Merry Christmas BTBers. Well it's been that kind of season, with a year of injuries capped by Tony Romo herniating a disc in his back but still pulling out gritty a win against a division rival on the road. Whatever else we can say about Romo when all is said and done with his career, let no one question the man's physical toughness or passion for the game. Winning Super Bowls is the standard in Dallas, and it's a standard so high that a pretty darn good quarterback was bound to fall short of just like Danny White did in Tom Landry's twilight years.
The hardest part for the Cowboys this off-season could very well be contemplating a future after 2014 without their $40 million guaranteed franchise quarterback, and for us fans wondering how a team that has so many holes on defense can still afford to use a high pick on a passer a year or two earlier than expected. While I think Romo will make one more go of it in 2014 and could stick around through 2015, if we're talking about herniated discs there's a very real possibility that Romo could start training camp on PUP.
We've also seen how back injuries ended Troy Aikman's career prematurely before the concussions did, and how Pro Bowlers like Jason Pierre-Paul were never be the same player after back surgery (although I realize QB and DE are two vastly different positions in terms of contact). It may also be true as I observed to fellow Cowboy fans via texts this week that perhaps Romo's underthrowing of deep balls this season compared to 2011 and 2012 (see 1st Giants, Chiefs, Packers games when receivers were wide open deep but had to either stop short of potential TDs or had passes broken up) and D-coordinators from the Chiefs on exploiting this with single high safety looks could very well have been due to a nagging back ailment. In other words, maybe it wasn't all Bill Callahan's pedestrian play calling, and something really has been physically OFF with Tony Romo since his ribs and back got sandwiched by two Giants players on opening night? UPDATE: I highly recommend this FanPost which was posted about the same time as this article that asks the same questions.
In the short run, the Cowboys have to be prepared for that worst case scenario in two ways -- by keeping Kyle Orton around despite his cap hit to provide serviceable veteran starts, and perhaps bringing in more coaching help at the quarterback position to mentor a potential Romo successor. This week we may be seeing signs of both, with Orton getting a full game against one of the NFC's hottest teams while Jon Kitna is carrying the clipboard on the sidelines auditioning for an assistant coaching gig that pays considerably better than coaching high school football in Seattle. It also looks like Jerry Jones is going to keep Jason Garrett around for at least one more season to maintain continuity on offense while trying to rebuild the league's worst defense on the fly. While we know Orton lacks Romo's elusiveness, we also know the fact that he's in the game will force Garrett and Callahan to call more running plays and Orton will also check it down or go to the hot route when blitzed.
Who's Going to Be Available at the Quarterback Position in the 2014 Draft?
Let's start with the good news -- the 2014 draft is full of promising quarterbacks, even into the mid-rounds if teams don't mind taking flyers on guys with ACL injuries (Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray). There is also a well publicized campaign by the Redskins to unload veteran Kirk Cousins on a team that might be needing a QB but isn't desperate for one -- think the Minnesota Vikings, the St. Louis Rams with Sam Bradford coming back from his injury, or even the Jacksonville Jaguars who may want to avoid another top pick QB bust and draft Jadeveon Clowney instead (Cousins might prove more attractive to the Jags thanks to Alex Smith's success this season with the Chiefs). While Cousins isn't likely to be traded by the Redskins to a division rival, he does help Dallas by broadening the offseason QB 'market' and hence, potentially allowing a talented signal caller to slip into the 2nd round that a team might've been tempted to reach for earlier.
Now the bad news -- Dallas has so many holes on defense, starting with a defensive end to succeed DeMarcus Ware and potentially one or two defensive tackles AND a rangier cornerback, that the team may be tempted to just ignore the QB position until relatively late in the draft. In particular the Cowboys after losing the somewhat over-hyped Alex Tanney to the Cleveland Browns could decide to draft FCS North Dakota State's Brock Jensen to be their backup QB of the future. I fully expect a Cowboys scout or two to be in attendance as Jensen puts on a passing clinic on January 4 in the FCS National Championship Game just up the road from Valley Ranch in Frisco. But does Jensen have the physical tools to start in the NFL, as opposed to being drafted as a quality backup with some mobility and moxie? I don't know -- perhaps we'll know after the Combine and Dallas can nab a competent successor to Romo in the 3rd or even 5th rounds.
The other piece of bad news is that UCLA QB Brett Hundley is likely to stay in school another year like Oregon's Marcus Mariota (a supposedly more polished version of Colin Kaepernick) opted to do through 2015 (although with his sloppy footwork and poor film against top competition, Hundley would likely fall into the 2nd or 3rd rounds and hence should stay in school). That means QB desperate teams like the Texans, Jaguars, Browns and Vikings are all likely to nab their franchise QBs well before Dallas sniffs the clock at 17 or 18 (assuming JG's third straight 8-8 finish).
The most likely scenario according to many draftniks today is the Texans taking Teddy Bridgewater, the Jags opting between Johnny "Football" Manziel or Clowney, and even the Raiders possibly deciding that Matt McGloin is best relegated to backup duty, with Cleveland and Minnesota choosing between Blake Bortles of Central Florida and Fresno State's Derek Carr. Clemson's Tajh Boyd could also be in the mid-1st round mix despite his lack of height -at 5"11 and some inches-- he certainly seems to be a more polished pro prospect than Buffalo Bills 1st round pick E.J. Manuel was this time last year.
Best Case Scenario -- Finding a Franchise QB in the 2nd Round
If Boyd does shine at the Senior Bowl, along with Carr, while Manziel has the scouts drooling, that's actually the best case for Dallas because it means at least one of the Bridgewater, Bortles, Carr, and Boyd group is likely to slip to the middle of the first or later (since I seriously doubt at least one team in the top 5, most likely the Jags, won't opt to draft Clowney instead of a QB). San Jose State quarterback David Fales and Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, who's been scouted by all 32 NFL teams, are strong candidates to be drafted in the 2nd round.
However while they're waiting to get on the clock on Draft Day Two, the Cowboys should keep in mind that the Rams might want insurance if Sam Bradford doesn't come back fully from the second major knee injury of his career, and the Tennessee Titans have also experienced some mediocre QB play from Jake Locker and would be strongly tempted to nab another young signal caller. The Chicago Bears appear committed to Jay Cutler but a weak showing against the Green Bay Packers in Chicago's own 'win or go home' game this weekend could change head coach Marc Trestman's mind. The Bears could keep Josh McCown around for another year, draft a rookie and let Cutler walk to (again) the Raiders or the Jags who have lots of salary cap room.
I like Tajh Boyd as a RKG. I also think Dallas needs to consider a quarterback who doesn't fit the physical prototype thanks to the success of Russel Wilson at the next level, just as the Cowboys have adjusted their prototype at wide receiver where Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley are likely to stick around after Miles Austin gets cut. Nonetheless, I wonder if this team will be able to adjust its offense enough to prevent batted balls at the line and Boyd's confidence from getting hammered Geno Smith-style in 2014.
On the other hand, we can all hope that Romo's herniated disc might not be so severe that the Cowboys need to use a 1st or 2nd round pick on a QB, especially if Jensen is available in the 3rd or 4th round. But as we've learned from hard experience, Murphy's Law loves to bite the Cowboys, and the injury situation at DT and DE with Jason Hatcher and Demarcus Ware coming to the end of their careers may take precedence even over seeking Romo's replacement.
From Tony Romo to Jimmy Garoppolo?
In that case, I think Jimmy Garoppolo is an excellent choice in the 2nd round to sit behind Romo or even Orton for several games until injuries intervene or the young buck shows he's ready. Call it fate or call it the mysterious intervention of the football gods in human affairs, but I think another quarterback from Tony Romo's alma mater with a similar style may be just what the Cowboys need to rebuild around.