Dan Campbell is just young enough to have played with guys still in the league but old enough to tell their best stories and get away with it.
But on Wednesday, with his old team, the Dallas Cowboys, and their superstar quarterback, Tony Romo, coming to town in mere days, the Dolphins’ interim coach was on his best behavior.
“Well, I had one that just popped in my head, and I’m not going to tell that,” Campbell teased, when asked for an entertaining Romo yarn.
“What I remember most of Romo is just him coming in as a rookie free agent in 2003. ... He was a pup. And he was one of those guys, when you’ve been in the league for a little bit like I was, it’s another rookie free agent. [But] there was always something different about him.”
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Even then, Romo was savvy. He had a “gunslinger” mentality. And most importantly for then-coach Bill Parcells, he was able to make the players better around him.
The most recent, and perhaps most telling, example:
With Romo, the Cowboys are undefeated this season. Without Romo, who missed the past seven games with a broken collarbone, they are winless.
After his two-month rehab, Romo is finally back this weekend, barring a setback.
Great news for South Florida-based Cowboys fans who plan to invade Sun Life Stadium.
Not so much for the actual home team.
“I just think that he’s an elite quarterback,” said Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, when asked Romo’s impact. “There’s only a handful of those guys that play at that level, that he’s shown throughout his career, and especially of late, the last couple of years.”
Added Dolphins corner Brice McCain: “He’s capable of playing like anybody else — Tom Brady, Peyton [Manning]. I think he’s one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league.”
The stats back it up. Romo ranks fifth among active players in fourth-quarter comebacks (25). He led the league in passing rating in 2014 (113.2).
And he owns the Cowboys’ record in career passing yards (33,821) and touchdowns (254), which is saying something, considering Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman both had Hall of Fame careers for Big D.
Romo was a big reason why the Cowboys were a trendy Super Bowl pick before the season. But without him, they have been a dumpster fire. Seven consecutive losses and a combustible locker room — Dez Bryant and Greg Hardy both are powder kegs — have been the major takeaways.
He’s capable of playing like anybody else — Tom Brady, Peyton [Manning]. I think he’s one of the top-tier quarterbacks in the league.
Fairly or not, Romo is seen as the Cowboys’ only chance of salvation — a sentiment that his coach, Jason Garrett, tried to downplay this week.
“The tough part will mostly just be the feeling of playing in it without [preparation]; you are used to having a preseason or a training camp after a long layoff,” Romo said. “... When you come back you have to work on technique, footwork, you know, just some of the normal things. And in that, you can sometimes lose the situational thinking in the process. You have to fight that battle. That will be the biggest issue coming back.”
And yet, the Dolphins aren’t expecting any rust.
“Every quarterback plays their best against us,” McCain said. “That’s just how it goes.”
Added safety Michael Thomas: “We know what type of quarterback we’re going against. He has the whole playbook open to him. He wants to get the balls out to his playmakers. One of the most savvy quarterbacks to ever play the game.”
Ndamukong Suh has played against Romo more than most anyone in the Dolphins locker room. On Wednesday, he called Romo “great.”
Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore knows Romo even better. They spent a summer together. Romo took over the Cowboys’ starting job full-time in 2007, when Moore was an undrafted rookie just trying to make the team.
He ultimately did not; Moore was among Dallas’ last cuts.
“I just remember kind of how calm and relaxed he was at practice, and how things would run,” Moore said. “Everybody knows his personality and just the way he did things. I don’t know if I mirrored them, but I took note on just how calm and fluid he was with everybody and the offense, and how he talked to coaches and stuff like that. It was impressive.”
And it has been ever since.