It was deja vu all over again. Tony Romo went down on his left shoulder and grabbed it immediately. For the second time this season, he could be out with a broken collarbone depending on whose reports you believe. The star quarterback is probably going to finish up the season having only played in four games, two of which he did not complete.
That, to put it mildly, is a bit of a problem.
Romo is falling prey to the undefeated enemy, time. He is 35 and has been in the league for 13 years. In that time he has had fractures, a punctured lung, and there is every chance that he will get hurt again in the future. His style of play is exciting and at times elevates his team, but it means he also gets hit a lot. The Cowboys have no effective plan in place right now for what should happen when he is lost. That was made glaringly evident this season. Now he has injured the same bone twice this year. The team is withholding comment until after he is more thoroughly examined. With eight months until the next training camp, it is expected that he will be ready for 2016. But how many chips can the team really bet on him?
There is also the worst case scenario that he might not be back. It is unthinkable to many, but who knows what the doctors are going to tell him? Additionally, it was evident during the rather insensitive television shot of his wife that his injuries are taking a mental toll on her and probably him as well. Romo is one of the fiercest and toughest competitors in the league, but everyone has a limit. Most of us, me included, do not think he has reached it. But we don't know.
Assuming he will be back to try again next fall, the team still has some hard decisions to make. It is obvious that the last game he plays in a Dallas uniform is not terribly far off. Given his contract, the team is hoping he has three more seasons, since the dead money before then is prohibitive. But the team has to start thinking seriously about trying to find his eventual replacement. And there is also the problem of having a serviceable backup. While it would be ideal to find a player who could serve as both in the draft, that is extremely difficult.
First, there is the question of finding a quarterback coming out of college who can become a successful NFL starter. That is becoming more difficult due to the prevalence of the spread offense in the college ranks. Players who have spent three or four years running that kind of attack simply have not been trained in the skills that the NFL requires. Attempts to use quarterbacks in a system that is more like the current college approach have generally not been successful. Just look at recent experiences in Washington or Philadelphia. The one player who shows that it may be possible to some degree is Cam Newton, who led the Panthers in the embarrassing and costly beat down of Dallas on Thanksgiving. But you don't find many athletes like him who can also make the throws he does. The more likely path for any NFL team is to bring a quarterback in when you don't have to start him immediately and teach him the skills he needs. That is also very difficult.
Even so, the Cowboys have to look for someone to at least try to develop. Unfortunately, indications are that the coming draft is not a talent-rich environment for quarterbacks. It does look like Dallas is going to have a high draft pick to work with in the first round, but that does not mean that there is going to be a quarterback they have confidence will fit their needs when they go on the clock. The alternative is to try and find someone in the later rounds that can develop. There is no guarantee that will work, either. If you get the idea that there may not be a good solution for Dallas in the draft, then you understand the issue. Given all that, Dallas may have no real choice but to take a shot in the draft. And it may take more than one shot over the next two or three years. Again, that is far from ideal, but it is the reality of the quarterback search.
There is also that issue of finding a workable backup who can win a few games in Romo's absence. Jason Garrett strongly prefers a veteran, but this season shows the difficulties there. Brandon Weeden was deemed a failure, and Matt Cassel now has five games to show if he can be effective. If he wins a few games, he may be considered for the job, but that is far from assured. (If he does, he will be costing the team draft position, so this is not exactly a win-win situation.) Should he not prove his worth, then the Cowboys have to search elsewhere, and once again, there are not a bunch of good options out there. Already, the dreaded Johnny Manziel talk has started. Based on the Cleveland experience, that has all the earmarks of another disaster in the making, but expect to see the clamor for him just grow louder.
Another faction is going to continue to push for Kellen Moore to get his chance. Jameill Showers also has his boosters. One of them, most likely Moore, will probably get promoted to back up Cassel, but there is no indication that the team is sold on either one of them as the quarterback of the future. That could change, but right now it looks like a long shot.
The future of the quarterback position has many questions and very few clear answers. With Romo's injury problems and age, the Cowboys have to start trying to address the situation. The outlook is not bright. We can expect to be discussing this for a long time.