IRVING, Texas (AP) -The last time the New York Giants came to Texas Stadium, Tony Romo was a backup quarterback whose only time on the field had been as a holder and in some mop-up duty.
Still, before that Monday night game in October, coach Bill Parcells had a message for Romo: ``Stay ready.''
At halftime, the Cowboys were trailing and starter Drew Bledsoe was struggling. Parcells decided he'd seen enough of the old guy and was ready to give the kid a chance. So off went quarterbacks coach Chris Palmer with the news.
``Romo,'' Palmer growled, ``you're in.''
Things have been looking up for the Cowboys ever since.
Now Romo is on the verge of beginning his first season in charge. It begins Sunday night under eerily similar circumstances to his first big outing: against the Giants, at Texas Stadium, in prime time, before a national television audience and with recent comments from Tiki Barber giving announcers something else to talk about.
OK, some things have changed. Barber and Parcells are retired. Michael Strahan nearly did, too. The Cowboys have a new coach in Wade Phillips and he has a new staff. The Giants have new coaches, too, including Palmer now coaching their quarterbacks.
The most important thing, though, is that the stakes remain high. The winner gets first place in the NFC East, the loser plummets to last. True, it's only a difference of 1-0 or 0-1, but to fans of these teams, it's the penthouse or the outhouse every week.
``It is always a big game when you play the Cowboys,'' Giants quarterback Eli Manning said. ``You have to play them twice a year, so you know it's going to be a physical game. They get fired up for it, too.''
Romo is the center of attention for many reasons. Such as the way he started last year (5-1 and seemingly on the verge of sainthood). Or the way he ended it, bungling the hold of a short, go-ahead field goal in a playoff loss to Seattle. And his glitzy offseason, dating an ``American Idol'' winner, judging the Miss Universe pageant.
The biggest issue is figuring out how good he really is. After all, he's only started 11 games. The Giants will be the first team he's started against twice and the first he's gone against three times.
``I think he feels he has some things to prove,'' teammate Terrell Owens said. ``Last year, he made the Pro Bowl. This year, he wants to make it legitimately.''
What T.O. meant is that Romo was voted into the all-star game based on a brief sample of work, not the grind of a full season. While Romo insists there was nothing illegitimate about his trip to Hawaii - he was voted in by the players - he gets the point. It's part of the ``whole new set of challenges'' he's ready to experience.
``I think I've improved,'' he said. ``I'll be a better player. I can feel that.''
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones needs to see it.
Jones believes Romo can be a perennial Pro Bowler, but he's not ready to put his money where his mouth is. Jones has opted to let Romo play out his contract this season rather than giving him a lucrative extension based on potential.
The risk is that the pricetag could go up.
Way up, Jones hopes.
``I have a suspicion that he's going to be playing at (an All-Pro) level from this point forward,'' Jones said.
The same thing used to be said about Manning. Now he's going into his fourth season and folks are becoming impatient.
Such as Barber. He used the bully pulpit of his new television job to take shots at Manning for a lack of leadership. Funny thing is, all he did was bring out Manning's fangs. His biting reply brought up Barber undermining the team by announcing that last season would be his last in the days leading up to the Monday night game in Dallas.
Barber's comments probably infuriated Manning most because others have said similar things. Even coach Tom Coughlin has talked to Manning about having a more leaderlike demeanor.
NBC cameras are certain to be zoomed in on Manning when he hits the sideline to see whether he carries himself with a more regal body language.
``We're anxious to see ourselves,'' Coughlin said.
Everyone also is anxious to see how both defenses perform in their new systems.
Brian Stewart is technically the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, but Wade Phillips is the play-caller and the one who set up the scheme. His emphasis will be pressuring the quarterback, something Dallas hasn't done well in years.
The Cowboys' ability already is clouded by injuries. Proven pass-rusher Greg Ellis hasn't practiced since the opening minutes of training camp and cornerback Terence Newman is fighting a heel problem.
New York's defense is now being run by Steve Spagnuolo. He, too, puts an emphasis on getting after quarterbacks, but the status of his most proven pass-rusher, Strahan, is a mystery because of a holdout that kept him out all of preseason. Even if Strahan plays, he's not likely to be as sharp as he will be once he spends more time in the new system.
Spagnuolo knows all about stopping the Cowboys because he's spent the last eight years with the Philadelphia Eagles. Dallas, however, has one bit of inside information on Spagnuolo: His wife is a good cook.
That knowledge comes from T.O., who became friends with the Spagnuolo family during their days together in Philadelphia.
``He would come by from time to time, have some encouraging words during the course of the season,'' Owens said. ``He's a great guy. His wife from time to time cooked me food during the course of the season. ... He made a point to come over and say hello when I first got there and from then on it was part of the family.''

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