- 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.

Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said Monday that Romo isn’t the only quarterback to let a great performance be undermined by a stumble at the end. He talked about all quarterbacks struggling to balance being smart and being aggressive.

“I think the better players get, the more aggressive they tend to be,” Garrett said. “In this particular case it didn’t work out well for us, but you never want to take away a quarterback’s aggressiveness from him.”

Romo cut way down on his mistakes in 2009 and the Cowboys won the division and he earned his lone playoff win. He broke a collarbone six games into a disappointing 2010 season, and has said his time on the sideline left him craving the competition.

Jon Kitna did an admirable job filling in, sparking talk of what a great leader he was _ and Romo wasn’t. But Romo took charge during the lockout, organizing workouts attended by more than 40 players. And the former gossip-rag cover boy disappointed single women everywhere by walking down the aisle this summer.

Tight end Jason Witten broke into the league with Romo and remains a close friend. Nothing he saw Sunday night dimmed his opinion of Romo.

“Obviously, it was a disappointing couple of plays, but that doesn’t define who he is,” Witten said. “We know what type of player he is, so we’ll get back on track. We have all the confidence in the world in him.”

Witten said he has “no filter” when talking to Romo, so he would tells his buddy if he thought the quarterback blew it. Witten described the emotion as “more of a disappointment than it is more anger, frustration toward him.”

“I think that’s across the team,” he said. “That’s not just the tight end talking, or a teammate or a buddy. You go around this room there is a lot of confidence in him and what he does and what he creates for the team. Nobody is pointing the finger, and it’s not just saying the right thing. I think everybody in this room believes it.”

As for Romo, he didn’t speak with local reporters Monday, but he did conduct a conference call with San Francisco reporters. He said he got home around 5:15 a.m. and was at team headquarters by 10 a.m. to start getting ready for the 49ers.

“You have to get ready for the next one and we have to put that one behind us,” he said. “I have to come out and play my best game this week and make sure that what happened last week doesn’t happen again, and I’ll do that.”

Notes: Although team owner Jerry Jones said CB Orlando Scandrick (ankle) is likely out three or four weeks, Garrett said nothing has been decided. … CB Terence Newman (groin) could start practicing this week. He’s been out since early in training camp. … Another injured CB, Mike Jenkins, drew praise for playing through several injuries. “If you’re a coach or a player on a football team and a guy is doing that, just putting it on the line and fighting through some things, that’s inspiration, a really positive thing for your football team,” Garrett said. … Garrett said WR Dez Bryant was healthy enough to be on the field late in the game. “He was dragging it a little bit but it seemed like he was fighting through it,” Garrett said. “If there was any question about whether he could further injure his leg, we wouldn’t put him out there.”

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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Santa Clara, Calif., contributed to this report.