Ed. Note: As discussed in this post, we had a few more Romo vs. Dak posts in the queue, this is the second one. We’ve heard the suggestion of moving on to some other subjects, and we will. But indulge us one more time, much effort went into creating this quality post.
Don’t you love quarterback controversies? The last time the Cowboys had one of these was when Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe, and it wasn’t nearly as passionate. That’s mostly because Bledsoe was a hired gun, brought in by Bill Parcells to prop up the team while he forced Tony Romo to get better.
This time around, Tony Romo is an established 10-year starter, who has set Cowboys records for yards, completion percentage, touchdowns, and passer rating, and is third all time in the NFL in passer rating. His challenger is Dak Prescott, a rookie selected in the fourth round this year, who came into training camp fighting for the third-string spot, and who was expected to need at least a year of watching before he could be relied on to start and win games.
If Tony Romo had stayed healthy, there would be no quarterback controversy. He would be starting and Dak would be learning from the bench. But Tony Romo did not stay healthy. He went down in his third series of the preseason, and first series of the tune-up game against Seattle. Given Romo’s injury history from the last few years, advancing age, and poor performance in 2015, it opened the door to questions about his durability and reliability. Add in his hefty contract, and there were legitimate reasons for Dallas to consider alternatives for the quarterback position.
Without Dak Prescott, there also would be no quarterback controversy. The rookie has made one with his outstanding play, incredible poise and leadership skills, cheap contract, and winning record. It’s the last part — winning games — that is the most important factor, because in the NFL it doesn’t matter how pretty it is as long as there is another W at the end of the game. At 6-1, best in the NFC, Dak Prescott has the Dallas Cowboys back on top.
Let’s take a moment to highlight some of the great features of these two outstanding quarterbacks.
One can love:
- How Dak Prescott has transformed the outlook for the Dallas Cowboys. From a 4-12 team that was dependent on the health of Tony Romo, to a 6-1 start without Romo for seven games, Dez Bryant for three games, Tyron Smith for two games, Orlando Scandrick for four games, and other absences, there is an optimism about the Cowboys not seen in many a year. It’s not all Dak, but this article is focused on the quarterbacks.
- The energy Dak Prescott brings to the team. His youthful exuberance, along with that of his fellow rookies, is infectious.
- Dak Prescott’s poise and command of the team and the huddle. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten and Cole Beasley noticed how Dak was all business and was totally prepared from his first preseason snap.
- How Dak Prescott lives in the moment. He is mindful. This allows him to focus and execute each play as well as he can, and to move on quickly if he makes a bad play or series of plays.
- How Dak Prescott limits his mistakes and turnovers. Turnovers change games, as is clear from each of the Cowboys games this year. Dak is not perfect, but he will always strive to be.
- Dak Prescott’s mobility and size. This allows him to run plays with Zeke that a pocket passer can’t. He already has four rushing touchdowns, and converted a critical fourth down sneak to help win the Philly game. This is another way to stress a defense.
- Dak Prescott’s contract, which could allow the Cowboys to build a stronger team around him for a few years than if their biggest cap hit is at quarterback.
- How Dak Prescott has bonded with Ezekiel Elliott, and how together they are leading the Cowboys into the future.
- Dak Prescott’s mind meld with Cole Beasley, which led Pro Football Outsiders to rank Beasley first in the NFL in DVOA through six games.
- Dak Prescott’s ability to find the open man. This took a hit in the Philadelphia game, but in the five preceding wins, Dak was outstanding.
- The stats Dak Prescott is putting up with the Cowboys. This has certainly been helped by the great offensive line, strong running game, and number of great receiving targets the Cowboys have. The numbers are still very impressive.
- How Dak Prescott was unfazed by Dez Bryant’s absence from the lineup. This was a breath of fresh air compared to 2015, when every injury was seen as an excuse for another Cowboys’ loss.
- Dak Prescott’s back story. His relationship with his mother. How he succeeded at Mississippi State and the love those fans have for him. How people are drawn to him.
- How Dak Prescott just wins football games. His typical approach has been to start the game strong, driving for an opening possession TD to take command early. This hasn’t always worked, but even when the Cowboys have fallen behind, or he’s played poorly, Dak has found a way to rally the team. It’s hard to beat a 6-1 start.
One can also love:
- How Tony Romo battles. He’s been hurt a lot, but he’s very tough and will always try to get back up and into the fight.
- How Tony Romo directs a two-minute offense. He can’t do this all game, as a balanced attack helps Romo as much as it helps Dak, as evidenced by the 2014 season. But if you have to have a quick score, Tony Romo is one of the best in NFL history.
- Tony Romo’s Romodini skills. This has always been his signature, so much so that Dak Prescott’s spin move on the last play of the Philly game was seen as a Romodini move. Does Romo still have it? We don’t know for sure, but even if those skills have diminished a bit, they have helped him pull off countless amazing plays.
- Tony Romo’s accuracy. Tony Romo is tied for fourth highest in completion percentage in NFL history at 65.3%, only 1.2% behind the top spot held by Drew Brees.
- Tony Romo’s consistency. He’s third all-time in passer rating, with only one season - his injury-marred 2015 - below 90. His 2014 season score of 113.2 was the seventh highest season of all time.
- Tony Romo’s ability to rally. He’s led 25 fourth quarter comebacks, which ranks him tied for 14th all time.
- Tony Romo’s ability to stretch the field. Romo is not a bomber. The Cowboys have never asked him to play like Russell Wilson with Seattle or Carson Palmer with Arizona. But Romo is fifth all time in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (ANY/A), which you can’t lead unless you throw the ball down the field.
- Tony Romo’s mind meld with Jason Witten, and his ability to turn a receiver like Laurent Robinson into a star when he wasn’t one before or after the year he was a Cowboy.
- How Tony Romo has helped make Dez Bryant into a touchdown scoring machine.
- How Tony Romo carried mediocre Cowboys teams for years, doing his best and giving his all.
- How Tony Romo made it as an undrafted free agent. Like Dak, Tony Romo also has a compelling back story.
There is obviously a lot to love about both players. Feel free to add your own reasons in the comments.
Do the Cowboys have to make a choice? While Tony Romo continues to rehab and strengthen his core, the choice is Dak Presott. The question is, what happens when both are fully healthy.
What is the best approach?
How can the Cowboys maximize the value both of these outstanding quarterbacks bring to the table?
If Tony Romo is fully healthy and can move around and deliver the ball the way he’s accustomed to, he’s likely to be the better quarterback in the short-term given his experience and historically excellent play. Dak Prescott has some abilities Tony Romo doesn’t have, mostly his running ability and so far his proclivity to avoid interceptions. He’s even produced similar quarterback stats over seven games in 2016 to what Romo produced in 2014 (his best season). And he has led a Cowboys offense that’s gained more than 400 yards in five straight games, which no Romo-led offense has accomplished. But it is unlikely that Prescott is a “better quarterback” at this point, given his extremely short career. That was painfully evident for much of the Philadelphia game this week, which showed how much Dak needs to learn. Still, that doesn’t mean that Tony Romo should automatically replace Dak Prescott as soon as he’s 100%. There are other things at play. It appears the Cowboys realize it.
Keeping Tony Romo healthy
One huge factor is the injury risk to Tony Romo if and when he’s thrust back into the starting lineup. If Tony Romo is the better quarterback, why should the Cowboys put his skills at risk in games the Cowboys might just as easily win with Dak Prescott? Shouldn’t the Cowboys do everything possible to make sure Tony Romo is healthy at the end of the season and into the playoffs, where he could potentially provide the most value?
The questions about Tony Romo should not be so much about whether he can play when healthy — practice can likely show the Cowboys whether he’s physically ready — but whether he can stay healthy once he takes some hits. Despite a very sub-par 2015 season, it’s highly unlikely Tony Romo has lost the ability to read defenses or deliver the ball, or even move around in the pocket (though that might have been lessened by time and injuries). He certainly hasn’t lost his mental abilities while he’s been hurt.
You don’t need to see Tony Romo playing against the Eagles’, or Steelers’, or Vikings’ blitzes to answer this question because it can’t really be answered. Tony Romo might get hit five or ten times and get up to resume play. He also might go down again after a single hit, as has happened to him three times in his last six games, including the preseason.
Tony Romo is very likely to be a top quarterback once he’s healthy enough to play. But he’s also at very high risk of not being able to survive the grinds of an NFL season with his health intact.
Let’s not forget Tony Romo’s recent injury history.
- In 2016, he went down against Seattle on the third play from scrimmage while trying to slide. This was the third preseason series that Romo had played.
- In 2015, he had his collarbone broken in two different games, the second one ending his season. He played in four total contests.
- In 2014, he suffered a back injury in the Washington game — the season’s eighth game — then tried to come back in the same game, but the Cowboys lost. The Cowboys also lost the following game with Romo’s backup, Brandon Weeden. (The Cowboys lost the #1 seed by a single game.) Romo returned in the 10th game and played two playoff games, for nine in a row.
- In 2013, he was injured in the penultimate game against Washington, forcing him out for the seasons’ last game, which the Cowboys lost, thereby missing the playoffs.
If you value Tony Romo, and think he can be a difference maker for the Cowboys in 2016, you shouldn’t want to expose him to injury until late in the season, at the earliest, when he might need a tune up game or two before the playoffs, or even in the playoffs, when he could reprise the role Drew Bledsoe played in helping the Brady-led Pats to the Super Bowl.
Evaluating and Improving Dak Prescott
In addition to winning this year, the Cowboys need to know what they have in Dak Prescott at the end of the year, so they can decide whether to reap the cap savings available from moving on from Tony Romo after 2016 to build a better overall team. If Prescott only gets to start through the Cleveland or Pittsburgh games, for example — eight or nine games — the #1 argument people will make for keeping Romo in 2017 is that Prescott didn’t play long enough for the Cowboys to know if he can be trusted to be the main guy. That’s especially true after the Philadelphia game, where Dak struggled. Letting Prescott start as long as the Cowboys keep winning will help answer that question.
For the same reason, the Cowboys will benefit if Prescott is allowed to continue to develop on the field and get better, as he has done every week he has played this season. Even this week’s shaky performance against Philadelphia was a valuable learning experience, and one that fortunately didn’t cost the Cowboys a loss. No reason to turn Dak into a sideline learner if he’s winning.
Riding team chemistry and putting the team first
Many players, including Dez Bryant, have said this is the best chemistry the team has had. He added that Sunday’s win over Philly was the best team win he’s seen since he’s been in Dallas. There is little doubt that the “juice” provided by the rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has been a big part of the Cowboys success. There’s also something changing in the Cowboys team makeup from one focused on its “stars” to one where everyone is needed to help win games. Even Jerry Jones is now talking about team chemistry, and riding the hot hand. Why mess with this while the Cowboys are winning?
As long as the Cowboys are winning, there is no compelling reason to move off of Dak Prescott. The Cowboys can’t do better than to win each game. If Dak Prescott continues to falter or gets hurt, Tony Romo will be there. If Romo is not needed for the Cowboys to win, then keep him safely on the sidelines. Even if the Dak-led Cowboys continue to win, near the end of year, the Cowboys will have to decide what their best playoff approach will be, and the Prescott-Romo calculus could very well change. If Romo needs a tune-up game or two, that can be part of the equation.
Accordingly, the real question(s) for 2016 once Romo is healthy should be: Who is the better quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys for:
- The next few games?
- At the end of the season? and
- In the playoffs?
If you look at the schedule, one might project where the key decision point is likely to be, but it could change as events unfold on the field.
For now, Dak is starting at Cleveland and it sounds like he’ll start at Pittsburgh. We then have Baltimore, Washington (on Thanksgiving), at Minnesota (Thursday), at Giants, Tampa Bay, Detroit, at Philadelphia.
Given how Tony Romo has struggled on short weeks — the Thanksgiving game against Philadelphia was his worst game of 2014 — it makes no sense to start Romo until after the Baltimore game at the earliest, unless Dak is hurt or demonstrates he can’t win games. If Romo is not in the Baltimore game, he won’t have had to recover for the Washington game, so the short week should not be stressful. That’s assuming he’s fully ready otherwise. Minnesota is also a Thursday game, but it’s a week later, so it should be on normal rest.
If Dak still has the Cowboys on a winning streak, and has righted his play after the Philadelphia game, Romo is very likely to be pushed back further.
Tony Romo’s highest value is in reserve. He is the comeback specialist. He’s seen a lot more that defenses can throw at the Cowboys. He’s almost certainly the most capable of entering a game and rallying the team. Keep him there. Get him ready.
Keep playing Dak Prescott and harness the energy that he and Zeke bring to the team until there is a reason to make a change or the Cowboys have to make a decision about the playoffs. At that point, the decision is likely to become clearer than it is now.
Finally, remember that it’s always about what’s best for the team, the Dallas Cowboys!