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Romo Roundtable: What will it take for Cowboys to reach next level?

Tony Romo recently was back in the news when Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett suggested the star quarterback was "bottom-heavy" and needed to report to training camp in better shape (which, predictably, Romo says the media blew out of proportion). Will that be the difference-maker for Romo and the Cowboys, who haven't won a playoff game this decade? If not, what is it going to take for Romo to lead the Cowboys to the next level? SI.com NFL writers Don Banks, Jim Trotter, John Mullin, Ross Tucker and Andrew Perloff discuss.

• DON BANKS: I'm really not entirely sure what being called "bottom-heavy'' implies for an NFL quarterback, but the way I figure it, Romo's upper torso can't help but be a little lighter this season, given that he won't have Terrell Owens on his back at all times.

Now that we've gotten our gratuitous shot at T.O. and his chemistry-killing karma out of the way, let's delve into the question of whether Romo is just a successful conditioning program away from taking the Cowboys to the next level, as Garrett seemed to suggest recently. (Our working title: "Was Romo rebuilt in a day?'')

While the idea of a lighter Romo automatically translating into a better Romo late in the season sounds like a winning formula, my gut tells me that's over-simplifying the problem of Dallas's near-annual December swoons. To be sure, Romo's play has suffered late in each of his three seasons as the Cowboys' starter, but that's not the whole story of why Dallas is still seeking its first playoff win since the opening round of the 1996 postseason.

In the NFL, you're generally only as good as your starting quarterback. But to lay all the blame for the Cowboys' recent disintegrations on Romo's shoulders is to overlook quite a bit of team-wide failure.

Dallas' defense has melted down at key times -- see last season's galling 44-6 Week 17 loss at Philadelphia, which kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs and put in the Eagles. And the performance of Dallas coaches has been less than stellar, too, as the likes of Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Garrett himself have deservedly drawn some of the blame for being unable to end the franchise's string of losing every regular-season finale since 1999.

Improved conditioning might well help Romo end the season stronger than he has the past three years. But learning how to win in the clutch hasn't been solely the problem of the Cowboys' quarterback of late. It's a team game, and from owner Jerry Jones down, Dallas's pattern of defeat and disappointment in December clearly has been a team-wide effort.

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• JIM TROTTER: Romo's problem isn't below the waist; it's between the ears. He hasn't been the same in late-season, high-pressure situations since he botched the hold in the playoff loss at Seattle three seasons ago. During make-or-break moments, I see uncertainty instead of defiance. That's not what I want from my quarterback. I want a guy who says failure is not an option, a guy who isn't afraid to demand accountability from his teammates as well as himself.

As for Garrett, he should look in the mirror if he wants to find one of the culprits in the Cowboys' late-season struggles. Some staff members have complained for years that his playcalling is too predictable in December and January. Don't know if that's true, but the fact that colleagues would make such a statement is reason for concern. Garrett's suggestion that Romo's problem is that he's "bottom-heavy" sounds a lot like a coach who is unprepared to consider more plausible explanations for the team's problems: that the QB appears to be psychologically fragile and the play-caller might be professionally stubborn.

• JOHN MULLIN: If there is a less significant issue facing the 2009 Dallas Cowboys than the southern half of Romo...

Garrett observing that Romo appears a little "bottom heavy" says more about Garrett than Romo. A core component of coaches' guiding principles is to put their players in the best positions to succeed. How Garrett figures that adding to public pressure and scrutiny to a linchpin player, who's had too much of both already in his short career, puts Romo in an improved position for success is beyond mysterious. All he has done is load a round into the chambers of critics who already have more than sufficient ammunition primed for Romo.

Romo, in three seasons as the Dallas starter, has never posted a passer rating lower than 91 or been sacked more than 24 times, meaning he has pocket savvy and knows what to do with the extra time his innate athleticism buys him. And of the two, pocket presence is more important than mobility; see also: Marino, Dan; Roethlisberger, Ben; Jurgenson, Sonny.

Two other thoughts: First, an ignored issue in general for NFL athletes is whether or not many are in fact too well conditioned for too much of the year. It is one thing to keep a Stradivarius tuned up to concert pitch year round; it is quite another to keep muscles in that state of tension. So any elite athlete in recovery mode is not necessarily a bad thing.

And second, coaches are fond of reminding fans and media that this is April/May/June (pick a month) when minimizing an OTA nick, strain or sprain. If there is a conditioning issue, Garrett should stop reading a playbook and read a calendar.

Dallas' success will involve Romo intimately, but the tipping point for 2009 is not Romo, who has been a relative constant every season. No, the pivotal figure will be Roy Williams playing to the value of what the Cowboys gave up to procure him to be their No. 1 receiver. You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto, and Roy, you're not in Detroit. Start playing like it so Romo won't have to answer a lot of stupid bottom-heavy questions.

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• ROSS TUCKER: I don't think Romo's conditioning is why he hasn't been able to break through. His issue has been decision-making and a propensity to make disastrous mistakes or turn the ball over at critical times. That is a mental hurdle he must overcome, not a physical one. Garrett's comment may have been as much about trying to light a fire under Romo's psyche as it was about his physique.

Romo's biggest problem at this point is the perception, real or otherwise, that he does not take his craft as seriously or care as deeply about winning as the elite quarterbacks in the league like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Romo's "put it in perspective" comments after critical losses don't help either.

It sounds simplistic, but the only way Romo is going to get the Cowboys to the next level is by actually doing it. He needs to play well in a tough spot in December or January and give Dallas the breakthrough win it has been craving. Many star players in the NFL and other professional leagues have had a tough time getting that career-altering victory. If he is able to claim his first meaningful late-season or postseason win, more should follow.

ANDREW PERLOFF: With Brett Favre still retired, Romo is the most over-scrutinized player in the NFL. Romo constantly takes the blame for a variety of Cowboys' woes, even though he's developed steadily throughout his career. Dallas hasn't won a playoff game, but Romo is an impressive 21-8 in the regular season over the past two years.

Romo's December meltdown last season had to do more with the schedule (at Pittsburgh, Giants, Baltimore, at Philadelphia) than his physical condition. And even during that murderous stretch, Romo had some good moments -- he led the Cowboys to a win over New York and mounted a furious comeback against Baltimore.

As always, the quarterback gets too much credit for victories and too much blame for losses. The Cowboys' inability to tackle in the final two weeks of the regular season was far more embarrassing than anything Romo did. And if the defense doesn't get back on track this season, nothing Romo does will make a difference.

Romo certainly has flaws -- he throws too many Favre-style passes off his back foot and doesn't hold on to the ball securely. He needs to get better in both areas. But he's still among the top seven quarterbacks in the NFL. Brady and Manning are the only two QBs definitely in a class above Romo. I'd giveDrew Brees and Roethlisberger the edge over Romo as well. Then I'd lump the Cowboys QB in with Philip Rivers, Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning.

Everyone is focusing too much on Romo as the man who has to lead Dallas to postseason success. This team needs more consistency and effort throughout the whole roster. That has to start with the coaching staff, which faces the real challenge this year -- making the talented Cowboys play up to their potential.

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