IRVING, Texas - Every so often, he still does it.
There are occasions even now when Tony Romo is still the go-for-broke gunslinger, slipping away from pressure, firing down the field, making something out of nothing.
But those plays, the ones that have long driven Romo's coaches and fans crazy - in both the positive and negative sense - are no longer the norm. After three seasons of monumental highs and abysmal lows since becoming the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback in 2006, Romo has toned down his damn-the-torpedoes attitude in favor of a more careful approach geared toward avoiding turnovers.
"That's the key component to it," wide receiver Patrick Crayton said. "There haven't been fumbles, haven't been interceptions. He just emphasized not doing it. That's all it was . . . You can't do the gunslinging stuff all the time. He may have watched Brett Favre do the gunslinging, but Brett's not his hero anymore."
So while Favre has struggled for Minnesota in recent weeks, the Wisconsin kid who grew up idolizing him has thrived.
The difference in Romo's game is noticeable. His 24 touchdown passes heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the Eagles put him on pace for his fewest in a full season, and he already has been sacked 32 times, more than in any season of his career. But his eight interceptions are by far a career low, as are his six fumbles. Indeed, he has fewer combined turnovers (12 - Dallas recovered two of his fumbles) than he has had interceptions in any previous season.
In short, he is willing to lose yardage by taking a sack rather than losing the ball by forcing a play and hoping for something spectacular.
"Probably the No. 1 determining factor in winning or losing - outside of the score - is the ball," Romo said after last week's 17-0 victory at Washington. "It's always about performance and production. If you're throwing the ball to the right spots, you get less turnovers. If you're throwing the ball well, with accuracy, you have fewer turnovers.
"It's all part of maturing a little bit, growing up, getting experience in different situations and proving to yourself you can do it. Then the next time, it comes a little easier."
It has paid off especially down the stretch, when Romo typically has been at his worst. He entered this season with 19 interceptions, 14 touchdowns and a 71.1 passer rating in 13 December games, eight of which the Cowboys lost. But in four starts in December 2009, Romo completed 68.2 percent of his passes with seven TDs and one interception - on a tipped pass with a comfortable lead against the Redskins - and a sparkling 104.0 rating.
The Cowboys still didn't manage a winning month, going 2-2 to extend their streak of nonwinning Decembers to eight. But they rallied from losses to the Giants and Chargers with road wins at New Orleans and Washington, with Romo serving as a steadying influence rather than a liability.
And that, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said, is all about maturity.
"Certainly experience helps," Garrett said. "The more games you've played and the more situations you've been in, if you approach it the right way, you're going to benefit from that. And Tony's always had the right approach.
"I don't think he's played flawlessly, but he's done a really good job of maintaining the balance between making plays and minimizing the bad plays."
That said, Garrett was quick to point out that there is still a time and a place for the old gunslinger Romo. Such as the final 3 minutes of a Nov. 22 game against Washington, when Romo spun out of what seemed like a sure sack by Brian Orakpo, scrambled and finally hit Crayton in the back of the end zone for the only touchdown of a 7-6 victory.
"You can't play shy," Garrett said. "You can't be afraid to make mistakes. You have to be aggressive. And Tony's been able to do that, but at the same time, he's minimized the down plays, the negative plays, and that's a hard balance to strike.
"A lot of it has to do with decision-making on individual plays, and understanding each play in the context of the game: Is it worth taking that risk? He's gaining a good understanding of that."
Romo admits he has changed his approach, though he wouldn't go into detail - "some little things we're doing differently," he said. Whatever the specifics, he said it has helped his game, and he is clearly playing with confidence. And his team's confidence in him is sky-high as well.
"He's always been a really good player but things are really falling into place now," said tight end Jason Witten, Romo's favorite receiver. "His ability to lead the team and make big plays helps. We know things are going to work out because he creates so much on his own, much more than just running the offense.
"We've seen him make a lot of plays being the gunslinger type of guy, but he's really focused on doing things to make us successful, and protecting the ball is at the top of the list. All of us feel more confident because of that." *