Tony Romo entering next phase

SAN ANTONIO -- The last time Tony Romo was a quarterback inside Cowboys Stadium, his left arm was in a sling and throbbing with pain because of a broken collarbone.

Romo returns to his normal job Thursday for the first time in almost 10 months for a preseason game against the Denver Broncos that normally would not generate as much interest except that it marks his return to live action.

There is no melancholy in Romo's voice about how much he missed the game, the quiet times in a locker room preparing or the anticipation of the kickoff.

"For me it feels like a game when I go out and practice with the tempo I try to practice at," Romo said while standing in a hallway outside the team's locker room. "That's why I don't feel that it's that different. That's the approach you want to have, to go into practice each day thinking it's like a game. It's like the scrimmage Sunday. I'm excited to play football and each day it gets more fun."

So much has been made about Romo's offseason and his supposed change in demeanor. Coordinating the player-run practices in May at Southlake's Dragon Stadium did more for Romo's image than any organized team activity at Valley Ranch under the coaches' eyes ever could.

In March he sent an email to his teammates not only about the what, where and when of the workouts, but he delved a lot into the why.

The message was about putting the Cowboys' 6-10 finish to 2010 behind them, and that started with the player-run workouts. He mentioned how Washington won Super Bowls in strike-shortened seasons of 1982 and '87 in part because of its player-run workouts.

"It was like this is expected, this isn't voluntary, that we expect you to be out there," guard Kyle Kosier remembered.

More than 40 players were at the workouts, which were among the highest-attended practices in the league.

Entering his fifth full season as a starter, Romo said he is about to enter the second phase of his career.

"I just think that you go through the first few years learning about the game, learning about different coverages, how to get your feet in position to throw the football, how at this level to do a lot of the little things," Romo said. "Before you can really start all that you have to get yourself playing athletically at a high level.

"As you get older you get into the second phase where you've learned a lot of the stuff and understand the fundamentals. You're now in a position where it's about bringing people with you and getting the team to play at a high enough level to get to the next step."

While much was made of how Romo could learn from how Jon Kitna led the team in his absence in 2010, the biggest benefit from the injury will come from what he learned listening to the coaches on game day.

Even though he was not playing, Romo was a part of the team and attended all the games. He helped the offense between series, but he also listened to the defensive coaches call their schemes.

"I wanted to try and gain an understanding of what their process was," Romo said. "I've done it before but never there listening to them talk during a game and what they were trying to stop and how they were trying to accomplish it. I think it'll be a big help going forward."

Now 31, Romo said age is not tied to the second phase, nor is he thinking about the end of his career just yet.

"I think experience would be the word," Romo said. "You can go into the second phase at 26 or 27 if you started for five years. You just need to go through those times where you get comfortable mentally, going out there every day competing and being in situations to where you can tell other people at other positions what needs to be done for the team to be successful."

A constant tinkerer with his mechanics and footwork every offseason, Romo has maintained his desire to improve. He kept his early-morning jogs through his neighborhood quiet. When he was at Lake Tahoe for a golf tournament last month, he threw passes to some friends before his rounds.

"You always try to get better and learn the game," Romo said. "I don't know if you ever master it, but you're always trying to improve at it. Every year that goes by you have to be better and being out last year helped me understand that even more."

Phase No. 2 begins Thursday.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.