When the season began, it seemed as if the ideal scenario for the Dallas Cowboys was that rookie quarterback Dak Prescott would perform well enough to keep the team in the playoff race until Tony Romo’s back healed, and along the way establish himself as the successor-in-waiting that the franchise had been so conspicuously lacking.
Prescott has done far, far better than that. He has been one of the NFL’s most valuable and intriguing players in the early stages of this season. He has taken the Cowboys to four straight wins and first place in the NFC East. He and Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz have led the way in making this a banner year for rookie quarterbacks in the NFL, and it is not at all outlandish to argue that Prescott has become the Cowboys’ quarterback of the present as well as the future.
With Romo getting closer to being healthy enough to play, it makes for one of the more interesting starting-quarterback decisions in recent NFL memory. The Cowboys say they plan for Romo to be the starter when he’s ready. Prescott says it’s Romo’s team. But is that the proper choice?
“I think they’ve made it clear what they’re gonna do: They’re gonna play Tony Romo,” said former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, an analyst for the NFL Network. “I take them at their word for it. And I think it’s probably the right thing. My TV colleague Shaun O’Hara said, ‘If you’re shooting 2 under [par] on the front 9, you don’t change your putter. You don’t change your driver.’ Well, I say, ‘Why can’t it be 5-under?’ ”
And is the 2016 version of Romo capable of making the Cowboys the football equivalent of a golfer shooting such a score?
“I think he can help,” Billick said in a phone interview. “I think he can make them better. He certainly has that capability. He brings the experience factor. Remember in 2014, he was a 34-touchdown guy. He was really good. They’re going to play well up front. They’re going to run the ball well with [rookie tailback] Ezekiel Elliott. It’s kind of the same thing they had working a couple years ago. If they’re trying to recreate that, we know how Tony Romo can play under those circumstances.”
But not everyone believes a move back to Romo should be automatic.
“Plenty of teams in this league would be happy to have either one of them,” one NFL coach said recently. “If it were me, I’d be awfully tempted to stick with the kid. Why mess with success? And he’s only going to get better.”
Prescott, the league’s eighth-rated passer, has thrown for 1,239 yards and four touchdowns in five games. He has yet to throw an interception and has a passer rating of 101.5, all without much help from injured-of-late wide receiver Dez Bryant. Prescott also has run for three touchdowns and certainly is far more mobile than the 36-year-old Romo.
It’s true that Romo has been a more prolific passer in the past than Prescott is now. He threw for 3,705 yards and 34 touchdowns, for example, with nine interceptions and a passer rating of 113.2, when the Cowboys won the NFC East title in 2014. But he was limited to four games last season because of a twice-broken clavicle, and he suffered a compression fracture of a vertebra in his back during the preseason this year.
The Cowboys play Sunday at Green Bay, then have their bye week. It’s possible that Romo will be ready to play in an Oct. 30 game at home against the Eagles.
“This is Tony’s team,” Prescott told reporters Wednesday. “I knew that going into the situation. I think everybody knew that. I’m just trying to do the best I can to give my team a chance to win week in and week out.”
There are no guarantees, of course, that Romo could remain healthy and in the lineup for the remainder of the season even if the Cowboys were to go back to him as the starter. And that’s not the only potential complication.
“Oh sure, it can backfire on you,” Billick said. “It can certainly create some problems if Tony Romo doesn’t play well. There’s a lot of pressure on him because Dak Prescott has played so well and the team is winning. Dak Prescott has been a revelation. If you go back to Tony Romo and something goes wrong, everyone will blame Romo and everyone will blame the decision that you made. The good thing is now you know what you have in Dak Prescott. You know he can play well for you. To me, the bigger question becomes what they’ll do after this year when contracts and everything else come into play.”
Former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenferg, a broadcaster in Dallas, agreed that the Cowboys’ decision will have lasting consequences.
“I think this will be an organizationally altering decision,” Laufenberg said in an e-mail. “It will be a very difficult decision, provided the Cowboys keep winning and Dak Prescott continues to play well, and I see no reason why he won’t. As big a factor as any is: Will Tony Romo ever really be healthy again? Once you say Prescott is the guy, you have to ride him until the season ends. He can’t be looking over his shoulder on a week-to-week basis.”
Sticking with Prescott actually might be the less risky maneuver at this point, according to Laufenberg.
“They have continually said this is Tony Romo’s team, including Dak Prescott,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds, however, Tony Romo is an unknown commodity right now. He is 36 years old and has endured four traumatic injuries to his back. He lasted three plays in the preseason. So if he plays, every time he is hit, the Cowboys will just have to grow long fingernails and hold on that he gets back up. The known commodity is, ironically, the rookie, Dak Prescott. Here is the silver lining: Whichever way the decision goes, the Cowboys will have the best backup quarterback in the NFL.”
Some observers have said the situation calls to mind the injury to Drew Bledsoe that once gave Tom Brady his chance with the New England Patriots. The Patriots never went back to Bledsoe, save for an appearance in the 2002 AFC championship game, and Brady went on to become a four-time Super Bowl winner.
No one knows, of course, whether Prescott has such lasting NFL greatness in him. But there’s only one way to find out.
All of this looms overhead as the Cowboys take their 4-1 record to Lambeau Field to face the Packers. According to Prescott, though, it is a quarterback controversy only in the minds of others.
“My job is to win,” he said. “So I’m gonna focus on that. And if you all want to make it bigger, that’s up to y’all guys.”