Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) pumps his fist as he celebrates a touchdown pass to Cole Beasley during the first half of an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)
Brandon Wade
December 24, 2014

IRVING, Texas (AP) Tony Romo got an earful from Jason Garrett after the Dallas quarterback threw three first-half interceptions in a season-opening loss to San Francisco.

The coach's message: These Cowboys have a chance to be really good, and so do you.

Sixteen weeks later, a four-year playoff drought is over and Romo is in the Pro Bowl with one of the best passer ratings in NFL history.

''The message is be who you are,'' Garrett said about his conversation after the Cowboys fell behind by 25 points in a 28-17 loss to a 49ers team that had reached three straight NFC championship games. ''You've been a great football player for a long time. Read things out. Throw it to the right guy and go play.''

Romo was admittedly frustrated early in the season, coming off back surgery that sidelined him for a third straight season-ending loss to keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs. He missed offseason workouts and took more time off than usual during training camp.

The 34-year-old looked rusty at best against the 49ers, just a few weeks after opening camp in California by telling reporters they would see ''the best version of me'' in the coming years.

He showed it the first year. Going into Sunday's regular-season finale at Washington, Romo has 32 touchdowns, eight interceptions, a 70 percent completion rate and a 114.4 QB rating that ranks sixth in NFL history. He has a chance to move ahead of Peyton Manning, who's fifth at 115.1 with Denver last year when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl.

''I don't think about it in individual terms,'' said Romo, who moved past Troy Aikman as Dallas' career leader in yards passing in last week's 42-7 win over Indianapolis that clinched the NFC East title. ''I just thought our football team was getting better. I thought we had some players who were going to help.''

Topping that list: running back DeMarco Murray and three young first-round draft picks anchoring the offensive line. All four of those made the Pro Bowl with Romo.

Murray is the NFL rushing leader with 1,745 yards and needs 29 to break career NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith's franchise record from 1995. Right guard Zack Martin is the first rookie offensive lineman to make the Pro Bowl for Dallas, while Travis Frederick got his first nod in his second season and Tyron Smith is joining Murray and receiver Dez Bryant with two straight all-star selections.

''To me, he's always been one of the best quarterbacks in the league, even the last two years when we went 8-8,'' said receiver Cole Beasley, who has four of his six career touchdowns in the past five games. ''You put guys around a quarterback like that, he's always going to take off. Even with not many guys around him, he's still going to have a good year. He's that good.''

Romo remembers the chat in early September with Garrett. There were no expectations for the Cowboys to make the playoffs, and history suggested those hopes were even more remote without the same Romo from his first seven-plus seasons as the starter.

''It was just great to hear from the head coach that he felt very comfortable with what was going to happen going forward,'' said Romo, a four-time Pro Bowler. ''He has the pulse of the team.''

Romo has the reigns, and he's used them however needed. He has one 300-yard passing game, and the only time had as few as two in a season was 2010, when he missed the final 10 games with a broken collarbone.

The emergence of Murray is a big reason for that, but Romo's also had his late-game moments throwing. He took the Cowboys 80 yards to the winning score at the New York Giants, using just one run from Murray and finding Bryant for the touchdown in a 31-28 victory.

The most notable thing about that drive was Romo having at least 7 seconds to throw - twice. That's why three of his linemen are headed to the Pro Bowl.

''He's been good. I don't know,'' said Frederick, trying his best to describe how good Romo has been. ''I think that he's a great quarterback because of all the things that he can do. How smart he is, the way that he adjusts things, the way that he can control the offense.''

Garrett didn't pull Romo aside in September because he thought his quarterback needed a pick-me-up. The former offensive coordinator has been around him long enough to know Romo doesn't need that. He was just making a point.

''Tony's a tough guy,'' Garrett said. ''He's a physically tough guy. He's a mentally tough guy. I knew he was going to respond the right way. That's how he's responded throughout his career. I think we're seeing him like he's been for a long, long time.''

Statistically, Romo's never been quite this good.

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Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler

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