Spagnola: Romo Experiencing Team Change Firsthand

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OXNARD, Calif. – Saying time flies seems rather trite.

         But you know what, it really does.

         Why, it seems like yesterday we were watching training camp practice in San Antonio that summer of 2003, and there was this fresh-faced kid with this kind of Opie grin sailing sideline passes high, wide and way too long. And you're thinking to yourself, ha, this rookie free agent from Eastern Illinois isn't long for this world.

         Or in '04 when he arrived out here on these very same practice fields seemingly a dead quarterback throwing, most likely on his way to getting cut since then head coach Bill Parcells had just gone to the playoffs the previous season with Quincy Carter at quarterback, had just signed veteran Vinny Testaverde as the veteran backup and the Cowboys had just traded for and invested serious signing bonus money on this former baseball player named Drew Henson.

         But here we are in 2014, 12 seasons later and Tony Romo is sitting on a makeshift stage with two clusters of microphones nearly at chin level and, oh, maybe like 50 members of the media hanging on his every word following the Cowboys' opening practice of training camp, his somewhat first full practice since his back surgery at the end of December.

         He is now 34 years old, and somehow seemingly overnight he is the oldest player on a 90-man roster, and it's not even close. Next oldest is deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur. He's 33. After that, it's tight end Jason Witten, two years Romo's junior.

         They both came into the league and the Cowboys organization at the same time, in 2003, Witten a third-round draft choice. This will be there 12th season with the Cowboys. Ladouceur arrived in 2005, the Cowboys in desperate need of a deep-snapper upgrade three games into the season and they were practicing in San Jose between games at San Francisco and Oakland. He conveniently was not far away, having gone to Cal. This will be his 10th season.

         But really, that's kind of it for age and longevity, starting right tackle Doug Free arriving in 2007, along with the Cowboys' 2007 first-round pick Anthony Spencer, barely still on the 90-man roster, relegated to active/PUP while rehabbing that left knee following microfracture surgery.

         In seemingly the bat of an eye, 85 of the 90 guys on this roster were not around before 2010. And of those 90 on the roster, 48 of them were not even here at this time last year.

         That's enough to make a young man feel, well, rather old. Seems to come with the position. Peyton Manning is 38. Tom Brady will turn 37 next week. Drew Brees is 35. Carson Palmer will catch him soon. Michael Vick is 34. Matt Schaub 33, as is Eli Manning, along with Philip Rivers in December.

         Include Romo in the NFL's AARP of quarterbacks, and four of those guys made up half of last season's top eight ranked quarterbacks: P. Manning, Brees, Rivers and Romo.

         Sometimes age does have its benefits.

         But when Romo took the field Thursday for the Cowboys' first of two mandated pad-less practices before they go full dress on Saturday, how could he help from not surveying the field and wondering, "Hey, who are these guys?"

         DeMarcus Ware is gone. So, too, Jason Hatcher. No Miles Austin. Jay Ratliff, long gone. Spencer unable to practice. Three of his starting offensive linemen in front of him are 11 years younger. Seriously. Several of the rookies a dozen years younger, including DeMarcus Lawrence, a guy the Cowboys desperately need to play beyond his years.

          And when analyzing this Cowboys roster, get this: Kicker Dan Bailey was born Jan. 26, 1988. So he's 26. Amazingly, 67 of the 90 guys on the roster are younger than even he is. Bet these guys would roll their eyes if Romo's music playlist was being used during practice, a new fad unheard of back in his rookie days.

         You half expected to hear Romo say on Thursday, "Why, I remember when …"

         He nearly came close when asked if the Cowboys have ever undergone as much change heading into this camp since he became the starter.

         "You're always looking forward," Romo said after hesitating for several seconds. "It's funny, you never really look back at what you did, any of the stuff you've done semi-successful. … As an athlete, you always look to the next play, the next season, the next game, but along that way you develop some friendships and some camaraderie, special times with different individuals, so that's probably one of the tougher things about playing. All of a sudden every few years that changeover takes place, and all of a sudden after 10 or 12 years, you know, they're all gone – except for Jason (pause) Witten. You kind of, you miss some of those guys."

         He then relayed a story told to him a few years into his career from Parcells, how quarterbacks, the good ones, seem to outlast a lot of their original teammates, and that "ah, you're going to be at the end of your career, and you're going to look around and it's going to be very few people left that you started off with."

         And undoubtedly when Romo looked around Thursday, "I see that now. I'm excited about a lot of the new guys, but at the same time you understand you eat with different people now."

           Seriously. Who would have ever thought four years ago Tony Romo would be going out for sushi with Dez Bryant, as they were planning to on Wednesday evening? Or that in 2014 he would be spending extra time with a 24-year-old Terrance Williams, explaining to him how to maintain his speed at the top of his route? Or that he'd be married with two kids now?

         So when you talk about change with the Dallas Cowboys this year, Romo could write the thesis on the team's altered state. First graders have lived longer than 85 of these guys have been with the Cowboys. There will be two new play-callers, Scott Linehan on offense and Rod Marinelli on defense. The front seven of the defense could have as many as six to seven new starters. [embedded_ad]

         They have altered the practice regimen the first two days of training camp. No "official" conditioning test. New pre-practice warm-up routine. A ballet bar installed at The Ranch for stretching purposes. They will be playing music during training camp practice. There is an analytics guy at the far end of the practice field out here charting who knows what. There was Bryant after practice, trying to catch passes thrown from head coach Jason Garrett while a ball boy running alongside was tugging on one of his wrists with a towel. And there seems to be a waiting list for guys wanting to catch extra passes off the Jugs machine after practice.

         Let's see, there at least will be a new starting right guard, a new starting right defensive end, a new starting weak-side defensive tackle, a new starting middle linebacker, a new starting strong-side linebacker, a new starting safety, a new starting wide receiver, a new third receiver, a new backup quarterback, a new tight ends coach, we've mentioned a new defensive coordinator and new offensive play-caller

         Anything else there, Tony Romo, that you are seeing before your very eyes? Well, a new *and *improved Cowboys record after three years of that 8-8 broken record would be a welcomed change, too.

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