OXNARD, Calif. — Tony Romo was waiting in California when the Dallas Cowboys arrived for training camp.
Romo, who didn’t take a real snap in off-season workouts after signing the richest contract in franchise history, finally returned for the first training camp practices Sunday after “uniquely running mountains” on the West Coast.
That’s how owner Jerry Jones described his quarterback’s efforts to get back in shape after a procedure to have a cyst removed from his back in April.
Romo says he tried to cram a full off-season of conditioning into the last month and a half, including what he called some “boot camp” training in California in the week and a half before his teammates joined him.
"I worked as hard as I could," Romo said. "I took that approach every day I woke up. I had to improve not just a little but a lot each day. I think that helped me get ready for today and hopefully for the beginning of the season."
It's been 10 years since Romo joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois, but he's not at the bottom of the depth chart anymore. Now he signs autographs on his way to the field for practice, then has all his throws analyzed by sideline observers looking for the slightest hint of how much the down time in the spring affected him.
And that's seven weeks before the start of the regular season.
"He'll tell you right now he just has to continue do the conditioning stuff necessary," coach Jason Garrett said. "When you're coming off an injury, that's always a big concern. You're trying to get the injured healed, but you've got make sure the conditioning is right. He's worked very hard at it."
Romo was an active observer during workouts at team headquarters in May and June, part of an expanding role that Jones first alluded to in a statement the day Romo signed a six-year, $108 million contract with $55 million guaranteed -- $3 million more than Super Bowl winner Joe Flacco got from Baltimore.
After finally acknowledging that he would be active in game-planning in an interview the week before camp, Romo flashed a little leadership while walking off the field at the end of Sunday's first practice.
It was just a walkthrough, and Romo was engaged in a detailed discussion with second-year tight end James Hanna as he walked through a crowd of reporters, pausing briefly to say he would talk to them later.
"We're just making a real conscious effort as an organization to say, 'Hey, let's get more out of this situation. Let's get more out of this guy' because we believe so strongly in him," Garrett said. "And it's been a real positive change for our football team."
The Cowboys said the decision to hold Romo out of off-season workouts was mostly precautionary, but Garrett said the recovery was a little tricky because it involved his back, which required him to be immobile.
Romo said it was just strange not to be able to throw.
"I used to throw for 345 days a year because I felt like you couldn't duplicate those days you missed," he said. "Every day you missed, I felt like I needed seven straight days to get back. I don't know that you can ever get that back. Saying that, I did everything I could to get myself ready to go."
The Cowboys will keep him on a football version of a pitch count, although they don't have any precise numbers and will simply be watching him closely.
"It's more communication, 'How you feeling?"' Garrett said. "And you also look at the ball. Does the ball look a little dead or tired? We'll communicate each and every day to come up with our plan."
But he's finished with his personal boot camp in the mountains.