- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

Sean Payton will never forget Tony Romo’s first NFL snap. It was the preseason of 2003 and Romo was trying to make the Dallas Cowboys’ roster as an undrafted rookie quarterback from Division I-AA Eastern Illinois.

“Tony fumbled the exchange from center, picked up the ball and then threw an interception,” recalled Payton, then the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator and now the coach of the New Orleans Saints. “That’s about as bad it gets.”

Fast forward to last Sunday when Romo handled his first regular-season start with aplomb.

Romo — who one week earlier relieved struggling 34-year-old veteran Drew Bledsoe at halftime of a 36-22 loss to the Giants — overcame an early sack and an interception to complete 24 of 36 passes for 270 yards and a touchdown to rally Dallas to a 35-14 victory at 2005 NFC runner-up Carolina.

“I don’t think I could have expected more,” said Dallas coach Bill Parcells, who in 1993 drafted Bledsoe with the first overall pick for New England.

“Tony couldn’t have [done] it his first two years,” Parcells continued. “I’m not sure he could have done it last season. This preseason, I wanted to find out about Tony. He played 10 of 16 quarters. Drew has played a lot of good football for me. I just thought maybe we could get a little spark. I told the players when we made a change, ‘I didn’t enjoy doing this to Drew, but you’ve got to rally around Tony.’ ‘

Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens, for one, did just that. Owens, the NFL’s most notorious quarterback basher, was thrilled after a season-high nine catches and 107 yards against the Panthers.

“I feel more involved,” said Owens, who had 28 catches and 375 yards in the previous six games . “Things that I’ve always done, I was able to do them. It’s like I’m back to my old self.”

Suddenly after three years of obscurity, Romo is the toast of the Metroplex — as the Dallas-Fort Worth area is known.

“I’ve always been a guy who has tried to get better each offseason and each season to be ready when the opportunity came,” said Romo, who’ll make his second start tomorrow against the Washington Redskins. “When it came, I didn’t want to fall on my head. I had a little bit of raw ability. I’ve harnessed it and become a little bit better quarterback.”

Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams, who coached Bledsoe in Buffalo and has been known to bamboozle inexperienced quarterbacks, was “very impressed” with Romo and isn’t sure what to expect from the 26-year-old neophyte tomorrow. But Payton, whose Saints will face Romo and the Cowboys in five weeks, expected Romo to succeed, given a chance.

“I’m not surprised that Tony played so well,” Payton said. “He worked extremely hard and he kept improving during our three years together. You could see last year when he moved from third-string to backup that he was close to being ready.”

Unlike most NFL coaches, Payton was aware of Romo before the 2003 draft because he, too, had played quarterback at Eastern Illinois. So when Romo looked good as one of three small-school quarterbacks chosen to throw to tight ends and backs at the scouting combine that February, Payton began urging Parcells and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to draft him.

“Tony had played well when Eastern Illinois stepped up in class against Kansas State,” Payton said. “He had a real high completion percentage. He was able to move to avoid the rush and he had great leadership skills. I wanted to take Tony on the second day of the draft. When he wasn’t taken, we were one of 11 teams trying to sign him. I think the fact that we had a new staff and didn’t have an established quarterback and that he knew of me helped convince him to sign with us.”

Jones was willing to give Romo a $25,000 bonus, but Payton persuaded his fellow alumnus to sign for $15,000. When Romo found out, he joked that Payton owed him $10,000. Three and a half years later with then-Dallas quarterbacks Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson and Clint Stoerner out of the league and Romo starting for the Cowboys, that debt has been forgiven.

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