- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

IRVING, TEXAS (AP) - All that time off watching from the sideline last season, all those offseason practices he led, even getting married _ none of it could shake Tony Romo from his habit of reckless gambles that turn into costly late-game mistakes.

Twice in the final 10 minutes Sunday night, all Romo had to do was throw the ball away, or simply fall down. Had he done the smart, safe thing on either play, the Dallas Cowboys likely would’ve come away with a stunning start to their season.

Instead, he fumbled 3 yards from the end zone and threw an interception that set up a field goal, leaving the Cowboys with a different kind of stunning finish: a loss to the New York Jets that marked the first time in 248 tries that Dallas couldn’t cash in on a fourth-quarter lead of at least 14 points _ according to STATS LLC.

“I cost us a football game,” Romo said afterward.

Cowboys fans and critics took to the Internet and airwaves Monday to wholeheartedly agree, dredging up all his past mistakes. The tone of the bashings was that this meltdown is further proof Dallas will never win a Super Bowl as long as Romo is playing quarterback, that he’s too much of a gunslinger and not enough of a leader.

Inside the locker room Monday, the view was completely different.

Teammates insisted the Cowboys wouldn’t have been in position to win had Romo not played so well the first 50 minutes, and that there were plenty of other mistakes that contributed to the loss. They also considered his mea culpa as proof that he is a leader.

“That is him trying to create his identity and show, `I am going to be responsible for how far this team goes,’” defensive end Marcus Spears said. “I think that is something he put on his shoulders and I personally like it. … It will only help him to feel that way.”

Linebacker Keith Brooking didn’t even know Romo took the blame, or that the quarterback has a reputation for making risky decisions with a game on the line.

“That’s not the rap in this locker room,” Brooking said. “Who cares what everybody else thinks? … That wasn’t Tony Romo’s loss. … That’s not the way this team looks at it.”

Brooking said Romo picked apart one of the best defenses in the league. He considered it as Romo continuing a roll that began in training camp.

“I’ll take that guy over anybody in this league,” Brooking said. “Y’all might think I’m crazy, but I’m telling you right now, he’s going to have an all-time year. He’ll probably shatter every record. … I’ve seen enough football to know the guy’s ready for the next level.”

Romo is 31 and going into his sixth season as a starter. His storybook rise from an undrafted player to a Pro Bowler has been overshadowed by what he hasn’t done (1-3 in the playoffs), and how he hasn’t done it. A common theme in all his disappointing losses has been late-game turnovers, usually while trying to force a play he probably shouldn’t have tried.

Having grown up in Wisconsin during Brett Favre’s heyday, it’s no surprise Romo is wired that way. But he also has the talent to make those kind of plays, which is why then-Cowboys coach Bill Parcells gave him a chance back in 2006. It’s worth noting that Romo’s career passer rating of 95.5 is fourth best in league history; his 64.1 percent completion rate is eighth best.

“His gift is his curse,” Parcells said Monday on ESPN.

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