IRVING, Texas – Just two days before the Cowboys left for camp, they made a switch with their fourth quarterback.
Rookie free agent Dalton Williams was likely excited about his chance to prove himself when the pads came on in Oxnard on Sunday. However, he won't get that opportunity and it's likely the Cowboys will have signed another hopeful prospect by then. Whoever gets the call, his chances of making the team are also rather slim, considering Dallas kept just two quarterbacks last year.
Those two are back and certainly aren't going anywhere, especially the starter who just received a $108 million contract extension.
The irony of it all is that 10 years ago Tony Romo entered training camp exactly like Williams was expecting to do. He's the fourth guy, with his name written on his helmet and trying desperately to do enough to get noticed – in a positive way.
Fast forward to 2013 and Romo is now the center of attention. He's the face of a franchise that has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that come with being America's Team. Romo faces harsh criticism at times, but seemingly has learned to shrug it off and stay focused on the task at hand.
The task now? Get to the playoffs and win.
Actually, that task hasn't changed a bit for Romo or any other quarterback on the Cowboys or around the league. But the desperation level is starting to rise with each season that passes.
When training camp practice begins Sunday – and Romo is expected to fully participate despite missing all summer trying to rehab a back injury that required cyst-removal surgery – it will be his seventh season as the full-time starter.
Every year is different in some way. Of course, the focus of 2013 for Romo will begin with his health and how the Cowboys manage his back injury. Then the talk will likely shift to his new role in the offense, which apparently calls for him to have a more vocal voice in the weekly game-planning. And, of course, all of it will fall under the umbrella of his new contract, which includes $55 million guaranteed.
Yes, life has certainly changed for Romo over the last 10 years. And not just for Romo, but the franchise as well.
When Romo entered his first training camp, the starting quarterback job was up for grabs between Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson. Romo was just trying to unseat third quarterback Clint Stoerner, who had been with the team for three seasons.
For starters, Romo said he had to treat those first few practices as if it was a game.
"I have great memories. For me, it was the raw energy and excitement of not knowing what to expect," Romo recalled. "I love competition. I can remember every single throw in practice meant so much. It still does. But back then, it was magnified because you only had 12 in a practice – and you needed every one of them. And now I might throw 112 in a team period. But I remember agonizing each night over each little thing. I loved it. I loved the importance of it, the competition of it. The enjoyment of feeling like you played in a game every single practice you had."
While Carter and Hutchinson had one of the more intriguing quarterback battles in franchise history – eventually won by Carter, who led the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a playoff spot in that 2003 season – Romo said his battles weren't always with another player.
"More than competing with Clint or Chad or Quincy at the time, it was 'I need to get better in these three days … or in this week, in this training camp,'" Romo said. "If I continued to work my butt off and think about it, and analyze it and go back, and dig beneath it and understand why, I just need to get better and better. That was really exciting and a fun time. It was all about improving."
Romo certainly improved on a daily basis, but it wasn't always at the rate that head coach Bill Parcells wanted. Then again, Parcells usually only rode the players he saw some potential in.
"You could see right away that he liked to compete," Parcells said of Romo. "He had played at a small college (Eastern Illinois) and was able to get away with a few things that didn't particularly work in the NFL. But he learned. He learned how to make it work for him."
Romo says he is forever grateful to Parcells for taking a chance on him. But he's also thankful for the coach not taking it easy on him in the early stages.
"I loved Bill because, personality-wise, he could be real tough on me," Romo remembered. "I can take tough coaching. I'm fine with either side of that. But he could also be very funny at different times, at the same time turn the switch and be extremely in your face.
"I remember one time, he was looking over (and said) … 'you're never going to get it. You know what you are, Romo? You're a ball in high grass.' And I'm just sitting there. He's just waiting for me. 'Ball in high grass.' He's just waiting for me to ask. So I said, 'what? What does that mean?' …. 'LOST.'"
Romo can laugh about it now, but he admits, he was lost.
"Absolutely, when you first come in, there's so much, BOOM, thrown at you right away,"
Romo said. "That's why you have to just spend nights and every minute you have getting in your playbook and trying to understand the game of football and get beneath it."
With Romo's new role and new contract, it's safe to say he has now gotten beneath it, around it and all over the game of football.
But now, with the start of yet another training camp, Romo has to keep proving himself all over again. Just like he did 10 years ago.