Tony Romo is returning to form after injuring his back in the pre-season, and the media is clamoring over who should lead this dominant Cowboys team down the stretch. Dak Prescott, the rookie sensation, has led his team to a 7-1 record, and 1st place in the NFC East. Tony Romo, the seasoned veteran, has gone 15-4 in his last 19 starts; he’s undoubtedly a top-tier quarterback when healthy. The Cowboys, in a very un-Cowboy-ish fashion, are staying covert, portraying their quarterback situation as a simple matter of Romo not being ready to go. I have a feeling owner Jerry Jones knows his Cowboys have a real shot at making their first Superbowl run since 1996. Quarterback play determines a team’s destiny more often than not in today’s NFL, so getting this right is a must for America’s team. Let’s explore the case for both Cowboys’ signal callers.
By Matthew Jarecki
There’s little doubt around Dallas, and around the country, that Dak Prescott is the quarterback of the future for the Cowboys. There is, however, doubt surrounding how far he can take the Cowboys this year. Comparable to Russell Wilson in his rookie year, Prescott has been accurate, mobile, and he’s made plays in crucial situations. Another similarity to Russel Wilson in his fledgling years: Prescott is cheap, and we all know Jerry Jones loves his money. Of course, in a year where it looks plausible for the Cowboys to make a deep playoff run – maybe even to the Super Bowl – cheap is not the priority. Dak Prescott is flat out balling in his rookie season, and he’s making it hard for the Cowboys to start anybody else at quarterback.
With 12 TDs to 2 INTs, Dak Prescott has been exactly what the Cowboys have needed him to be: a facilitator when the running game is rolling, and a magician when the game is on the line. During his only loss this season, Dak was leading the Cowboys down the field with seconds to go, and if it wasn’t for a bone-headed play by Terrance Williams, the Cowboys might very well have won that game. Prescott made up for that week 1 loss by helping the Cowboys reel off 6 straight wins. But there’s no greater regular-season test than facing a division rival, and in week 8, the Eagles rolled into town. With sole possession of 1st place on the line, Prescott looked like a rookie for the first time all season. And then, as it does with so many of the greats, something clicked in the second half as Prescott led his team back from a 10 point deficit to send the game into overtime. Dallas won the toss, received first overtime possession, and it became clear that Prescott wasn’t going to let the Eagles out of “Jerryworld” with a victory. Dak drove, Elliot dipped and dashed, and on 2nd and goal, the rookie sensation did his best Tony Romo impression to avoid the rush and find Jason Witten in the end zone. You just got the feeling that this was the beginning of a new era in Dallas.
32 NFL teams deemed that Dak Prescott wasn’t good enough to take in the first three rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. He was even the back-up plan for Dallas, who admitted they were disappointed after missing out on Paxton Lynch. Maybe it was the bad rap SEC quarterbacks have taken on over the last few years. Maybe NFL scouts just looked at this guy as another dual threat quarterback that didn’t have the arm talent to make it in the big leagues. Yes, that stigma exists, whether you like it or not. But that’s not the point. The point is, the spotlight has never been too big for Dak Prescott – he just goes out and plays the way he knows how to play – and that’s a characteristic teams rally around. Whether it was setting SEC passing records with a mediocre team around him, or beating the Packers in Green Bay during only his 6th NFL start, Dak Prescott has taken his opportunities and run with them. On any other team, Prescott would have a stranglehold on the starting quarterback job. But as is usually the case in Dallas, things just can’t be that easy.
Dak Prescott has been phenomenal, but missing in all the praise he just received: he’s playing behind the league’s best offensive line, he’s got the league’s leading rusher behind him, and there’s a guy named Tony Romo making his way back from injury. Romo, to some extent, has been left out for the wolves during all of the Cowboys’ success this season – and that’s perfectly OK, because in professional sports, the best players play, and that’s just the way it is. There is, however, a strong case to be made that Tony Romo should regain the starting job in Dallas.
When healthy, Romo has shown that he can out-play any quarterback in the NFL. There are times when this Dallas offense is pure magic under his arm. The last time Romo started a full season (2014), he threw for 34 TDs, 9 INTs, and led his team to a 12-4 record on their way to a division title. Yes, Dak Prescott is fully capable of leading his team to an even better record this season, but the argument for Romo extends beyond regular-season wins and losses.
This Dallas team will be successful in the regular season with either Romo or Prescott because that offensive line is great, and it’s leading the way for Ezekiel Elliot to punish defenses with his downhill running approach. So far, that rushing attack has opened things up tremendously for Prescott, and he’s been phenomenal on play action passes. That’s not taking anything away from Prescott – in fact I think that it’s the responsible thing to do for the Cowboys to make things easy on him. But here’s how the playoffs work, and here’s the strongest argument to start Romo going forward: the competition is better, the quarterbacks are better, and teams will game-plan around stopping Dallas’s rushing attack. Simply put, there’s no guarantee that the Cowboys will be able to control playoff games in the same way they’ve been able to control regular season games. Not to mention, good quarterbacks will be able to take advantage of this mediocre Cowboys defense. Ask yourself the question: in a shootout, with the season on the line, who would you rather have, Romo or Prescott? I’m sure Jerry Jones has been asking himself the same question.
This is the best problem a team can have in the NFL. Should we start this really good quarterback, or this other really good quarterback? That being said, it is actually a delicate situation. No matter who the Cowboys go with, they will most likely win an NFC East that includes the Redskins, who don’t know who they are, the Giants, who have no rushing attack, and the Eagles, who have too tough of a schedule going forward to be true contenders. If the Cowboys go with Tony Romo, it will almost assuredly be his last hurrah in Dallas. Although he will most likely put up better numbers than Prescott, it could affect the team psychologically, because they believe in Dak – and that shouldn’t be discounted. If Romo is the choice going forward, it’s Superbowl or bust in Dallas, and there’s a risk of a separated locker room. If Dak gets the nod, the Cowboys appear to have a lower ceiling, but being that he’s still a rookie, that ceiling has a chance to become elevated as he plays more. This weekend at Pittsburgh will be yet another test for Prescott. Russell Wilson showed us that if the team around a rookie quarterback provides enough support, a Super Bowl is not out of the question. Even if Prescott doesn’t take them to glory, it isn’t a bad idea to get the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future some playoff experience.
The bottom line is, the Cowboys will take heat no matter who they decide to start at quarterback, and if they don’t win the Superbowl, that heat will continue into the off-season. Having two starting-level quarterbacks in the NFL is the best/worst problem for a team to have, and it’s a situation I’m not sure I’d particularly enjoy being accountable for. The Cowboys (and Jerry Jones) have been surprisingly graceful in handling it. You just get the feeling they’ll screw it all up, don’t you?