Was it really only a couple of weeks ago that Tony Romo was being run out of town? Now, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is being given keys to the city.
All it took for Romo to go from being criticized as a choker to being hailed as a warrior and a leader was a fractured rib, a punctured lung and two comeback victories.
Romo has earned comparisons to Emmitt Smith, Charles Haley and Don Meredith in Cowboys lore for his ability to play -- and win -- with pain.
"I don't know that I'm a hero in any way, but it definitely feels better to win," Romo said. "You just have to learn that the good and the bad, they're going to come at you at different times. You just need to be able to keep getting better and keep trying to improve every day that you come in here, whether you're on an eight-game winning streak or a seven-game losing streak. You have to find a way to be the best player that you can be for that day."
Romo was built in a day.
He won over Cowboys fans, analysts and players around the league after coming back from a hit from 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks two weeks ago. Most importantly, he won over his teammates.
"The way you get to be a leader, and the way you show how much it matters is when it matters more than my body," said Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin, now an analyst for NFL Network. "It matters more than my health. I don't care what you say. You can talk like Aristotle and ain't nobody hearing you. Ain't nobody hearing you. Until they see what Tony did and continue to do that, all that gibberish I hear on TV about leadership, stop it already. Half of you don't know how to lead. How the hell can you criticize him about leadership when you don't know leadership when you see it? That was leadership, coming back out -- I'm hurt, follow me, and I'll get you there. Now he'll get an ear from anybody."
The lockout and a salary-cap purge actually began Romo's leadership transformation. By necessity, he was forced to organize off-season workouts for his teammates.
The structured sessions were well attended, with an average of 40 players showing up for on-field work.
"He's always had leadership," quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson said. "His style was a little bit different. It was more of a lead by example, but he prepared hard and played hard and competed. He just wasn't real vocal about things, but he has assumed that and I think this off-season, having the lockout, is what prompted a lot of that."
When the Cowboys went to training camp, they went with a much different offensive unit than in 2010.
They released receiver Roy Williams, tackle Marc Colombo, guard Leonard Davis and running back Marion Barber. Center Andre Gurode was released before the season.
It turned Romo, 31, into the second-oldest player on the starting offense behind only guard Kyle Kosier, 32. The Cowboys' starting offense has an average age of 25.8.
"We're playing with a lot of younger guys, so he's having to assume a little bit more of a vocal leadership, whereas before he was more of a leader by example," Wilson said.
Romo has had to contend not just with his fractured rib, but premature snaps by center Phil Costa and wrong routes by Kevin Ogletree and others. Romo's top two receivers, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, haven't been on the field together, 100 percent healthy, most of the season.
Romo gave Ogletree some tough love after the third-year receiver missed several assignments in Monday night's game, including one in which Ogletree ran a wrong route on third-and-goal in the fourth quarter. Romo called out Ogletree, leaving no doubt after the incompletion whose fault it was.
"I just kind of stopped in the middle of a route, which is the worst thing you can do," Ogletree said. "He just told me, 'What were you thinking?' I kind of mumbled something to him, and he was like, 'You're stupid.'"
It is exactly the kind of verbal leadership Romo's critics have been waiting to see. In the past two weeks, it seems, Romo has won more than just two games.
"We have some young guys who you might be talking [to] a little more and be a little more demonstrative with, but I just think it's all an evolution through experience and playing the position," Romo said.
Charean Williams, 817-390-7760