By STEPHEN HAWKINS, Associated Press
OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Tony Romo is in his 10th training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.
It doesn't really seem that long to the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who is coming off one of his best seasons.
"I didn't play for the first 3 1/2, I missed basically a full season in another one," Romo said. "I guess I've only played five, 5 1/2 seasons of football, and it kind of feels like that. But 10 is definitely a bigger number."
As an undrafted rookie free agent from little Eastern Illinois in 2003, Romo was just trying to make the throw, make a play and make the team.
"He's matured as a person, he's matured as a player, he matured as a leader," coach Jason Garrett said.
This is Romo's sixth camp as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys (No. 15 in the AP Pro32). That is the same time Garrett has been part of the staff.
When asked what he thought he'd see looking back, Romo responded, "A really bad player."
And he wasn't referring to those first days in San Antonio's Alamodome when Bill Parcells was still coach. He was talking about after he became the starter seven games into the 2006 season.
"It'd be laughable if I went back in '06 or '07, '08, '09 as a player, the way I was then and compare it to the way I'm growing as a football player," Romo said. "Obviously through experiences and the decision-making, but I'm just talking technically. It's way different just the ability to throw a football, and that's exciting to know that you keep improving."
Romo threw for 4,184 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season. Even with his career best quarterback rating of 102.5, the Cowboys finished with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs for the second year in a row — a first since he became the starter.
Jerry Jones has called 2011 one of his most disappointing seasons in his more than two decades owning the team, primarily because of the failure to take advantage of Romo's play.
But the 32-year-old Romo, the Cowboys' oldest offensive player, believes he's still far from peaking.
"Well, I'm still advancing. I still think the ceiling is still there, and I'm learning new things all the time," he said. "Some of the stuff I worked on this offseason, I get pretty excited about seeing that aspect being able to take shape. ... I'm already a little bit excited about some of the things that I feel like are going to carry over."
As usual, Romo wouldn't get into specifics about what he focused on this offseason, which is also when he became a father for the first time.
Romo spent his entire rookie season as the Cowboys' third quarterback, then was the backup quarterback and kick holder in 2004 and 2005. Everything changed at halftime of the sixth game in 2006, when Romo took over at halftime for Drew Bledsoe, started the rest of the season and was elected to the Pro Bowl after starting only 10 games.
When Romo got to camp in 2007, before a 13-win season, he was entrenched as the starter and Garrett had arrived as the offensive coordinator.
"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," said Garrett, who took over as head coach midway through the 2010 season. "He wants to get better as a player technically, understanding our scheme, defensive schemes and certainly how he interacts with his teammates as a leader of his team. I think in all of those areas, he's gotten much, much better. We're really lucky to have him as a quarterback."
Romo has a 47-30 record in the regular season as a starter. He has been to the playoffs three times, but his only postseason win came in a wild-card game in 2009.
Still, he said he's definitely having more fun now because "it's more fun when you're a little bit better than when you're a little bit worse."
His current career quarterback rating of 96.92 is more than 10 points higher than any other Cowboys quarterback. That includes Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.
But Staubach and Aikman have the big piece Romo is missing and what matters most — a Super Bowl championship.
"You feel the onus to produce and to get your team to play in big games and to ultimately win the Super Bowl," Romo said. "That's part of playing the position, that's why you love playing the position, that's why you compete as hard as you do, and for me, I just, I want that for a lot of different reasons.
"It excites me to know that one day we'll have a chance and the ability if we just keep continuing to get better," he said. "When I sit in bed and think about that at night, it's a great feeling to be able to hopefully experience that with the fans and the people who root for us."
Notes: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the afternoon practice that he has finally talked with Dez Bryant about the receiver's July 16 arrest for allegedly assaulting his mother. Jones said they talked extensively, calling it a great visit without elaborating on details. Jones said he had been too mad and emotional before then to talk to the former first-round draft pick. ... Bill Nagy, who was expected to compete for the starting center job, is out after sustaining a high left ankle sprain on the first day of practice. When asked how long Nagy would be gone, Garrett said they were in the early stages of evaluating it, but added, "He's not going to practice anytime real soon." ... Four-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff is able to take part in walkthrough periods, but the Cowboys are being cautious with him otherwise because of a foot problem that has hampered him throughout the offseason.
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