IRVING, Texas (Nov. 23, 2006) -- For a three-play stretch, Tony Romo looked like a guy making only his fifth start after 3½ years on the bench.
He threw low and inside on what could've been a long touchdown pass to Terry Glenn. On the next snap, he held the ball too long and got sacked. Then he came up short on a deep ball to a wide-open Terrell Owens.
He hardly misfired again.
Romo went on to throw five touchdown passes, tying a Dallas Cowboys record, and leading them to an easy 38-10 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I thought it was Aikman out there," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said.
Well, there was one difference: Troy Aikman needed overtime for the only five-TD game of his career. And Roger Staubach, the other Hall of Fame quarterback for the Cowboys, never did it.
While it's tough to lump Romo in with those guys at this point in his career, it is no longer "ludicrous" to consider him being Pro Bowl-caliber, as coach Bill Parcells said earlier this week.
The Cowboys are 7-4, with a half-game lead in the NFC East and the second most wins in the conference behind Chicago (9-1), and Romo is a major reason for it.
He's 4-1 as a starter with three straight wins. In the previous two, he outplayed Peyton Manning as Dallas handed Indianapolis its first loss and he earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance against Arizona.
This time, Romo was 22 of 29 for 306 yards, with a stretch of 13 straight completions. He went 9 of 10 in the second half, making him 29 of 31 after halftime over his last three games.
"The sky is the limit for the guy," said Owens, who for all his antics knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, having played with Steve Young in San Francisco and Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia. "He's poised back there in the pocket. He makes things happen on the run. He makes great decisions and he's managing the game. He's exceeding expectations right now."
The Buccaneers (3-8) continue living down to their expectations.
After opening the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive, Tampa Bay crossed midfield only once more to lose for the fourth time in five games. Joey Galloway caught three passes for 71 yards in his first game against the Cowboys since they traded him for Keyshawn Johnson, but two of the catches and 59 of the yards came on that opening series.
Romo responded to the early 7-0 deficit by leading Dallas to five touchdowns in a span of six drives. He was at his best right around halftime -- with a 74-yard drive during a two-minute drill that made it 21-10 at the break, then opening the third quarter with an 82-yard drive that featured a 45-yard pass to Glenn.
Romo's passer rating was 148.9, an incompletion or two from being perfect. Considering he came in 0.5 behind Manning for No. 1 in that category, Manning is going to need one heck of a game this weekend or the new league leader is going to be Romo, an undrafted former Division I-AA MVP from Eastern Illinois who spent the first six games this season backing up Drew Bledsoe.
"He's managing the game well. And that's what he's supposed to do," Parcells said. "He's a football guy and he's interested in playing well. But we've got a ways to go here. So put the anointing oil away, OK?"
Tell that to the fans who chanted "Ro-mo! Ro-mo!" during Fox's postgame show. Or to the fans who hung his name in the Ring of Honor during warmups; it was taken down before kickoff.
"It'll be the last time they take it down," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said eagerly in the giddy winning locker room.
Romo caught a glimpse of the sign. After denying he saw it, he broke into a smile and called it "pretty funny."
Then came a big dose of humility from a player known more for his confidence.
"That is an injustice to those guys," he said. "Every single one of them have had unbelievable careers. That's something you aspire to one day. If I could play another 15 years, maybe. ... I got things I still have to work on and get better at. Believe me, I haven't arrived yet, by any means."
Parcells keeps saying he's waiting to see how Romo bounces back from a bad game. He's going to have to wait at least 10 days, when Dallas plays on the road against the New York Giants, the first team that Romo will go against a second time. The first meaningful action of his career was against them -- only a month ago Thursday.
At 7-4, the Cowboys have the same record they had coming out of last year's Thanksgiving game. Led by Bledsoe, they won only two more games and missed the playoffs.
Parcells said things are different this time because Dallas lost on the holiday last year. He's also starting to reveal his optimism for this club.
"I think we're going to be in it here for a little while," Parcells said.
Glenn caught Romo's first two TD passes, of 30 and 2 yards. Marion Barber caught the next two, giving him an NFC-best 11 touchdowns.
The record-tying fifth went to Owens and he capped it in holiday style by depositing the ball into one of the Salvation Army red kettles being used as a prop for the charity's annual holiday fundraising campaign.
"That was my donation," T.O. said. "I hope it's as much as the fine."
Notes: The Cowboys hadn't scored a first-quarter touchdown in seven games until Romo's first TD. ... Tampa Bay quarterback Bruce Gradkowski went 10 of 20 for 120 yards with two interceptions. ... LB Derrick Brooks set a Tampa Bay record by starting his 184th game. The mark had been held by OT Paul Gruber. ... This was the ninth time a Cowboys QB threw five TD passes. The last was by Aikman in OT in the 1999 opener; the last in regulation was Danny White in 1983.