Tony Romo’s growth as a leader has been tested more than a few times during his career as the Dallas Cowboys quarterback.
He has battled back from his dropped snap in Seattle to the trip to Cabo before a playoff loss to dealing with the Terrell Owens drama. Romo has endured and grown.
But arguably never has he been tested as much on the field as the past few weeks of training camp when he had to work with an injury-riddled offensive line and his best, most trusted and most experienced pass catchers — tight end Jason Witten and receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant — also out with injuries.
It was a Romo-friendly offense no more.
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Not only did Romo have to worry about getting the snap from a center who has never played the position, but also a receiving corps he’s had to help line up properly.
More than a few times, Romo has spiked the ball in practice in disgust. Earlier this week, coach Jason Garrett had to talk to him after practice about being patient and keeping his cool.
If his play in Saturday’s 20-19 preseason victory against the St. Louis Rams is any indication, the now grizzled Romo has taken another step in becoming the leader and quarterback the Cowboys want him to be, which could bode well when they start playing for keeps in 11 days. Dallas opens the season Sept. 5 at the New York Giants.
“Tony is an outstanding football player. He’s done it with a lot of different kinds of guys,” Garrett said. “He’s the leader of our football team. It’s nice to see him play in a good rhythm.”
Romo completed nine of 13 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns throwing to the formerly unmanageable and decidedly inexperienced likes of Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley.
Harris proved to be the individual star, catching touchdown passes of 61 and 38 yards, to more than stake his claim for the open third-receiver job. He caught three passes for 118 yards. Ogletree caught five for 75 yards and Beasley was three for 40.
Romo and the makeshift, first-string offense, which has struggled throughout the preseason, scoring just 6 points in the first two games, was supposed to go the entire first half in the preseason home opener before 75,226 at Cowboys Stadium.
Romo and company had it going so well that he sat down after the first quarter with a 17-3 lead.
"I think some of the young guys stepped up and made some plays," Romo said. "I think we needed that. We need to have some depth at the position. Obviously, without Dez and Miles you’re never going to get everything exactly the way you want. When they come back, that’s going to be an incredible boost for us. It’s good to know we have some depth and the guys can do some things."
The game didn’t begin as easily and perfectly as it seemed when Romo departed.
The offense had to settle for a field goal on the first possession after a questionable drop by tight end John Phillips, an offensive pass interference penalty by Phillips and a drop by Ogletree on third-and-6 play that would have resulted in a first down.
But there were no tantrums or spiked balls.
The next time the Cowboys got the ball, Romo directed a two-play, 77-yard drive capped by a 61-yard touchdown pass to Harris.
Then Romo took them 89 yards in six plays.
The highlights were a 15-yard pass to Ogletree, a 19-yard pass to Beasley and a 38-yard touchdown pass to Harris.
With that, Romo’s day was done and so likely is his preseason.
To avoid injury, Romo likely won’t play in the preseason finale against the Miami Dolphins on Wednesday at Cowboys Stadium.
His numbers in the preseason — 21 of 32 (65.6 percent) for 303 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers — suggest that he is ready for the start of the regular season when Bryant and Austin are expected to return.
"Tony is a passionate guy. He is passionate about football. He is passionate about life. He wants things to go well. He works very hard to make sure things go well for him and our football team. When they don’t go well, sometimes you show your emotions. That is a natural reaction for someone who puts so much into things,” Garrett said of Romo’s outbursts in practice. “But at the same time you have to maintain your poise and composure. You have to work on a solution. He has worked very hard with the different cast of characters he has been playing with. They are growing together. That is a good thing."
Consider the Cowboys’ defense regular-season ready too.
The starters welcomed nose tackle Jay Ratliff, defensive end Jason Hatcher and linebacker Anthony Spencer to the lineup for the first time after missing the first two games with injures. However, Ratliff might have suffered an ankle injury, which could put his status in doubt for the season opener.
The defense continued its strong play in the preseason.
After not giving up a point against the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, the first team allowed field goals of 55 and 52 yards.
Both were aided by a fumble and a long kickoff return as the scoring drives were 23 and 4 yards respectively.
The unit also recorded two sacks, one by Hatcher and the other by linebacker Sean Lee. Ratliff looked quick and disruptive again before the ankle injury.
Rams quarterback Sam Bradford completed six of 17 passes for 64 yards as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan blitzed him from all directions.
Top-draft pick Morris Claiborne had a couple of pass deflections in the end zone against a Rams offense that made no secret of trying to target the rookie cornerback.
He knocked away a fade route to Austin Pettis on first down then rejected a pass in the middle of the end zone to Steve Smith on fourth down.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.