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Behind The Decision Between Dak Prescott & Tony Romo

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With Tony Romo finally healthy enough to suit up this week, further clarification of his role was inevitable. Romo provided some in his moving press conference, but the clearer answer came from Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett.

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven’t read this Sports’ Illustrated article by Albert Breer — Inside the Dallas Decision — and want to understand why the Cowboys have decided to stay with Dak Prescott at quarterback, you need to do so. It’s also useful to read Jason Garrett’s comments in this Star-Telegram article, Stephen Jones comments in this SB Nation article by Thomas George, and this Robert Klemko piece in SI.

The issue came to a head this week for two reasons. First, Tony Romo was finally healthy enough to suit up for a game. And, second, Tony Romo apparently asked for a chance to wrest his job back. From the Breer’ piece:

So when I told Stephen Jones, the Cowboys chief operating officer, I’d heard Romo privately asked for the chance to wrest the job back, Jones acknowledged that with deference.

This forced the Cowboys’ hand, and led to Romo issuing his press conference statement. Stephen Jones had this take why Romo stepped forward.

“Tony’s smart,” Jones said, from his cell in the middle of his Wednesday workday. “He’s very bright. And so when he came out and said it [i.e., asking to wrest his job back], in the end, I don’t think it took him long to figure that wouldn’t be a great thing for the team. We’ve got a good thing, and no one wants Dak looking over his shoulder.”

Here’s what Garrett thought.

Garrett said he didn't think it was necessary for Romo to come out and concede the starting job in a speech on Tuesday. But it was keeping with the type of player and person Romo has been during his time with the Cowboys.

This explains more about what happened, but not exactly why the Cowboys made the decision they did. Let’s turn to that now.

“Best Interest Of The Football Team”

Let’s start with Garrett’s point regarding why the Cowboys are staying with Dak.

He told Romo he didn't do anything to lose his job, but the decision to stick with rookie sensation Dak Prescott was in the best interest of the football team.

Here are some of the reasons that is likely true.

  • First, the 2016 offense is playing about as well as any Cowboys offense has ever played.

The team is on track to score 458 points. If it reaches that number, it would be the third highest total in franchise history, exceeded only by the 1983 Cowboys, who scored 479, and the 2014 Cowboys, who scored 467.

Dallas is tops in the NFL in points per drive this year, at 2.84. The 2014 team finished second in the NFL with 2.49 points per drive. The 2014 team benefited more from turnovers, gaining 31 over the season. The 2016 team is on pace for 17-18.

This isn’t happening in spite of Dak Prescott, who’s been more than matching Tony Romo’s stats from 2014, his best season. It’s been happening in large part because of Prescott’s steady play.

  • Second, the Cowboys are winning.

The Cowboys just tied their franchise record 8th win in a row, matching the 1977 Cowboys of Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett. They won for only the second time in franchise history in Lambeau Field. They beat Philadelphia at home, which they hadn’t done since 2012. They won in Pittsburgh by scoring two touchdowns in the last two minutes of the game. They are preparing to play Baltimore this week, a team they have never beaten.

The Cowboys have the best record in the NFL after nine games, which they last accomplished in 1994, their most recent Super Bowl winning season. Having the best record in the NFC after nine games was last done in 2007, Tony Romo’s first full year at quarterback, when the team also started 8-1 on its way to a 13-3 finish. (Patriots were undefeated until the Super Bowl that year.)

Finishing with the top seed in a conference has proven to be a decided edge in the last 20 years towards making it to the Super Bowl.

  • Third, the Cowboys have “supreme confidence that Dak is our future.”

This quote comes from the Breer piece, and is given by Stephen Jones after the Pittsburgh game.

“We’ve got supreme confidence that Dak is our future,” Jones said. “We’ve just seen too much. And you may say, ‘Well, it’s only been nine games.’ No, it’s the full body of work. And it’s not just on the field, it’s off the field too. It’s how he handles every situation—bringing us back down two scores in San Francisco; last week, he leads the game-winning drive twice in Pittsburgh; coming back against Philly.

“He keeps checking every box.”

Even though Stephen is quoted later in the article that he hasn’t thought past this year, if Dak is the future, it makes eminent sense to continue playing him in the now. He gains valuable experience, and Tony Romo stays healthy on the sidelines.

  • Fourth, the Cowboys feel that Dak Prescott is the right fit for this team.

Albert Breer doesn’t have a direct quote to support his conclusion, but his take is Dak Prescott is younger - closer in age to most of the players - and he’s a natural leader.

Prescott is the right fit for this group of Cowboys. He and Romo are very different types of leaders. Romo is more demonstrative. Prescott is more natural, which is one of the things Dallas loved about him in March and April, in how he handles teammates. Part of that, to be fair, is because Prescott is far closer in age to most of Dallas’ roster.

Albert Morris, who witnessed another rookie quarterback phenom his first year in Washington, noticed the differences between Dak and RGIII right away and approached Dak before the season began.

“I told him, you keep handling yourself the way you are and continue to work, the sky is the limit for you,” Morris says. “Dak’s just a natural leader. You can tell when somebody is trying to hard or being fake or phony, but he’s just a natural born leader. And you could tell off the bat he was really, really composed. He can keep a level head in tough situations. It’s almost like he’s already a vet.

This statement by Ezekiel Elliott in the heat of battle in Pittsburgh also speaks to Dak Prescott’s fit with this team and their growing bond as teammates.

  • Fifth, it’s not realistic to have a quarterback competition in November.

Quarterback competitions are for August. If you have a quarterback having the success that Prescott is currently having, it’s almost impossible to have an open competition during the week. Snaps in practice are precious and few, and the Cowboys also don’t want Prescott looking over his shoulder. Breer makes the point.

In November, each snap a quarterback takes counts, and is built on what the team needs to do for the next game. It’s not a time for figuring out if that guy is the right one for the job. Jason Garrett said Wednesday he’d extend practices to get Romo a little more work than Sanchez got, but there really is only so much you can do.

Plus, even if Tony is lighting it up in practice, it wouldn’t really answer the question. The issue is not really whether Tony Romo can play, but whether he could survive the inevitable hits he would take if put back on the field, especially with so much of the season left. Accordingly, Breer concludes that,

the risk of [playing Tony] far outweighs the reward, with the gap between what Romo could bring and what Prescott does bring closing by the week. All of which led to Romo, who’d been quiet around the team, baring his soul Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean the story is over for Tony Romo

While this week has brought clarity to the quarterback debate in Dallas, it hasn’t brought closure. There are still seven regular season games to play, and presumably playoff game(s) in 2016. A lot could happen in that time.

If Dak Prescott is injured, Tony Romo will obviously step back in, at least as long as Dak needs time to heal. If Dak’s play suddenly goes south, or he hits a wall, Tony will be ready. That will be a much tougher timing call, as the team doesn’t want Dak to play as if he’s on a short leash. But it will be there to be made if necessary.

When the Cowboys get to the end of the season and the playoffs, the risk-reward equation may well change, depending on the play of Prescott and the team. At that point, the injury risk to Romo will be much lower, and the game stakes will be much higher.

Drew Bledsoe was called upon to rescue the Patriots in the AFC Championship game the year Tom Brady took over after Bledsoe was injured. Roger Staubach was called upon in similar circumstances in 1972, when he was inserted into a divisional round playoff game against the 49ers after being supplanted by Craig Morton for most of the season upon suffering a shoulder injury. Roger pulled off one of his greatest comebacks, rallying the Cowboys from 15 points down in the fourth quarter.

Whether or not Romo plays for the Cowboys again, as Dak Prescott said in response to Tony’s and the team’s statements, this is now everyone’s team, including Tony Romo’s.

"Nobody's ever going to tell me this is my team," he said. "As I said a couple of weeks ago, this is a team and it's the reason we're winning. When the starting quarterback at the beginning of the year says what he says yesterday, it shows this is everybody's team. It's not just about the quarterback position. ... It's about everybody, what everybody's putting into this."