn't get him at No. 9. Of the two, I would stay at No. 9 and get Smith, but if not, move down and get Pouncey, who can play guard and center. At some point you have to replace Kyle Kosier -- he's a free agent -- and there is some uncertainty if you can bring him back. Andre Gurode, while coming off a Pro Bowl season, might be sliding, so finding his replacement is also important.

Q: What do you think about the Cowboys trading out of the ninth spot and landing someone like Cameron Jordan while picking up a second- or a third-rounder also? -- Josh Dewey (Frisco)

A: I love Frisco, it's a good town, one of my favorite places in North Texas. Now, Cameron Jordan wasn't among the 20-plus-something players who visited Valley Ranch this week. It doesn't mean the Cowboys are not interested in him -- they are -- but I wouldn't trade down to get him. Get an elite offensive lineman like Tyron Smith and be done with it.

Q: Concerning the cap figure: How can it be that the Redskins and their crazy signings are not leading the league in salaries? I thought the 'Boys had done a better job of controlling "dead money" situations. -- Scott Fargo (Fort Worth)

A: Scott, the Cowboys had the highest payroll in the NFL last year and will have it again this year. Big-money contracts to DeMarcus Ware, Miles Austin, Leonard Davis, Roy Williams, Marion Barber and Tony Romo have raised the payroll. You could question how the team has spent its money, especially with Barber and Williams, and maybe the Cowboys overpaid for Austin, who is a good receiver but hasn't reached elite status yet. But to keep some of their key people, the Cowboys had to pay.

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.