IRVING, Texas - Beyond the gossip mongers twittering about his ties to Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood, Tony Romo was so hot that various NFL coaches, players, and alumni hailed the fledgling Cowboys quarterback as a young Brett Favre, the second coming of Doug Flutie, and - be still, Lone Star hearts - a 21st-century Roger Staubach.
A new breed of Cowboys fan was born: The Romosexual.
Romomania swept the land of longneck beers and 10-gallon hats, and the faithful swooned when they learned the new face of America's Team wore No. 9 to honor "The Natural," Roy Hobbs, the fictional slugger for whom anything seemed possible.
Then came the improbable: Last Monday in Buffalo, the man of their dreams turned temporarily into a gridiron Elmer Fudd.
Six days shy of facing the surging New England Patriots at Texas Stadium in a battle of unbeatens, Romo touched off alarms from Amarillo to Laredo when he inexplicably turned hapless, tossing five interceptions and fumbling once before he recovered and helped the Cowboys eke out a doom-defying 25-24 victory over the Bills.
Now the kid nobody drafted - the guy who stunned the football world last year by rising from bench player to Pro Bowler and hastening Drew Bledsoe's retirement - faces the greatest test of his young career.
If Romo hopes to rank one day with Staubach (two Super Bowl rings), Favre (one ring), and Flutie (Heisman magician and three-time Grey Cup champion), he could inch closer to glory today by proving he has the stuff to conquer Bill Belichick's punishing defense.
It's a tall order for a quarterback who has never faced the Foxborough 53 and is making only his 16th NFL start. If the Bills made Romo play more like Simpson (Jessica) than Staubach, what are his chances of tearing down the Belichick Wall?
He may have a name like a lounge singer, but he's no fool.
"I'm still learning," Romo said of his evolution from clipboard holder to keeper of the Cowboys flame. "Last week showed I still have a ways to go."
Changing of the guard
Then again, there is an undeniable fairy-tale quality to Romo, a certain magic in his aspiring to the legacy of great Dallas playmakers such as Staubach, Aikman, and Meredith after the entire NFL spurned him in the 2003 draft. A winner of the Walter Payton Award as the nation's top Division 1-AA offensive player at Eastern Illinois, Romo got no love as NFL teams selected 13 quarterbacks, including Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury and Indiana's Gibran Hamdan, and left him in the vast pool of the unclaimed.
It's one thing for Tom Brady to go from sixth-rounder to greatness. For Romo to make it from the parking lot to primacy with one of the nation's most storied franchises is something else entirely.
The kid from Burlington, Wis., signed by the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, got his break last October when Bill Parcells ousted the plodding Bledsoe in favor of a young gun with quick feet and contagious confidence.
Just like that, a star was born.
"We embraced Romo when the change was made," said defensive end Chris Canty, who fought back tears after the Cowboys miraculously extricated themselves from last Monday's near-disaster. "With his growth, the team has grown. As he has had success, the team has had success.
"People think he's just a gunslinger, but he's a hard-working guy. He has brought a lot of intangibles, not only on the field but in the locker room."
With Romo at the helm, the Cowboys ended last season on a 6-4 surge to finish 9-7 and seize only their second playoff spot in seven years.
"Maybe Drew didn't have the same enthusiasm Tony does," said long snapper Louis-Philippe Ladouceur, a Montreal native who wore a Red Sox cap last week at Valley Ranch, the Cowboys' practice facility, to honor his favorite baseball team. "One was at the end of his career and the other one is blossoming."
With the Cowboys poised to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, Romo experienced his first brush with ignominy in January, but not as a quarterback. Trailing the Seahawks, 21-20, with 1:19 left in a wild-card game in Seattle, Romo fumbled the snap on a 19-yard field goal attempt, leading him to acknowledge the painfully obvious: "I cost the Dallas Cowboys a playoff win."
'A little hiccup'
Resilience, though, thy name is Romo. After some postseason consolation - he became the first Dallas quarterback to appear in the Pro Bowl since Aikman in 1996 and was invited to judge the Miss Universe contest - Romo returned this fall with his trademark smiling swagger.
Four weeks into the season, the Cowboys were 4-0, with Romo leading the league in touchdown passes (11) and passing yardage (1,199). Then came his Buffalo Breakdown, a highlight reel of poor judgments and wacky instincts.
The wonder of it all was that Romo and the Cowboys managed to overcome his mangled start.
"I just said to him, 'Keep the faith, wouldn't it be great if we win this game?' " first-year Cowboys coach Wade Phillips recalled of a sideline conversation. "He smiled, but, of course, he's always smiling."
Romo connected on nine of his last 11 passes - one of the incompletions was a 20-yard pass that Terrell Owens dropped - and helped position the Cowboys to score 9 points in the last 20 seconds and steal the victory.
In hindsight, many of his teammates were struck by his perseverance.
"When you see a guy who is probably in one of the most scrutinized positions in all of sports going out there and throwing five interceptions and kind of shrugging it off each time, you get a little bit concerned," Dallas linebacker Bobby Carpenter said. "But at the same time, it's kind of refreshing knowing he's out there having fun and getting the job done."
The startling images of Romo's meltdown linger nonetheless, though the spin doctors at Valley Ranch preferred to downplay the episode. The operative phrase for the turnover glut was "a little hiccup."
Phillips went so far in defending Romo that he referred to the Patriots overcoming three interceptions by Brady last January to stun the Chargers, 24-21, in the AFC Championship game.
"It can happen even to the great ones," Phillips said.
Yet no one in the Dallas locker room suggested Romo ranked with Brady as a quarterback.
"Brady has won three Super Bowls, so there's a big difference," linebacker Marcus Spears said. "You can't compare those guys, but Romo is doing a mighty fine job of leading this team in the right direction."
Cowboys quarterback coach Wade Wilson has been in Romo's shoes. As the Vikings quarterback in 1987, Wilson threw five interceptions in a "Monday Night Football" game, a 34-27 victory over the Broncos. And the Vikings advanced that season to the NFC title game.
"You have to try not to do too much to atone for anything," Wilson said. "Tony has shown that he can handle coming back from adversity after what happened in the playoff game last season."
As for Romo, it's all about gaining experience. It's all about the education of a promising young quarterback.
"I think I won't make some of the mistakes I made in that game again," Romo said. "At least I hope not."
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.