Romo reaches the crossroads

IRVING, Texas -- The feel-good story about an undrafted free agent's rise to franchise quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys has been all but forgotten.

Tony Romo went from obscurity to celebrity in the blink of an eye. Now, less than three full seasons into his tenure as keeper of one of the highest-profile positions in professional sports, Romo finds himself at a crossroads.

It didn't take long for Romo to become one of the NFL's most attractive lightning rods for criticism. That started the second photographs were published of Romo spending his bye weekend hanging out with his famous girlfriend, a couple of teammates and their significant others at a Cabo beach resort. The vacation became infamous when the top-seeded Cowboys failed to win a playoff game the next weekend.

The criticism intensified the next winter, when Romo followed a 44-6 flop in Philadelphia that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs, with his philosophical take on football's small place in the grand scheme of life.

Just imagine how harsh folks would be if Romo didn't have a 28-13 regular-season record, a pair of Pro Bowl appearances and the second-highest passer rating (94.2) among active quarterbacks.

"It's just the Cowboys and the quarterback and the situation," Romo said. "I think part of it's also because I've played at a certain level that people come to a standard to expect."

Since troublesome receiver Terrell Owens, who turned on Romo late last season, no longer reports to work at Valley Ranch, the spotlight on Romo has become brighter than ever.

Very good isn't good enough, especially for a guy who has yet to win a playoff game. Romo understands that he's ultimately judged by the standard set by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach, who combined to lead the Cowboys to five Super Bowl titles.

Based on Romo's lack of postseason success, he's either a failure or a work in progress, depending on the levels of patience and jadedness of the people judging him.

Aikman remains a staunch Romo supporter, but he publicly opined last winter that Romo "hasn't fully grasped what being the Cowboys quarterback is all about."

Other Cowboys legends have been more blunt with their scrutiny of Romo. Emmitt Smith expressed serious doubt that Romo could suddenly develop into a leader. Tony Dorsett wondered why Romo had been given "too much credit for doing nothing."

All due respect to his critics, whether they're in the Ring of Honor or not, but Romo insists he isn't concerned with what others think of him or the Cowboys.

"People outside of this locker room, they don't affect this football team," Romo said. "We've really narrowed our focus. We don't have time to discuss what different people might be saying or talking about our team."

Romo's focus over the offseason was on reducing his turnovers (21 in 13 games last season) and improving his decision-making under duress. That was a dramatic shift for Romo, who had previously shrugged off such talk by saying that you had to take the bad with the good when it came to playmaking quarterbacks. He flunked his first major test, throwing three interceptions in a 33-31 loss to the Giants in the opening of the $1.2 billion football palace in Arlington.

That just threw gasoline on the flames of the theory that Romo wilts in the pressure of big games.

Remember Romo's spectacular performance against childhood hero Brett Favre when the Packers came to Texas Stadium in November 2007 with the NFC's top seed on the line? He passed for 309 yards and four touchdowns in a pressure-packed atmosphere.

But that was the last time Romo, who is 11-9 as starter since that night, impressed in a game approaching that magnitude. He was mediocre in the playoff loss to the Giants and miserable during the Cowboys' three December losses that dropped them out of the playoff picture last season.

Yet the man who gave Romo a $67.5 million contract still believes he will be repaid with a Super Bowl ring.

"I do," Jerry Jones said last week. "To the extent, I feel like that will happen. It is in no small part due to his skill level, because of his ability to come back from adversity [and] because of his hard work."

If that happens, the story will be rehashed portraying Romo as the ultimate underdog. If it doesn't, he might be remembered as the ultimate underachiever.

Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPN Dallas.