- Tim MacMahon, ESPNDallas.com
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SAN ANTONIO -- Tony Romo thinks Wade Phillips is wrong about him.
It's premature to put Romo in the elite class of quarterbacks, as Phillips did during one of the brief moments during the news conference that opened Dallas Cowboys training camp when Jerry Jones wasn't yapping into the microphone.
The stats suggest that Phillips' statement isn't too much of a stretch. Romo has played in the Pro Bowl after three of his four seasons as a starter. Only Hall of Famer Steve Young and San Diego's Philip Rivers have higher career passer ratings than Romo (95.6) among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 attempts.
However, Romo accepts that only one stat really matters. And he has only one playoff victory.
"You're judged at the quarterback position by wins and Super Bowls and things of that nature," said Romo, who has a 38-17 record as a starter during the regular season. "I love the tradition and the history of the game. You set out to accomplish certain goals, and right at the top, the only way to be included in any talk of anything is to go out and win championships."
Even Jerry Jones, the king of NFL hyperbole, doesn't believe the ringless Romo has earned the right to be ranked in the top tier of quarterbacks.
Don't get Jerry wrong; he wouldn't trade Romo for anybody. The owner/general manager puts his quarterback "right there with the best" when it comes to such things as athletic ability, release and accuracy.
"He needs The Victory," Jones said. "Then he's right there with them. Skill is not an issue."
Well, no disrespect to the man who signs his checks, but Romo doesn't totally agree with that opinion, either. He's not satisfied with his skill level. Nor will he ever be.
Romo talks about improving so much that regular Valley Ranch reporters reflexively roll their eyes when the word comes out of his mouth. But he backs up the talk, having never missed a voluntary workout or teaching session during Phillips' tenure.
"I couldn't imagine there not being a physical challenge at some point," Romo said. "You're always trying to make a throw, get quicker with your release or stronger or whatever. But there's always the mental. ... There's always that mental side you can spend hours on. There's so much you can continue to grow and get better at. You'll always be working on something."
The improvement was apparent last season, when Romo threw for a franchise-record 4,483 yards with his lowest interception total as a starter (nine). Protecting the ball was his primary offseason focus, and he slashed his fumble total to six after coughing up the ball once per game the previous season.
Romo, who also made remarkable strides as a leader in 2009, refuses to reveal specifics about what he wants to improve this season. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett offers a long list of areas in which Romo could be better: command of the offense, presence at the huddle, pre-snap reads, decision-making, drops, accuracy, timing, etc.
And Garrett believes that Romo will keep improving even though the quarterback turned 30 in April.
"Quarterback is a position where the more you play it, if you take the right approach, you're going to get better," Garrett said. "Tony has proven that, and he'll continue to get better if he approaches it the right way.
"If anything, his hunger has increased. He's always been somebody who has been such a gym rat. He's always asking questions, always trying to learn and get better. He practices as well as anybody I've been around just in terms of his competitiveness on every play, and that continues to grow. That certainly helps him as a leader, it certainly helps him as a quarterback and the guys follow him."
It certainly helps a quarterback with Super Bowl aspirations to be surrounded by a ton of talent.
Romo can throw the ball to four former Pro Bowlers: receivers Miles Austin and Roy Williams, tight end Jason Witten and running back Marion Barber. OK, so Williams and Barber are one-time Pro Bowlers who haven't approached that level the past two seasons. Their backups (for now) are Dez Bryant and Felix Jones, who could be two of the most dynamic young playmakers in the league. The offensive line features perennial Pro Bowlers in center Andre Gurode and right guard Leonard Davis, with the Cowboys confident that new left tackle Doug Free can keep Romo's blind side safe.
Oh, and the Dallas defense allowed the fewest points in the NFC last season.
The parts are there for a championship run. Romo, the man with the keys, doesn't shy away from the expectations. In fact, he told fans during the Cowboys' annual kickoff party at the Alamodome that he hoped to see them at the Super Bowl in Arlington.
"This is going to be the fun part," Jerry Jones said of Romo's maturation, "to watch the meat get on the bone."
If the Cowboys end the season celebrating in their $1.2 billion stadium, Romo will have earned the right to be mentioned along with one-time Super Bowl winners Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- and three-ringed Tom Brady -- as the game's best active quarterbacks. Put one-time champ Brett Favre in that group as well, once he's officially active again.
Of course, Romo will still have work to do to catch up with Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman to be among the best in team history. Hey, as Romo often says, there's always room for improvement.
The numbers suggest Tony Romo is an elite QB, but to him: a ring's the thing.