Dallas is 4-1 and sits atop the NFC East. With a little help from a steadying offensive line, the Cowboys’ offensive rookies are playing at an unprecedented level — one literally recognized by the NFL Hall of Fame. You may go ahead and break out the anointing oil.
On the defensive side, Morris Claiborne is looking like the sixth-overall pick in the draft and rookie Anthony Brown is not looking like a sixth-rounder. The rest of the secondary is feeding off of it, all the way down to the much-maligned J J Wilcox. This last game, even the defensive line got into the act, responding to the return of DeMarcus Lawrence with a four sack game. Meanwhile Tony Romo’s recovery is going swimmingly and Dez Bryant may even return to the field this week. Oh... did I not mention that Dallas did all this with its star QB on the bench for all of it and its star wideout and stud left tackle on the bench for two games each?
So, yeah, I think it’s safe to say the season is off to a phenomenal start. So how do Cowboys fans respond?
By having their most bitter argument in recent memory, of course.
But, like the great Michael Palin before me, I say to you that "This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who."
Who am I kidding? You’re going to argue it. It’s fun to talk about. The future is unfolding before our eyes, so how can we not be excited? So allow me to attempt to lay some ground rules for the game by pointing out things that we should all agree on at this point.
I. This is a real question
Dak Prescott has played at an extremely high level. Greater than anyone could’ve expected. He certainly has been less than a perfect NFL quarterback, but perhaps that is the biggest thing about him: he has managed to improve and expand his repertoire literally week by week. The fact that he was able to adjust and succeed despite the loss of Bryant and game plans which have attempted to take away his favorite target (and everyone’s favorite hobbit) Cole Beasley speaks volumes about his future. To say that Dallas need not consider leaving him in is to ignore reality.
Tony Romo, however, is a Pro-Bowl veteran who is literally one ring away from a shoe-in Hall of Fame resume. He is currently the third-rated passer of all time, and, perhaps more importantly, was at that level before Dallas built its monstrous offensive line and running game. His in game acumen at running an offense has been compared favorably to Peyton Manning, who Romo out-dueled in the most amazing single-game QB performance of my lifetime (when you count both QBs). To put that game into perspective, there have only been six 5-TD, 500 yard games in the NFL since 1960. Only Tony Romo and Y. A. Tittle have been able to accomplish that without throwing 49 passes. Tittle used 39, Romo 36 (for an eye-popping 14.06 yards per attempt).
Both of them have ample reason to start for this team.
II. The offense simply cannot get much more efficient
In 2014, the offense stunned everyone with its brutal efficiency in running and throwing. they averaged 6.0 plays, 3:01 minutes, and 35.7 yds per drive, scoring on 45.6% of them with 48% ending in a scoring attempt (includes blocked and missed FG attempts). The run/pass balance was near perfect at 48.4%/51.5%. Their average to go on 3rd down was 6.92.
In 2016, so far, they are shattering those numbers. 7.2 plays, 41.4 yds, and 3:34 per drive. They have actually scored on 50% of their drives with a scoring attempt on 54.3% of them. The balance is even closer, with 51.0% of the plays being pass plays and 49.0% being runs. Their average third down is 6.49 yds to go. That’s simply off the chart.
III. The offense can get more explosive
While everything else is going really well, the offense has been limited in its ability to produce big plays. Again we’ll use the uber-efficient 2014 as the measuring bar (which is actually a low bar for big plays, as more efficiency usually means less explosiveness). The current offense produces a 20-yd run about 2.7% of the time and a 10-yd run about 10.2% of the time. In 2014, with "meat on the bone" DeMarco Murray at running back, they produced a 20-yd run about 3.7% of the time and a 10-yd run about 12.0%. Those may seem like small differences, but if you consider the probability difference it’s massive — about 40% more likely to get a 20+ run and 15% more likely to get a ten yard run.
The passing difference, as might be expected, is even more pronounced. The current offense produces a pass of 40 yards or more about 1.2% of the time. In 2014, that number was 2.3% — nearly double. On the more reasonable medium range front, 20+ yard passes occur about 7.4% of the time in 2016, with a 10.6% rate in 2014. That’s about a 43% advantage.
It’s not a slight against Dak to point this out. Nor does it mean he can’t ever be that, but this is a growth area for him.
IV. Tony Romo is not broken down or incapable.
Mike Fisher says Romo is mobile and throwing with crispness in his after practice sessions. And despite what some would seem to have you think, Romo has run many bootlegs and empty sets, and done so recently and with great effect. He is not the running threat that Dak is, to be sure, but he is not, in the parlance of the old John Elway joke, a "slow white Bronco" (were they to trade him to Denver).
More to the point, people have a distinct habit of piling up Romo’s injuries as if they all add up to something. This is especially true of his back injuries. But the reality is that this latest back injury is different and distinct. We interviewed three separate health professionals here at BTB. They all agreed that his current injury was not caused by any lingering weakness or structural issue from his previous back injuries. That, in essence, he would’ve suffered the same injury in 2006 had he suffered the same blow. One went further to point out the very injury itself as evidence that the other structures were, in fact solidly recovered. Were they still weak spots, they would not have been able to convey enough force to fracture the L1.
But it’s truly not worth pointing out in the debate because it simply ends the debate. If Romo is the decrepit old man that some make him out to be, then of course you don’t play him. But going back to point one above, this is a debate, ergo, Romo is perfectly physically capable once his conditioning is completely restored. As, again, all three doctors agreed in their assessment of his prognosis from the injury he suffered.
V. The salary cap implications are clear writing on the wall
The salary cap says Romo is on the team for 2016, period. Therefore, if he is your best QB, you play him, period.
That having been said, 2017 is in some doubt. I think it likely that Dallas keeps Romo for 2017 because (A) they had already planned to and (B) the salary savings are relatively minimal. But if a team (say the supposedly interested Jets) were to come with a strong offer, Dallas would have to deeply consider it.
But the real story is 2018. Dallas can save a whopping $16.3 million in cap space by jettisoning Romo, and there’s simply no way that, with Dak the very viable option that he is, they fail to do so in some form or fashion. The real decider here may be Tony. He could retire. He could ask for a trade. He could go on the open market a la DeMarcus Ware. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I could even see him completely renegotiating his contract and staying here as a backup and player/coach for several years. He seems to like the environment and staff here, and he has already mentored Dak quite a bit.
Regardless, though, I am certain there is simply nothing but injury that will keep Dak Prescott from being the starting QB of the Dallas Cowboys in 2018. So if anyone is still resisting the idea, they’d best get used to it.