OXNARD, Calif. –If the Cowboys' goal of these next three weeks of practice and moving forward in 2012 is to avoid "the same old story," as tight end Jason Witten put it, then one thing definitely has to change.
They have to learn to finish. In 2011, losses to the Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cardinals and Giants all seemed to be given away late, microcosms of the season – microcosms of the era.
The Tony Romo era.
The club has been good enough to be contending in December, but then comes the swoon. Or, they get into the playoffs with an eye on making a run, but things quickly fall apart. Speaking after Monday's first full practice, Romo said that the key to avoided late-game and late-season drama is to be better earlier in the game, earlier in the season.
"Honestly, we just had way too many games that came down to a possession (last year)," Romo said. "If you have eight, 10 games that come down to either making that play or not, then in the NFL you're not usually going to go 8-0 or 9-0 in those situations. We need to make it so we don't have as many, so we only have five that come down to that and we go 4-1 . . . That was what we really came away with.
"I think we're taking steps to rectify that, and this football team, I think, will be a better team than last year."
Each offseason, Romo sets certain specific objectives to make himself a better quarterback. Over the last few years, he's kept those secret.
Unlike Romo's individual plans for improvement, the Cowboys' offseason mission each year is obvious. This spring, they felt new talent was needed throughout the defense, and size was added to the offensive line. The club made sure to improve some of its greatest deficiencies from 2011, a year Jerry Jones has called one of the most disappointing of his tenure as owner. The 8-8 finish, out of the playoffs, was so demoralizing because the heart of the team, the quarterback, had a career year.
If the problem areas are better, and Romo continues to improve himself, there's no reason the Cowboys can't get over the hump and at least into the playoffs with the chance to compete for a championship.
"Each year it's a different team," Romo said. "I don't know if it was two years ago or a year and a half ago, whatever it was, when we didn't do much in free agency, so we had a similar type of team come back. We don't have a ton of years like that. This year was completely different. We had a lot of turnover. We got a bunch of guys in free agency. We've got some draft picks that we're counting on."
As different as the personnel may be, one thing is the same. The Cowboys will go as far as their quarterback can take them. Fortunately, Romo doesn't look close to slowing down despite the fact he's embarking on his 10th season.
"Tony has gotten better in so many areas," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's matured as a player. He's matured as a leader. And he's played a lot of games in the NFL. He's had a lot of success and he's had some adversity as well. He's won a lot of games, he's lost some games, and I think when you go through that process, if you go about it the right way, you're going to get better. And Tony certainly goes about it the right way."
Garrett said Romo's continued focus on improving himself technically is a trademark of all the greats. But, "urgency" being the buzzword of the season, the question has to be asked, when is it going to pay off?
A Romo cliché is "if you're good enough, you're good enough." But Romo and his teammates may be running out of time to prove they're good enough.
"I think when you reach your full potential, that's when you probably feel like you've gotten there," Romo said. "I'm still striving to get there."