The countdown of days to the opening of training camp for the Dallas Cowboys at Oxnard is in single digits. Now that the furor over the suspension of Rolando McClain has died down somewhat, we can broaden our outlook and refocus on some of the other battles of interest. Although it is hopefully a position that will have no impact on the season, one of the most intriguing is the contest to see who will be the backup to starting quarterback Tony Romo.
That seems to be a bit of a self-contradicting statement. Romo is not only the clear starter, but everyone knows that the success of Dallas’ 2016 season rests largely on keeping him healthy for 23 or 24 games, counting pre- and postseason contests. And of the other three quarterbacks that will go to camp, one, Dak Prescott, is not really in the mix to become the QB2. Although he may be talented enough, the best path to take with him as he transitions to a very different style of play from his college days is to sit for at least a year and learn. He is the developmental quarterback. With his background, he is not ready to throw on the field, and that would likely hinder his progress. One year on the bench is a necessity, and more than that would probably be optimal, as well as dovetailing with the hope that Romo has at least three years or so left in his career.
At the same time, it is obvious that the Cowboys need a better solution at backup quarterback than they had in the Great Debacle of 2015. The holdover and presumptive incumbent for the position is Kellen Moore. He played at the end of last season, so he has the most experience and familiarity with the system. According to reports, he also has a vocal supporter in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who worked with Moore when both were with the Detroit Lions. Additionally, he has four years in the league, which means he has at least faced several defenses in preseason games. However, he also has a reputation of lacking arm strength, which limits the passes in his arsenal and makes him easier to defend. Mobility is also not a strong point for him.
There is a potential challenger in second-year player Jameill Showers. His biggest asset is his athleticism. He is mobile and strong. Although he is only an inch taller than Moore, he is listed as 30 pounds heavier, and nobody questions his speed advantage. He spent most of last season on the practice squad for the Cowboys as a multi-role player for the scout teams. Those contributions earned him a call-up to the 53 man roster late in the year, showing some confidence in his potential for growth as well as giving him a nice boost to his bank account. This year, the staff has moved Showers back to the quarterback room full time to help him learn the position.
The Cowboys obviously want to have the best option at backup quarterback, especially if they find themselves facing a small number of games relying on the QB2 due to a minor setback for Romo. Although that will be determined in practices and preseason games, all signs are that Moore has the lead, at least in the minds of the coaching staff. But the title of this article doesn’t refer to the best backup option. It speaks of the smartest - and that may require considering a differing set of criteria than just who can run the offense better for a couple of games.
While the backup QB this season is not at all guaranteed to return in the position next year, finding a longer-term answer would certainly be desirable. This brings in the idea of how high a ceiling the player has. Although some believe that Moore could become more than just a backup one day, they are in the minority. Generally, serving as a backup is seen as the most he can realistically accomplish. And that is not assured. His play in the 2015 preseason was not terribly impressive, with a high percentage of check-downs and bad throws. Even in the final game of last season, where he put up impressive yardage against a Washington team composed mostly of backup players, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. This raises questions about his progress as an NFL quarterback. After four years, should he perform better on the field than he does? It is the feeling that he should that has many uneasy about going forward with him as Romo’s backup.
Showers has only last year’s preseason at quarterback, where he amassed just 125 yards passing, with one touchdown and one interception. He flashed on a play or two, but certainly was not consistent. This preseason will obviously be crucial for him to demonstrate growth in the position. But the perception, at least, is that he has a much higher ceiling than Moore. If he can show an ability to use the vertical passing game, he could make the case that he is a better backup. And even though any possibility of him one day developing into a possible starter is remote, at best, it still seems more likely for him than for Moore.
If the evidence from the preseason is that Showers has a better growth or learning curve than Moore, he would be the smarter choice. This could be true even if Moore still is better at the position at the start of the season, if there are decent indications that Showers would become stronger after a few weeks of practice (even as limited as the snaps for the backup are). The risky part of that is that the team is projecting the trajectories for the players, which is a highly inexact art.
Those who favor Showers or dislike Moore may hope that the preseason games will show Showers is clearly more effective, but those games, filled with hopefuls and camp bodies, are not always true indicators of who is really the best. The staff will gather much more information during camp practices. (And although fans and media alike will be watching those practices intently, we must remember that what we think we see may not be at all what the coaches see.)
My personal opinion is that the Cowboys would be better in the long run if they went with Showers, but that is a lot of opinion and a little hope backed by very, very little data. And the team has the option of taking a reasonable risk of getting Showers through waivers and back to the practice squad, giving them another year to develop him.
Backup quarterback is going to be just one of the position battles to follow this year. But it will be riveting. Who are you hoping wins this one? Jump in the comments and make your case.