On Sunday night, after another stellar performance by Dak Prescott, Jerry Jones said once again that Tony Romo is the #1 quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, suggesting that as soon at Romo is healthy, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and Dak Prescott will be riding the bench.
If the Cowboys want to win the Super Bowl, in 2016 and beyond, will that be the right decision? When making the decision to start Dak Prescott or Tony Romo, shouldn’t the Cowboys be asking: What’s the best way for Dallas to build a Super Bowl winning team?
If you look at Dak v. Tony with that lens, the relative skill levels of each player is an important factor, but it is by no means the only factor. Winning the Super Bowl is not just about evaluating who is the best player right now, it’s about building the best team. The Tony Romo versus Dak Prescott debate is not just about 2016. It’s about the next four years, while Dak Prescott is under a rookie contract that pays him just over $2.7 million total.
Looking Beyond 2016
To break down this issue, it’s necessary to look at 2016 and 2017-2019 separately. The main reason is that Tony Romo is locked in contractually to the Cowboys for the rest of 2016. Dallas can’t cut or trade him this year without incurring a cap hit of more than $40 million, which it certainly cannot afford.
Potential cap savings. After this year, the Cowboys could save a lot of money by moving on from Tony Romo. Currently, he’s by far the most expensive player on the team, with a cap hit of $20.8 million this year, or more than 13.5% of the team’s total. His cap cost goes up to $24.7 million next season, $25.2 million in 2018 and $23.7 million in 2019.
Dallas can free up this cap cost — turning it into cap value that it could re-allocate to improve other areas of the team — by trading or releasing Tony Romo after this year. The Cowboys would free up at least $5.1 million in 2017 if Tony is traded, cut, or retires after 2016, and almost $49 million more in 2018 and 2019 to use on other players, for a total of $54 million in savings over three years. They would have to eat $19.6 million in dead money if they did so, but that cost could be spread over 2017 and 2018, giving the Cowboys cap resources they don’t currently have. When you consider that the entire cap cost of the Dallas defense in 2016 is $53.8 million compared to $83 million on offense, $54 million could go a long way toward re-balancing the team.
Potential trade value. In addition to providing cap value to Dallas, moving on from Tony Romo could net the Cowboys players and/or draft picks in trade. A healthy Tony Romo would certainly be tradeable at the end of 2016. Sam Bradford, who has started only 66 of a possible 84 games since he was drafted first overall in 2010, and whose career passer rating of 81.9 is well behind Romo’s 97.1 career rating, netted a first and conditional fourth-round pick in a trade with Minnesota this year that could turn into a second-round pick. Interestingly, Sam Bradford’s salary for Minnesota is $17 million next season while Tony Romo’s would be $14 million for any club that acquired him in trade. That’s sixth in the NFL in base salary, but would be 23rd if you look at the 2017 average annual cost for quarterbacks. (Romo’s restructured and signing bonus would be dead money for the Cowboys, but nothing for the acquiring team.) Of course Bradford is just short of 29, while Romo is 36, so it’s hard to get a real bead on Romo’s trade value, but it’s likely to by worthwhile given how relatively cheap he could be for other teams.
There have already been rumors of a team like the New York Jets possibly being interested in Romo. You can imagine a lot more teams who would like an experienced quarterback like Romo, even if only for a couple of years. Despite Romo’s injury history, their risk would be limited to Romo’s salary over a series of individual years, with no dead money hit for any new team that cuts him if he were to suffer a career-ending injury.
When looked at this way, after 2016, the issue is not whether Tony Romo will be better than Dak Prescott as a player. The issue is whether the Dallas Cowboys as a team will be better off with:
- Tony Romo as the starter (with Dak Prescott on the bench), or
- Dak Prescott as the starter plus $54 million in cap dollars over three years that can be used to acquire free agents or re-sign current players Dallas might otherwise lose, plus whatever Tony Romo can bring back in draft picks or players by trading him.
Tony Romo cannot win that competition. If you think he can, you haven’t been watching how the Cowboys have played so far this year with Dak Prescott at quarterback.
What About 2016?
If the future is already fairly set, should the decision about playing Tony Romo or Dak Prescott come down to a comparison of their relative skill levels when Tony is healthy? Even here, there is more at play. There are at least five things the Cowboys should consider.
First, will the team play better under Dak Prescott or Tony Romo? This is not an easy question. By all measures, Dak Prescott has been very impressive. In a comparison we made between Dak’s first four games of 2016 and Romo’s first four games of 2014 (his best season), Dak actually came out slightly ahead. Prescott matched Romo in traditional passer rating, was ahead of Romo in QBR, and more than a yard better in adjusted net yards per attempt. He matched Romo’s 3-1 record. And, like 2014, Prescott has helped Dallas sit at the top of the NFL in 3rd down efficiency. After this week’s game against Cincinnati, Dak Prescott has actually pulled ahead of Tony Romo’s pace in 2014 and won his fourth game in a row.
After the Bears game, Bob Sturm, who has dissected Dallas’s offense on a weekly basis for years, said:
The above box is what offensive perfection looks like. Every stat up there is exactly where you want to see things -- an average of 3.7 yards to go on third downs is comical. I have kept these numbers for years and don't ever recall seeing anything that low. A 6.6 average to go on second down also is remarkably low. They hadn't been down there since the 2015 opener. This team is rolling with a ground game and aerial attack that are teaming up to hum along through three weeks with impressive ease. This looks like the Cowboys when Tony Romo is really in a groove, to be honest.
Moreover, Scott Linehan said last week that the offense isn’t limited in any way with Dak in charge instead of Romo.
"I mean, we're running our offense and the aggressive nature of our offense always kind of applies to situations in the game but there's nothing we're holding back with Dak when it comes to what we do on offense," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "We do the same things we do with Tony. It's no different."
Do we know whether Tony Romo can still perform as well as he did in 2014? Last week, we wrote a post asking just how good is Tony Romo? At his peak, in the 2014 season, Tony Romo showed he can be the most efficient and highes- rated quarterback in the NFL. He obviously needs his health, and certain offensive weapons around him to reach that peak, which includes a powerful offensive line, great running game, and receivers to get open. Dallas has that now, which is one of the reasons Dak Prescott is performing so well. In prior years, when Romo was asked to pass much more, or he didn’t have the same offensive line, his numbers suffered. He was still very good, just not nearly the best.
Unfortunately, no one knows if that 2014 Tony Romo will ever play again. Doubt has been sowed in many people’s minds by his very bad performance in the shortened season of 2015, when he had his collarbone broken not once but twice. His passer rating was 13% below his previous career low and 30% below his 2014 peak, fueled mostly by a rash of interceptions. Then this season, Romo lasted only a few preseason plays before he had his back broken by a tackler from behind while he was attempting to slide, knocking him out for another prolonged period. Romo also never achieved that 2014 performance level in any of his other years in the league.
The only way to find out for sure if the Cowboys would be better with Tony Romo at quarterback than Dak Prescott would be to play Romo and find out. But this decision would have other repercussions that are spelled out below.
Second, there is future value in continuing to play Dak Prescott this year. Bill Barnwell wrote a very interesting article recently asking how long does it take for a team to gain a measure of confidence that their young quarterback is going to have lasting success? He runs the numbers after four games, eight games, sixteen games, and thirty-two games, concluding, not surprisingly, that longer is better.
With a full 16 games of data to look at, the useful quarterbacks in the group really begin to pull away. Perhaps more accurately, the disappointing picks have revealed themselves to be mistakes.
It looks like it really takes two full seasons' worth of data to get a real sense of separation between useful, productive quarterbacks and those who failed to live up to expectations.
If that is true, it suggests the Cowboys should continue to play Dak Prescott at least as long as he is winning games, so you can continue to evaluate him as your starting quarterback of the future without suffering adverse consequences in the present.
Third, there is risk in playing Tony Romo. If Tony Romo gets injured again, it could severely diminish or even eliminate his trade value in the offseason. Todd Archer has detailed Tony’s long history of back, hand, and rib injuries. Each time, Tony has been able to make a full recovery, so there is no certainty that he’ll be injured again. Still, it’s one thing for a team to trade for Tony Romo if he stays healthy the rest of this year. If he goes down again, they may lose interest. Romo’s value would also decline if he played like he did in 2015.
Fourth, why mess with success? Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys are winning. They have won four in a row and have continued to improve. You can’t really do any better than that. Perhaps the competition has not been the stiffest, but stiffer tests are on the horizon. Is there any reason to upset this balance while the team is on a roll?
Fifth, what about the playoffs? If the goal is to win the Super Bowl, and Tony Romo could be better than Dak Prescott in the 2016 playoffs, isn’t this a strong reason to play him enough so he’s sharp if and when the Cowboys get there this year?
This may be the best argument the pro-Romo camp has, but it’s not a slam dunk as it would be if Tony Romo had the playoff record of a Tom Brady or Troy Aikman, for example. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. Tony Romo has a 2-7 record in win-or-go-home games. This may not be a fair criticism of Tony, as he’s carried Cowboys teams into the playoffs that may have otherwise had no chance of making it without Tony’s fine play. But, given this record, the mere belief that Romo will be better should not be enough to push Prescott aside unless Dak begins to falter. After all, as Rick Gosselin pointed out this week, several teams have made the Super Bowl with new and untested quarterbacks, including Kurt Warner, Colin Kaepernick, and Tom Brady. It’s entirely possible Dak Prescott could follow in this line.
These seem to be the options and factors facing the Cowboys.
If the Cowboys decide to play Romo when he’s healthy:
- They give Romo one more chance to prove he can get the Cowboys into the playoffs and to have success when he gets there.
- But they risk diminishing or wiping out his potential trade value if he gets hurt again or plays badly, like he did last year.
- They would slow the development of Dak Prescott and their ability to evaluate relying on him in 2017 without Romo if Romo plays out the year and they decide to move on.
- They run the risk of hurting the current team’s performance and growth, given how it has played under Prescott so far.
If the Cowboys stay with Dak as long as he is winning:
- They keep Romo protected from further injury and thereby protect his trade value if they decide to trade him at the end of the year.
- They find out how far Dak can take the team, and get a much better read on whether they can rely on him if the Cowboys move on from Romo after 2016.
- They still have the option of putting in Romo if Dak falters or gets hurt.
I suspect where you come out on this question depends a lot on how you assess the relative value of Dak’s v. Tony’s playing ability. If you look at Dak’s first five games and decide the offense runs as well as it ran with Romo in 2014, you are likely to side with playing Prescott. That’s especially true if you decide that Prescott can continue to improve if given the reps.
If you think the Dallas offense will be much better under Romo, and feel Dak is not there yet despite his and the team’s success so far, then you likely play Romo until you can’t. Even if you choose the Romo option for this year because you can’t afford to trade him now, you have to consider whether the team would be better by leveraging Romo’s cap and trade value to better the rest of the team next year and beyond.
Bill Barnwell has his take on this debate here. It’s a good read.
What would you do if you were in charge of the Dallas Cowboys? What do you think Dallas’s best approach is if they want to win another Lombardi Trophy?