OXNARD, Calif. (AP) -Tony Romo was still an obscure backup quarterback who had never thrown a pass in a real game.
He didn't have a celebrity girlfriend. The undrafted player from a small school could walk around the Dallas Cowboys' training camp complex and run onto the field wearing his No. 9 jersey without being noticed by the fans clamoring for autographs - or even team owner Jerry Jones.
And that was only two years ago.
``Had we had a little better feel, or a little better read on that, at every step of the way ... I would have said `Hello' to him walking down the hall,'' Jones said.
Romo has since been to two Pro Bowls, set team records for yards and touchdowns passing, and his No. 9 jersey - like the one often worn by Jessica Simpson - is now a top seller in the NFL, not only among the Cowboys.
``It's a different world for him, and I think it should be,'' Jones said. ``And I think that we're going to be a benefactor of that.''
Expectations certainly have changed with Romo, one of 13 Pro Bowl players back on a team that tied a franchise record by winning 13 games in his first full season as the starter. That was before the Cowboys' playoff loss in January to the New York Giants, after which Terrell Owens tearfully defended the quarterback.
Dallas is now a legitimate Super Bowl contender, going into 2008 as a favorite in the NFC - with the quarterback who was backing up Drew Bledsoe in 2006 when the Cowboys broke from their last California camp. Romo is the 10th starter in Dallas since Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman played his last game in 2000.
``I feel like I'm the same as I've always been,'' Romo insists. ``Try to throw the ball to the guy who's open. That usually helps.''
Despite the constant attention that comes with being the starting quarterback of America's Team and Simpson's boyfriend, the $67.5 million contract he got midway through last season and how different people perceive him, Romo really hasn't altered how he sees himself.
Not from when he was quarterback on the scout team during practice and would sit in the locker room and read books without interruption while the media interviewed other players. Not when he was the undrafted player out of Eastern Illinois in 2003 who got a $10,000 signing bonus.
``Honestly, I don't think I'm that important anyway,'' Romo said while circled by reporters and cameras on the field after a camp workout.
``His personality is very much the same,'' said tight end Jason Witten, one of Romo's closest friends. ``Obviously his life's changed 100 percent, but he's the same guy. A little bit more guarded maybe, but for the most part, he's the same guy.''
Romo played the entire preseason opener in 2006, the only time former coach Bill Parcells ever used one quarterback in a game before the regular season. Romo was 19-of-25 for 235 yards, but Parcells was firmly committed to Bledsoe, the veteran he had drafted No. 1 overall while with New England 13 years earlier.
But in the seventh game that season, in a move that not even Jones was convinced would work, Romo took over the starting job.
Romo won five of his first six starts, including a victory over Peyton Manning and eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis, and got the Cowboys into the postseason. Then came the playoff loss in Seattle when Romo, still the holder, as he had been before becoming the quarterback, flubbed the hold of a short field goal.
In the locker room that night, Romo cried and apologized to his teammates.
Last season ended with more tears. Owens' bottom lip quivered and his voice wavered while he defended Romo after a 17-13 loss to the Giants. It came a week after the quarterback's well-documented bye weekend getaway to Mexico with Simpson and a couple of teammates.
``At that point in time, it was a situation where I felt like I had to have his back,'' Owens said.
The loss was a bitter ending to a season in which Romo set team records with 335 completions for 4,211 yards and 36 touchdowns, including the team-record 15 receiving by Owens. Romo had seven more 300-yard passing games, giving him 10 already - three short of Aikman's career mark.
Linebacker Bradie James, the team's leading tackler who came in as a rookie with Romo, enjoys watching the quarterback do to other teams what he's done on the practice field since he was running the scout team.
``He had been tearing us up since we've been here,'' said James, who never imagined it would translate as well as it has to Sundays. ``I don't think anybody would have. That's why it's been such a phenomenon.''
Jones committed about $70 million this offseason on multiyear contracts for Owens and four other Pro Bowl players. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett got $3 million to stay after he was interviewed for two NFL head coaching jobs.
Romo, who has started only 26 regular-season games, was a primary factor in those moves.
``There's no question that having a competitive quarterback does inspire you if you're in my shoes and you're trying to make those decisions,'' Jones said. ``The closer you feel like you're getting, then the more you're motivated to go ahead and extend.''
The five-time champion Cowboys have gone 12 seasons since their last Super Bowl.
Since three-time champion Aikman retired, the likes of Quincy Carter, Ryan Leaf, Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testaverde and Bledsoe have been their starting quarterback. None ever generated the kind of excitement and optimism that Romo has in less than two full seasons.
Back in the California sun for camp, it's easy to compare how far Romo has come since the last time the Cowboys were here. Except he says his approach is the same as it was then, before he was a two-time Pro Bowler or even the starter.
``There is always a little nostalgia in some ways about the process and what it took to get where you are. It's funny, you still have a long way to go,'' Romo said. ``I'm trying to play. I'm trying to get on the field and get better. ... The exciting thing really about the game is just improvement.''
Despite his still-rising stardom, Romo is trying to convince people that nobody will remember him when he's done playing. And he acts like he really believes that, often repeating that sentiment.
Reminded that Roger Staubach and Aikman are both still widely talked about, along with other former quarterbacks, Romo responds, ``They're a little better than I am. There's good reason for that.''
Yeah, Staubach and Aikman both won Super Bowls, which is exactly what people are expecting Romo to do - maybe even this season.

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