Everyone says the Dallas Cowboys have a good problem. They have two quality quarterbacks. In a league where teams spend ridiculous draft capital for the mere shot of one, having Tony Romo and Dak Prescott is a huge coup. Everyone also says, however, that Dallas should "ride the hot hand." From Roger Staubach and Babe Laufenberg to Troy Aikman and Jimmy Johnson, commentators are coming out of the woodwork to suggest Dallas should ride Prescott until he bucks.
As in, "no further than that."
Now, maybe I’m misinterpreting what they mean, but I take them to mean "let Prescott play until he performs poorly, then go back to Romo." I believe, very strongly, that this is the one thing the Cowboys absolutely should NOT do. This has nothing to do with my clearly stated preference for Romo starting when healthy and everything to do with what is best for the team, and Prescott, going forward.
Many people discussing this, including the aforementioned Aikman, specifically refer to the Steve Beuerlein situation with Aikman in the 1991 season. Aikman had been injured and Beuerlein was the young gun backup (though Aikman was quite young himself at the time). Aikman said that he was angry about it at the time, but looking back, he felt Johnson had made the right decision.
I beg to differ. Johnson rode Beuerlein until he wasn’t winning any more. Then, halfway through a playoff game, Johnson asked Aikman to come in and save the season. While Aikman would prove slightly more capable of leading the offense than Beuerlein was, he never produced anything of note and Dallas went on to lose the game 38-6. So point one is that you might be halfway through a playoff game when you suddenly find that the hot hand has turned cold, and that is a little too late to start warming up the guy you benched.
But the bigger point is what happened to Beuerlein from there. He appeared briefly in mop up duty in Super Bowl 27 and went on the free agent market. From there he had a series of disappointing seasons and contentious relationships with coaches, interrupted by one shining year in 1999 (his 13th season in the NFL) where he made the Pro Bowl with a Carolina Panthers team that, nonetheless, missed the playoffs.
Now, Steve Beuerlein and Dak Prescott are two different players, and Beuerlein (coincidentally a fourth-round selection himself) never had the level of talent and ability that Prescott is showing right now. Furthermore, it would be a stretch to say that his long but mediocre career as, basically, one of the NFL’s best backups, would’ve been better if Dallas had stuck with him and developed him further.
But it can’t have helped that, early in his career, he was given the keys to the franchise, and then, at the first sign of trouble, had them removed and handed back to the other guy. You see, whether you say it or not is irrelevant. When you have a player like Troy Aikman or Tony Romo sitting on the bench (Aikman was already a Pro Bowl player in 1991), healthy and ready to go, but you are playing the other guy, you have de facto named the other guy the starter.
And that may be the right thing to do. If the coaches are of the opinion that this team, whether for chemistry or cap reasons, is better off with Prescott starting, that’s the right thing to do. What you do not do is renege on that decision halfway through the back stretch of the season, or in a playoff game. If Dak is good enough to supplant the NFL’s third all-time-rated passer, then so be it. The king is dead, and long live the king. But don’t go bringing Zombie Romo in, five games later, because Dak has a bad game. If Dak is the starter then he has earned the right to blow a game. He’s earned the right to not wear a leash and have to watch over his shoulder. If you stay with Dak it needs to be because he is better, and, more importantly, the team is better with him at QB. Not because he has a "hot hand".
Because the biggest thing of all is that you send a clear message by the "hot hand" tactic. You are saying, "Go ahead, but remember, if you make a mistake we have this other guy waiting to come take your job back." That’s going to create a great tendency towards risk aversion. And while risk averse is great for a young rookie learning the game, it is very bad for a QB trying to lead his team to a playoff victory. Say what you will about Eli Manning, he is not risk averse, and that directly led to a host of fourth quarter comebacks (second among active players to Tom Brady) and two Super Bowl rings.
One of the things that Dak has done well beyond his years is NOT be "Captain Checkdown". I think it’s very important to keep it that way. So if you hand him the keys, don’t treat him like a teenager during their first time behind the wheel of the car. Give them to him, freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion. Because if you don’t have that kind of faith in Dak Prescott, then you shouldn’t be sitting Tony Romo. What Jimmy Johnson did in 1991 was unfair to the team, unfair to Troy, and unfair to Steve. Learning form others’ mistakes can prevent our own.
Conversely, with Romo you can make the leash as short as you wish. If Romo comes in and performs poorly or gets hurt, the right thing to do is wash your hands of him. There's no worry about how it will affect him going forward because he's not a part of your plans. It would be a crappy way to end a great career, but that happens more often than not. There's absolutely no worry about going forward with Dak if Romo can't out perform him. You just put Dak back in and keep right on doing what you have been. There's no question of Romo looming over Prescott's shoulder because he'll have had his chance. And Prescott will have the genuine confidence of knowing that he has legitimately won the job for good, and, more importantly, the confidence that the coaches are committed to him going forward.
There have been a host of promising young QBs whose careers have derailed. Almost every one of them has had to deal with coaching changes and uncertainty. The one who has unequivocally been the most successful has had the consistency of being "the guy" since he was named starter -- Russell Wilson. If we want that for Dak then we want that same support and consistency. Wilson lost five games as a rookie and three of those he had a sub 70 passer rating, with the lowest being a 38.7 (9/23 for 122 yards and an INT). There was no talk of benching him for the more experienced and more expensive Matt Flynn. Pete Carroll committed to Wilson and stayed with him. The result has been fantastically consistent QB play, 2015's highest rated passer, three NFC Championship appearances, and a Super Bowl victory.
Give me that for Dak going forward. If you go Dak, don't go back.