IRVING, Texas — Tony Romo played through a herniated disk to keep the Cowboys alive in the playoff race late last season.
The Dallas quarterback now has to show he’s fully recovered from back surgery against the team he beat while playing with a punctured lung three years ago.
The 34-year-old Romo would surely prefer to have his playoff victories outnumber his signature medical moments, so the opener Sunday against San Francisco is about more than staying healthy.
Romo goes into his eighth full season as Dallas’ starter with just one playoff win, but believing his best years are ahead of him.
He’s trying to break Dallas’ three-year rut of finishing 8-8 and missing the postseason after losing a finale to an NFC East rival.
“I think I’ll be better,” said Romo, who had two procedures on his back in a matter of months starting with a cyst removal in April 2013. “A lot of it will be similar just by habit, similar mannerism ... the things that you see mentally.
“But you will probably miss a lot of subtle things that I think will separate me from what I was in the past and I’m excited about it actually.”
He was in pain about this time in 2011, when he slipped past doctors and back onto the field in San Francisco. With broken ribs and a punctured lung, he directed a 27-24 overtime victory against the 49ers.
“I knew he was great,” said Jim Harbaugh, who was in his second game as coach of the 49ers that day. “But he climbed another rung on my ladder of esteem, and I didn’t think he had anymore rungs to go after what I’d seen. But he definitely gained another one that day.”
Believe it or not, Romo says the pain was worse in December when he tripped over himself and ruptured a disk in Washington. He stayed in the game and threw a last-second touchdown pass to set up a winner-take-all finale against Philadelphia.
Romo had to watch that loss to the Eagles two days after surgery. Now he starts a new year with the Cowboys facing the possibility of matching the club record of five consecutive seasons without the playoffs.
“That’s way too far ahead,” Romo said.
For now, it’s a team Romo has beaten twice, with five touchdowns and no interceptions. And the team that has gone where Romo hasn’t — to the NFC championship game, three years running.
“It’s what you want,” Romo said. “They are at the top of the profession, so this will give us a great insight into what kind of ballclub we’re going to have to be.”
Romo skipped all the competitive work during the offseason, took frequent days off at training camp and played in two of the four preseason games, for a total of 50 snaps.
He was listed as a full participant at practice Wednesday and Thursday, and it’s still a little early to tell how the workout routine will go during a regular week.
“The thing I kept reminding Tony about as we went through this process starting all the way in the spring is, the goal is to be ready for the 49ers,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We are going to find our way, somehow, some way. Play that game and that’s the start of a heck of a year for you.”
Now it’s time for what Romo can’t control — where he gets hit, how he has to move to avoid contact and what happens when he throws with his body in an awkward position.
“It’s a very, very physical, fast-flowing game that will humble the best players who ever played,” said Romo, who has all four 4,000-yard seasons and all three 30-touchdown years for a franchise that featured Super Bowl winners Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman.
“There’s only one way to play. That’s all out, all the time. When you’re done, you’re done with it.”