It is funny how a horrible moment in a preseason game has become the touchstone for the story of the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. It was a play where everything changed for the Cowboys - but as it turned out, not the way we all thought at the time. I’m talking about, of course, the injury to Tony Romo against the Seattle Seahawks. When it happened, there was a horrible moment of deja vu when almost everyone thought that another season was about to begin the spiraling journey down the metaphorical toilet of the NFL. The expectation was that the team would struggle in Romo’s absence, and he would come back (likely too soon) to try and salvage something out of what had been a season filled with such hope.
No one, absolutely no one, could imagine at the time that the performance of the team would be the last thing to worry about. With a 4-1 record and every appearance of just getting stronger each week, despite additional injury issues, the Cowboys are suddenly being looked at as one of the teams to beat. They look like the 2014 version of themselves, only with upgrades. The win over the Cincinnati Bengals was a display of pure dominance. And now the game against the Green Bay Packers, which everyone was figuring would be a loss without Romo, looks competitive. Neither the record or the performance of the team collectively or individually is at all an issue. No, the biggest issue right now in Dallas is just about the last thing we would have predicted as Romo was being helped off the field in August: Should Romo come back in as the starter, or should Dak Prescott, he of the hot hand and multiple NFL records already, keep the starting job, at least until he pulls a Carson Wentz and causes the team to lose a game?
At first glance, this seems silly. Romo is one of the most skilled and capable veterans in the league, despite some stupid memes that completely invert his record for bringing the team back and delivering clutch plays. Prescott, while hotter than Mike McCoy’s coaching seat in San Diego, is still a rookie who is utilizing a limited set of tools (although the ones he has are very good indeed). But now that Prescott has led the team on that four-game winning streak, the cries are mounting by the minute to keep Romo on the bench, at least until Prescott’s hot hand cools off. Here are just a couple of examples.
(I did notice that I have selected two tweets from the Dallas Morning News, but that is not in any way an indication that they are the only ones stirring this pot. It is everywhere, in national, local, and social media.)
As shown above, there is now a majority (at least among people who are on Twitter and respond to unscientific on-line polls) that wants to keep Romo on the sidelines. There are many of those who are quite willing to start easing him out the door altogether, discussing trade possibilities and just cutting him outright.
Make no mistake, however, Romo has his defenders, and they make up in rational analysis what they may lack in numbers (at least in my admittedly biased view of the matter).
And it is getting a little emotional out there.
I’m dangerously close to hoping Romo wins a SB ring with another team because there’s a planet of you that don’t remotely deserve him.— Patrik Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) October 11, 2016
This is going to continue, especially if Prescott is involved in a win against the Packers. That will take us into the bye, and we will have two whole weeks of arguments, counterarguments, insults, sarcasm, and all the other delights found in the calm and dispassionate discussions that abound in social media.
All of which is sound and fury, signifying nothing, because all the polls and opinion pieces and pithy tweets have absolutely no effect on this matter. This decision is going to be made by a small handful of top Cowboys brass, namely Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, and possibly Wade Wilson of the coaching staff, and Jerry and Stephen Jones. Romo himself may also have a voice in this, at least as far as how ready he is to go.
We can go on and on about what the correct decision should be, but the individuals listed above don’t care what we think. They care about doing what will most favor the Cowboys going forward and improve their chances of making the playoffs and going on a deep run. Up until this week, the statements coming out of all concerned, including Prescott himself, were unanimous: This is Romo’s team, and the starting job is his when he is fully ready to go.
But after the stunning demolition of what was supposed to be a good Bengals team, some, at least, began talking like there were second thoughts. The main culprit, as you might expect, was Jerry Jones during an interview on KRLD-FM (as reported by Brandon George in the Dallas Morning News).
The Cowboys are 4-1 and Prescott has yet to throw an interception. Jones said Tuesday that Prescott is "inspiring this team. We've got the optimism of the future."
Jones added that Prescott playing at a high level gives the Cowboys the "luxury" to be even more patient with bringing back Romo, who still needs to return to game shape and strengthen his core that helps with his back.
Jones said he's going to "wait and see" how Prescott continues to play the next few weeks.
"It's called ambiguity and a tolerance for it and I've got a lot of it," Jones said. "It's a miracle problem to have."
Now, as George cautions, it is always something of a risk to take what Jones says at face value. He has a long history of stream-of-consciousness talk (cough) rambling (cough) where he is literally trying out ideas as he speaks.
And there is one thing that makes bringing Romo back the right thing. For all he does, Prescott still has one glaring limitation. He does not throw the deep ball. With him at quarterback, the Cowboys can only stress the defense horizontally, not vertically. Romo can make all the throws, and when he is operating with a full compliment of receiving weapons, including Dez Bryant (who has missed the last two games, but will be back after the bye, and has an outside chance of playing in Green Bay), the opponent has to defend the entire field, from sideline to sideline and at least forty yards downfield. Add in the incredible skill Romo has in diagnosing defenses, adjusting protections, and changing plays to exploit what he sees, and he is still going to be a more potent passer than Prescott, even if the latter brings better mobility and the addition of some read-option and designed runs to the table. Romo will make the passing game better, and that will make the run defense softer for Ezekiel Elliott, who has already averaged over 130 yards a game the past three games, and Alfred Morris, who is quite competent in spelling Elliott.
And while Prescott has been remarkably effective in sustaining drives, particularly early in games, those have required converting lots of third downs along the way. Even though the Cowboys are leading the league in doing that, it is still exactly a 50/50 proposition at this point. The ability to go deep is a valuable tool. Quick strikes down the field not only eliminate the need to keep moving the sticks, they demoralize the defense. And the cost of not being able to make those plays was most clearly demonstrated by the other rookie phenom of this season, Wentz, when he threw an easily intercepted ball late in their game against the Detroit Lions (who were 1-3 going into that contest), ending things right there.
Romo needs to be the starter when the time is right. Prescott’s incredible run as a late fourth-round draft pick does not change that. But it might change one thing: The timing.
Romo is expected to begin working in practice at some pint now that his MRI has come back and shows that his cracked vertebra is healed. He cannot be ready this week, and the Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday Night Football following the bye has long been seen as the target for him to return. But the Eagles are, at the moment, the main challenger for the NFC East title, just a half game behind Dallas. And they have one of the best defenses so far this season, ranked second overall in total and passing yards. Even more worrisome, they have 14 sacks. That may not be the team you really want Romo coming back to knock off the rust.
The better idea might be to make the next game, against the woeful Cleveland Browns, the time to put Romo back on the field. They are 29th in total yards allowed, tied for 30th in points given up, and only have seven sacks. As was remarked on Twitter, it may be much like a preseason game for Romo. Even if the team loses to the Packers this week, they would still be above .500 after playing the Eagles no matter what. And that was seen as the best possible outcome when the regular season started. If Dallas does win at least one of the next two games, it will be an excellent situation to start Romo’s season. Prescott has taken away any pressure at all to rush Romo back, and allows the team the luxury of being a little extra cautious.
Keeping Romo out one more game after the bye would set up an expected matchup between Prescott and Wentz. With the slump in ratings so far for this season, you know that NBC would probably love to play up that aspect to draw viewers. Admittedly, Romo’s first game back would also be a draw, but seeing the two rookies go against each other just seems slightly more compelling.
The Cowboys don’t care about that, however. Their main concern is to have the best team they can on the field, and at some point that includes Romo as the quarterback. There is a chance that he will not be the Romo we hope, but all indications at the moment are that it is a small possibility.
Unfortunately, we are going to have to suffer through this debate until Romo is deemed ready to go. And if the Cowboys beat the Packers, then the heat will just get ratcheted up even more.