Tony Romo symbolizes new Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jason Garrett provided the mindset. Tony Romo delivered the game-winning drive.

You don't have to look any further than that for the biggest difference between these Dallas Cowboys and the mentally fragile group that shamed the star last season.

It begins with Garrett, who refused to allow his team to use its plethora of injuries as an excuse to have a lavish pity party.

Tony Romo, who needed two pain-killing injections before the game because he's playing with a fractured rib, provided the symbol of what it means to play for the Cowboys these days.

Romo played one of his best games, even though his passer rating was 70.9 and he threw an interception, failed to pass for 300 yards and saw his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass end at 20.

That's because Romo played his best football at winning time.

He completed three of four passes and converted a third-and-21 on the decisive drive in classic Romo fashion, creating a big play out of chaos with a 30-yard completion to Dez Bryant.

Rookie kicker Dan Bailey's sixth field goal -- a 40-yarder with 1:47 left -- gave the Cowboys an 18-16 win over the Washington Redskins before a national ESPN audience at Cowboys Stadium.

It was their ninth consecutive game decided by three points or fewer.

"It's a tribute to the players who are banged up and fought through and tried to practice as well as they could practice and play as well as they could play," Garrett said. "It's a tribute to the backup players who were ready to play when called upon.

"It's a tribute to everybody throughout the team understanding the resolve we needed to fight through the adversity. Injuries are a part of it for a long, long time. You can never use that as an excuse. The next guy has got to be ready."

Romo suffered a punctured lung and a fractured rib on the third play of last week's win over San Francisco. He missed all but 37 seconds of the third quarter last week but rallied the Cowboys from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat the 49ers in overtime, 27-24.

After a CT scan earlier this week showed the small hole in his lung had healed, Romo said he figured he'd play against the Redskins.

Romo wore a special vest to protect his ribs, but there's no way for a quarterback to avoid getting hit when he throws 36 passes -- even if many of them are on three- and five-step drops.

More than a couple of times, the Redskins seemed on the verge of knocking Romo out of the game.

Each time, he slowly rose and returned to the huddle.

This is why Romo is finally becoming the leader you've yearned for since Troy Aikman took his last snap.

It began this summer with a letter to his teammates explaining why it was important for them to work out together during the lockout, and it continued when he accepted full responsibility, as he should have, after two critical turnovers in the last nine minutes in a loss to the New York Jets in Week 1.

Over the past two weeks, Romo has earned the right to demand every one of his teammates give their best effort with his gritty performances. He's earned the right to cuss them out when they bust an assignment, which he did more than once Monday night.

Listen to Bryant, hampered by a deep thigh bruise, talk passionately about how he couldn't fathom missing a second consecutive game because his pain didn't compare to Romo's.

That's leadership.

See, it has zero to do with wearing a baseball cap backward or playing golf in the offseason.

It's about inspiring your teammates.

Romo's teammates see him grimacing and playing through the discomfort, and it makes them play even harder when they see him complete 22 of 36 passes for 255 yards while notching his 11th fourth-quarter comeback victory.

Garrett's influence is just as important as Romo's because he's changed this team's soft demeanor in just 11 games, which is remarkable.

No way the Cowboys would have won a physical slugfest like this under Wade Phillips, especially with three injured starters out and six other starters dealing with significant injuries.

They weren't mentally or physically tough enough. Times have changed.

Credit the coach and the quarterback.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.