After six years in Dallas, two-plus as the starting quarterback of a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1996, Tony Romo knows a thing or two about the burden of high expectations.
Sunday's season-opening opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, may be comfortable with viewing themselves as an underappreciated crew with a chance to creep up on the rest of the NFL, but the Cowboys usually are judged by a different standard.
Maybe not this year.
"This league is still about winning and losing. When you go 9-7, you're not exactly knocking on the Super Bowl door," Romo said in response to a question whether the Cowboys ever "fly under the radar."
"I think a lot of people have felt as though, for whatever reason, that we may not have the ballclub that we've had in the past. That we're not as good or talented. Everyone's open to their own opinion. The cool thing about this sport is you've got to go do it on the field. We have that opportunity in front of us."
Like the Bucs, the Cowboys spent a portion of the offseason trying to figure out what went wrong during a horrid December that kept both teams out of the playoffs following promising starts.
Dallas began 8-4 before dropping three of four down the stretch with Romo and a fading defense struggling to make plays. Tampa Bay finished worse, going 0-4 the final month to also finish 9-7 -- a collapse that claimed the job of former coach Jon Gruden.
The Bucs will have a different look under replacement Raheem Morris, the NFL's youngest head coach.
In addition to changing the offensive and defensive systems, the 33-year-old overhauled the roster to get younger and faster on defense and more explosive on offense with the addition of running back Derrick Ward and tight end Kellen Winslow.
Dallas tweaked things, too.
In addition to parting with Terrell Owens and thrusting Roy Williams into the lead receiver's role, coach Wade Phillips invited more scrutiny of himself by adding the responsibilities of defensive coordinator to his chores.
Phillips rejects the notion he's under any more pressure entering the final season of a three-year contract that includes a team option for 2010.
"It's the same every year here. Most coaches are the same on every team. You need to do well each year. That's just part of the way it is," Phillips said.
"There are high expectations, maybe higher than some other teams. ... But there isn't any more on a coach than what they put on themselves. We want to do the best we can do each year."
Williams, who made a concerted effort this offseason to develop a closer relationship with Romo, is excited about the opportunity to contribute more than the 19 receptions for 198 yards and one touchdown he had after being acquired from Detroit at the trade deadline last year.
"No question. I've taken over T's role. ... I get to do the things that he got to do," Williams said. "A lot of people say I'm not as explosive as he is. I feel like I can do some of the things that he does. I can catch the ball, that's the No. 1 thing."
Romo threw for 3,448 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2008, but isn't content with gaudy statistics.
While he's confident the post-T.O. Cowboys will be productive offensively, better ball security undoubtedly would improve the team's chances of making a run at the NFC East title and getting back to the playoffs.
"We're going to move the ball. We're going to be OK," Romo said. "It's just we've got to minimize mistakes and turnovers."
The Bucs think they've got a chance to be much improved on offense with Byron Leftwich at quarterback and Greg Olson taking over as offensive coordinator following Jeff Jagodzinski's firing on the eve of the final preseason game.
With Ward, Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham sharing carries, Morris expects the running game to flourish. The passing game sputtered in preseason, but should be bolstered by the return Sunday of starting receiver Antonio Bryant, who posted career bests of 83 receptions for 1,248 and seven TDs in 2008, and Michael Clayton.
Bryant, an ex-Cowboy jettisoned after clashing with then-coach Bill Parcells in 2004, missed the entire preseason with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. Clayton was limited much of training camp by a sore hamstring.
Jagodzinski was dismissed because of concerns about the progress of the passing attack. Bryant doesn't think the timing of the change will hinder the offense's prospects for success under Olson, also the team's quarterbacks coach.
"We're just as ready as any team out there," Bryant said. "The first three or four games are usually games that people can steal because I don't think anybody has a foot in the ground ready to go."
The Cowboys, though, have been quick starters with Romo leading the way. He's 2-0 in season openers and 7-1 in the month of September, with the lone loss by two points.
Still, he knows questions about him will linger until he proves he can play up to lofty expectations in December and January.
"I don't know how many games we're going to win. I don't know what it's going to be like (this season)," the seventh-year pro said.
"But I do know we're going to try to improve along the way, and we're going to just keep getting better as a team. I think that will take us where we want to go."