Protection is key

Tony Romo can talk about doing a better job of protecting the football.

He can also do certain things in practice to work on that.

Next comes trying to make that translate into games for the Dallas Cowboys quarterback who had 21 turnovers (14 interceptions and seven lost fumbles) in 13 games last season, not counting six fumbles recovered by him or a teammate. Like he has throughout training camp, Romo on Tuesday deliberately and consciously tucked the ball into his body with two hands during team drills when under pressure from defenders who aren't allowed to hit him.

Surrounded in the pocket on one play, he pulled the ball in tight until just before throwing a completion. Romo did the same thing while rolling out to his right near the goal line a few snaps later, instead of holding the ball away from his body with one hand while running like he so often has done in the past.

The only indication that he might do it in a game came on his touchdown pass in the preseason opener against Oakland. Flushed out of the pocket, Romo moved to his left and pulled the ball into his body before spotting Jason Witten.

"I was wondering during the game and it came true. I was able to protect the ball. ... I started to move to the left and kept it inside my core," Romo said. "It was good to have that instinctful thing happen to see something that you've practiced come to fruition."

That was only one play during Romo's second and final series of the preseason opener, but still encouraging for the Cowboys.

"He held the ball where he wanted to hold it, and move around rather than being loose with the ball," coach Wade Phillips said. "That was a good sign for us and him. Something he worked on, when you get in a game do you revert back? He has worked hard enough that it's become habit, it looks like."

In the Cowboys' finale last season, Romo fumbled twice in a 44-6 loss at Philadelphia with a playoff berth on the line for both teams. One of them came on a sack and was returned 73 yards for a touchdown.

Early in offseason workouts, Romo started talking about cutting down on risky throws and being quicker to take a sack or throw the ball away. He also said he was serious about getting a better grip on the ball while scrambling.

"You don't know sometimes when there's a guy behind you all the time, or when a guy's coming from a different angle," Romo said. "That's a big key in protecting the football and I was happy to see that I did it on that play (against Oakland)."

Witten said Romo, who initially looked toward the other side of the field for a receiver, was going through his reads and did a great job in the process of protecting the ball before throwing the touchdown.

"After a score like that, you've got to feel good about your quarterback play," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Romo really is doing the things (coaches) have been emphasizing, the way he protected the ball, the way he's been able to be creative at the same time. They've been working hard on that. ... I'm pleased with that."

Romo gets another chance in a game when the Cowboys play their preseason home opener Friday night against Tennessee, the first NFL game in the new $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium. Phillips has said the starters will get more playing time than they did in last week's 31-10 loss to the Raiders.

The seven lost fumbles last season were more than Romo had combined his first 1 1/2 seasons as Cowboys starter. While some of those may be blamed on a broken pinkie finger, he had three lost fumbles and five interceptions in six games before missing three games because he was hurt.

In his 39 career starts, Romo has 31 fumbles (12 lost) and 43 interceptions.

While he still has a 27-12 record and been to two Pro Bowls, Romo is 5-8 in December games. Plus 0-2 in the playoffs.

But Phillips insists that shouldn't distract from the progress Romo has made from undrafted rookie six years ago to now.

"He's a natural. He sees so many things and he has such a quick release, and he's so accurate," Phillips said. "He just makes fantastic plays. We see it every day on tape. ... He makes a throw that you say, 'Wow, what a play.' That's what the great ones do."

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