Since he replaced Drew Bledsoe during the 2006 season, Tony Romo has been the entrenched starter for the Dallas Cowboys. He earned the starting job, and although recognition of his excellent qualities as a franchise quarterback has been slow in coming, it has been obvious this season how absolutely vital he is to the success of the team. The Cowboys had a phenomenal stroke of scouting genius and/or luck when the undrafted free agent turned out to be a legitimate top ten or even top five quarterback.
The problem, of course, is that when he was injured this year, he turned out to be the only real NFL caliber quarterback in Dallas. This is not in terms of being a starter. As it turned out, the team did not even have a semi-competent bus driver in Brandon Weeden.
As soon as the staff could, they set out trying to find another backup quarterback. They invited a group of available quarterbacks to try out as soon as it was determined that Romo was out, including Matt Flynn and Christian Ponder. When they didn't see anyone that they were willing to sign, they acquired Matt Cassel through a trade.with the Buffalo Bills. While Cassel probably cost the team a victory over the New York Giants with his three interceptions, he also showed a much wider range of passes he could complete, getting as many completions of more than 20 yards in one game as Weeden had managed in all of his three starts. The offense was clearly much more effective under him. While this may also be attributable to the promotion of La'el Collins at left guard and the suddenly revitalized running attack, Cassel's ability to challenge the defense with passes beyond five or ten yards deep clearly played a major role.
Tony Romo is expected to be back from injured reserve for the November 22nd game against the Miami Dolphins.. The Cowboys will have to make a roster move to open up a spot for him, and the obvious one would seem to be to cut Weeden. With Cassel, Weeden just becomes superfluous. Actually, he appears to be a detriment if the team has to call on him. He is the backup until Romo is back, and everyone is hoping Cassel stays healthy so we aren't treated to another display of Weeden's limited repertoire of indecisiveness, checkdowns, and getting sacked due to his lack of mobility.
Although the move to get another veteran backup in Cassel was consistent with the way the Cowboys have addressed the backup job in the past, there is a lingering suspicion that the staff knew they were in trouble if they had to rely on Weeden for all of the games Romo was expected to miss. With the clarity of hindsight, it certainly looks like it was a mistake to depend on him at all as a backup.
The question remains as to why the Cowboys stuck with Weeden this year, especially after he had a very poor showing in his one start in 2014. At the time, there was speculation that part of the problem was that he was playing a very good defense in the Arizona Cardinals, but what we saw from him then was basically what we saw from him in the three losses this year. The coaching staff had nothing but praise for how he had supposedly improved, and much was made of this being the first time in his career he had the same offensive coordinator for two years in a row. There was some evidence before the debacle against the New England Patriots that he was showing up in practice.
Couple things I heard from #Cowboys practice this week: 1) Weeden caught fire throwing it deep 2) Randle still expected to start— Shan Shariff (@1053SS) October 11, 2015
That, however, turned out to be no more than an illusion. The reality is that the Cowboys probably were caught in the same dilemma that all NFL teams face: There just are not enough quality quarterbacks to go around. This applies to starters, much less backups. You cannot just go down to Passers R Us and find a player who can succeed against NFL defenses. Dallas decided to go with the devil they knew. The results were indeed somewhat hellish. Now the Cowboys have to figure out what to do not just to finish out this season, but for next year and beyond.
One ongoing issue for the Cowboys is that they have shown a strong aversion to investing draft capital in the quarterback position, relying instead on a combination of veteran free agents as the primary backup and looking for developmental players in the UDFA ranks, like Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers. Kellen Moore also fits this profile, having entered the league undrafted in 2012 and being picked up the past offseason. The problem with developmental players is that they almost never develop into anything. Perhaps the team is blinded by the Romo story, but so far they have not come close to catching lightening in a bottle again. With the inevitable end of Romo's run drawing closer no matter how much we all want to see it delayed, the team is going to have to do something to address this. The problem is that you almost have to use a first-round pick to even get a decent probability of finding a good quarterback, and in recent years, that has not worked out so well. For every Andrew Luck, there are several E.J. Manuels, Johnny Manziels - and Brandon Weedens. Having a quarterback of Romo's quality creates a conundrum for the team. They always have multiple other positions with far more need. As long as Romo is the starter, any quarterback drafted is going to be a backup for a while. It would be analogous to the multiple attempts at drafting a tight end to become the replacement for Jason Witten - those picks look to be largely wasted as Witten just keeps playing at far too high a level to be supplanted. However, unlike the incredibly resilient Senator, Romo has a history of missing time, sometimes just a couple of games, but twice now he has been out for a large portion of the season. There is a logic in trying to have an experienced backup that can win about half the games he is in, ala Jon Kitna. But again, the team has not had a good run since him, with first Kyle Orton and then Weeden proving to be very disappointing.
Cassel is still unproven, but at least he showed some things that give hope for the future, if he can just protect the ball better. Should Dallas win a couple of the next three games, it would be easy to see the team signing him for a couple more years as the primary backup. That still leaves the long-term plan for finding a starter. The team has Moore and Showers already. But Moore is the quintessential unproven quantity, and Showers was retained on the practice squad more for his versatility on the scout team. Had Moore shown signs he was anywhere close to being ready to play, the team could have put him in as the primary backup. The fact they stuck with Weeden despite his manifest limitations says something. And unless they are seeing something from Showers that they are keeping very much under wraps, he is not likely to ever be more than a practice squad body, or maybe on the outside he could at some point be a special teams player.
It may be time at last for the Cowboys to put some priority on drafting a quarterback, but this is not a good time for finding a lot of talent there, even in the first round. The college game has diverged significantly from the pro style. Read-option and spread offenses are the rage in the NCAA, and the quarterbacks coming out of college are just not ready to play in the pros. This, however, may be a good argument for drafting one before you need to replace your starter so there is a chance to teach him the skills he needs to have. But that means identifying someone with the requisite talent, and given the fact almost none of the college players are in a system that is suited to demonstrating that set of tools, it is going to be a crap shoot at best.
It is a truly daunting challenge for the Cowboys, and really all NFL teams. The long term solution is not going to be an easy one. In the short term, Dallas has what looks like a fairly easy call to make in releasing Weeden. Certainly, they do not care what we think here, but it is hard to imagine why they would go in a different direction.