- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2006

IRVING, Texas — Terrell Owens is no stranger to controversy, never shying away from it and often inviting it. But even the outspoken T.O. won’t touch the hot potato that the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback situation has become.

“Quarterback controversy?” the Cowboys’ wide receiver shouted in mock horror. “We’re not even going to talk about that unless I move to the defensive side of the ball, become a defensive end or something like that. Any quarterback questions, don’t ask me. Don’t ask me.”

Mentioning the subject of quarterbacks to most any member of the Cowboys organization these days gets people squirming — from owner Jerry Jones to coach Bill Parcells to T.O., who has had his share of verbal showdowns with quarterbacks.

The buzz raised when backup Tony Romo was showcased in the preseason has become a roar since starter Drew Bledsoe’s dreadful performance in Dallas’ season-opening loss at Jacksonville last Sunday. Bledsoe completed fewer than half his passes and threw three interceptions in the 24-17 loss, finishing with an ugly passer rating of 45.8.

Parcells said this week he is committed to Bledsoe as the starter and is backing the 14-year veteran, but his endorsement was less than emphatic. Though he said Bledsoe will start tonight in Dallas’ home opener against the Redskins, he wouldn’t commit beyond that.

“Don’t make anything out of this, because Bledsoe is starting [against the Redskins]. That’s it,” Parcells said. “Now we’ll see what goes on from there. I told you I was getting Romo ready to play. And at some point in time, I’m hopeful I will be able to play him this year. Now, I don’t know when, where or under what circumstances.”

It’s a question that hangs over Bledsoe, who came to Dallas after he lost Buffalo’s starting job to young J.P. Losman and now seems to be facing the same fate with the Cowboys.

At 34 and coming off a 2005 season that statistically ranks among the best of his career (60.1 completion percentage, 3,639 yards, 23 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and an 83.7 rating), Bledsoe must deal with pressure. Not that he has a problem with that. Asked if there is an inordinate amount of pressure on him now, Bledsoe smiled.

“As opposed to the previous 13 years playing quarterback in the NFL?” he said. “It’s the same. When you play quarterback, if you don’t welcome and relish pressure, then you’re playing the wrong position.

“For me, that’s part of the position, a part I’ve always enjoyed. I like that it falls heavily on my shoulders. And when it doesn’t go well, it’s extremely disappointing, but you have to bounce back and be able to make it go right the next week. I feel like that’s something I’ve always been very good at doing.”

Whether he does it tonight’s game could determine whether Bledsoe or Romo is under center for the Cowboys’ next game — Oct.1 at Tennessee following a week off. Parcells said he is very aware of how players respond to pressure and said he thinks he knows how Bledsoe will react, but the coach very much wants to see results.

Of course, there are no results on which to judge Romo, a third-year player who has taken two regular-season NFL snaps.

But the 26-year-old undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois impressed Parcells in practice last season and looked good enough in the early part of camp that he was given the majority of the playing time in the preseason. Romo responded with a strong performance, completing almost 70 percent of his passes for 833 yards and a 95.1 rating, and was rewarded with a $3.9million contract extension that will keep him with the Cowboys through next season.

“At the time, [the preseason] helped me a lot to gain confidence in myself,” Romo said. “Because when you’re not playing, you’re always wondering. You think you can do it, but it’s nice just to be able to prove it to yourself sometimes. I’m much more comfortable now. It’s to a point now where I feel confident when I go out on the field. When I step out there, I feel like I can play at a pretty high level.”

Meanwhile, the talk swirls around the quarterbacks, who hear it from reporters and fans. The quarterback situation is the No. 1 topic in town these days, and all the principals can do is try to ignore it.

“You’re going to hear stuff,” Romo said. “We’ve all been in that position. We’ve been the guy up top and we’ve been the guy behind, chasing. That’s just the nature of this game. You’re on top today, you’re on the bottom tomorrow.”

Bledsoe is still on top of the depth chart, but he knows how quickly that could change. In addition to losing the starting job with Buffalo following the 2004 season, Bledsoe was pushed to the side by New England when he was injured in the third game of the 1999 season and his replacement — Tom Brady — led the Patriots to a Super Bowl victory.

For the moment, at least, Bledsoe said his confidence is “very high.” How long that lasts is anyone’s guess.

“How do you keep it high? Prepare as hard as you can,” he said. “But there’s also a part of it that you just have to take control of. For me, it’s how I talk to myself, the things I say to myself. I know I can go out and play well and I know I’ll play this week.”

And what kind of things does he say to himself?

“That’s a conversation between me and myself,” Bledsoe said with a chuckle. “I don’t have them out loud.

“Not yet, anyway.”

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