It is still hard to deal with the shock of learning that Tony Romo has a broken vertebra and is expected to miss several games to start the season. The fact that the Dallas Cowboys were so offensively inept last year after he went out creates a certain sense of unease, even with the extremely surprising performance of Dak Prescott so far in preseason. Based on the evidence to date, Prescott has far more to bring to the table than Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, or Kellen Moore did in their futile appearances as the starting quarterback last fall. But just as important, it looks like the coaching staff has a much better handle on utilizing Prescott than it ever did the three replacements last year.
For several years, the Cowboys have been building an offense that has been openly called “Romo friendly”. This was logical, because Romo is an excellent quarterback with so many ways to hurt a defense. However, one problem arises simply because Romo is so good, especially with his ability to diagnose a defense, then make adjustments and audibles to counter it. He also is able to make any throw you need in the NFL, especially those back-shoulder fades to Dez Bryant. When the three replacements took the field in 2015, they simply did not have the tool kit that Romo does. And it showed in the limited passing game. Yes, they were lacking Bryant, but there were far too many pass attempts that did not even get to the first down marker, much less deep down the field. And the struggles cannot be blamed on a lack of a rushing game, because the Cowboys were moving the ball effectively on the ground, especially once Darren McFadden became the starter following the epic meltdown of Joseph Randle. The coaches were very much unable to get anything out of the quarterback material they had to work with. How much of this was due to the limitations of the quarterbacks in question and how much could be placed on the coaching staff is hard to say, but it is certainly logical to believe that at least some of the failing can be laid on the coaches’ shoulders, particularly offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
But in the first three preseason games, it certainly appears that not only do the Cowboys have a real find in Prescott, they also have a very good handle on how to utilize his strengths and hide or compensate for his weaknesses (which fortunately do not seem that great, although the regular season may reveal more than we have seen so far). Our podcast team of Landon McCool and Joey Ickes have delved into this, and you really should be listening to them regularly (shameless plug).
One example of how the staff seems to be playing to Prescott’s best abilities is seen on the first touchdown he threw as a Cowboy. Although it is not absolutely certain, this seems to be a run/pass option (RPO) play.
The RPO is a play that can be either a handoff or a pass, depending on the read the quarterback makes. In this case, it appears the read is fairly simple: Is Bryant working against single coverage or not? Since he was, Prescott made the throw and let Bryant do what he is perhaps the best in the league at, going up and making the contested catch over his defender. Had the Rams brought a second defender over to help, Prescott would have handed the ball off, since that extra defender was going to mean one less in the box to stop the run. It was an excellent call not only due to the talent involved (which includes Alfred Morris and the offensive line), but because of the situation, a second and five in the red zone. However, it can be effective anywhere on the field.
What is significant is that this is something that Prescott is very familiar with from his college days, where these options are used much more than in the NFL. It is also a very quick developing play, not requiring a progression of reads. Just one read, make the decision, and execute.
This is just one example. Prescott also seems to be using more play-action passes than Romo, who does not like taking his eyes off the defense as required to sell play-action. There have been plays that roll Prescott out, where his running ability puts additional stress on the defense. And his phenomenal success so far is a persuasive if indirect bit of evidence that the staff has gone well beyond trying to make a pared down Romo playbook work. They are constructing a Dak friendly plan that should help carry the team through however many games Romo will be out.
It also helps that Prescott adds a high level of intelligence, fast learning, high character, and strong leadership qualities. And he has the support of the locker room.
He is well liked by his teammates. https://t.co/UJ10JT1LDa— Bryan Broaddus (@BryanBroaddus) August 28, 2016
All those things help, but there have been plenty of talented players misused by NFL teams. So far, the preseason has shown that the Cowboys’ staff has put a lot of thought and effort into figuring out the best way to use Prescott. (And many of the things that work for him are likely to also be good for Jameill Showers, should he at some point become Prescott’s backup). This is likely a big factor in why the team has already announced that Prescott has the starting job in Romo’s absence. They have a very good plan, and there is no logical argument for coming up with another for some veteran castoff. The team may seek one of those still, but to be Prescott’s backup. For now, the team is rolling with the quarterback they know - and know how to put in a position to win.