In training camps around the NFL, there are all sorts of battles going on. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception, with lots of players fighting for spots in the wide receiver, defensive back, and especially defensive line groups. But the most closely scrutinized one is perhaps unique to Dallas: What will they do about the backup quarterback? Will they still go out and find an experienced veteran, or could they possibly roll into the season relying on a UDFA with one year of experience, mostly as a jack-of-all-trades practice squad player, and a fourth-round rookie?
It seems a bit odd that this should be the big story for the Cowboys. While the QB2 job is important to all NFL teams, there is also a basic truth about it. Backup quarterbacks are usually just not that good. There are not enough starter-quality field generals to go around in the league, so it is pretty much a given that the players filling the number two spot are something less. The situation for Dallas is generating so much interest largely because of the Great Debacle of 2015, when the team was unable to win more than one game with Tony Romo on the sidelines. Ratcheting things up even more was the injury to Kellen Moore, who was generally believed to be the leader for the job, although there were many questions about just how justified the coaches’ faith in him was.
For the time being at least, the team is focused on evaluating Jameill Showers and Dak Prescott. The debate is raging, not only about which one is the better option to be the QB2, but if the team could possibly decide to rely on one of them in the worst-case scenario of Romo missing games again. This is not an easy decision to make, because there are a variety of things to consider, some of which are at times overlooked.
How valuable is the experience a veteran would bring to the team?
Since Jason Garrett became head coach, at least, the Cowboys have shown a strong desire to have a backup quarterback who has been there and done that. They want someone who is not going to be overwhelmed by the very fact of being on the field in a game that counts, facing real NFL competition. The underlying assumption is that poise and a knowledge of the game will outweigh whatever athleticism or talent an inexperienced backup might bring.
The problem is that the Cowboys are something of a case study in how that ain’t necessarily so. The last decent backup they had was Jon Kitna, who played admirably during Garrett’s half-season as interim head coach. Since then, they have had Kyle Orton, a former starter who certainly had all the attributes needed to win in the NFL, but who largely gave up on the team for reasons only he knows, Brandon Weeden, a player who had many starts but little success prior to joining the Cowboys, and Matt Cassel, who had an up and down career as a starter. Weeden seemed to regress last season when he got his chance. Part of the problem was that he had few offensive weapons around him, and he may have paid a price for that. Still, he was unable to win a game and the team moved on to Cassel, who was hardly better. He managed to lead the team to a lone victory before the staff threw in the towel and let Kellen Moore have a couple of starts at the end of the season. Moore himself had time in the league before coming to Dallas - but none of it in regular season games.
And those are the somewhat universal issues. Veterans who would be interested in the backup job are going to be former starters on the downside of their careers, players who were not good enough to win or hold onto a starting job, or those who have never really been able to get on the field. There is no assurance whatsoever that any veteran quarterback brought in will be any better than Orton, Weeden, Cassel, or Moore.
Can the backup quarterback develop for the future?
There are two roles for non-starting quarterbacks, backup to the starter and developmental player for the future. But those are not mutually exclusive. Some teams, like the New England Patriots, normally have a young, developing QB as their number two. Others, like the Los Angeles Rams, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Denver Broncos this season, may have a future starter that is just not deemed ready yet (all invested first-round picks in quarterbacks, but all may have those picks on the bench for the beginning of the season). These teams will put those young players in the backup role with the hope that they will not have to go with them, but with the realization that they are still the best option if the starter is injured.
The Cowboys have apparently stumbled into a situation where they now have two young, inexperienced quarterbacks with room to grow. There is no way to know what their respective ceilings are, but the first week plus of training camp has been very encouraging. They are already showing most of the skills needed to be an NFL quarterback, and because of the Moore injury and the Romo rest days that are apparently part of the plan this year, they are getting a lot more reps than backups normally get in camp, and unless and until another quarterback is brought in, they should also get plenty of snaps in the preseason games. Dallas has a rare opportunity to both evaluate the players and get them developmental reps. The eventual decision should be based on a lot more data than is usually available.
It doesn’t have to be either/or.
When Prescott was drafted, there was a certain amount of discussion that the use of the fourth-round supplemental pick would be worth it even if his ceiling turned out to be as a backup, given the recent problems there. Now there is some hope that he could be more, although that may be rather premature. That does not negate the value he might have as a good QB2. Likewise, Showers is showing a similar potential, which was less expected. There is a chance that this pair could provide both a future starter and a solid backup between them. Again, it is very early, and we should probably temper those hopes, but few expected both of them to show this much advancement at this stage of camp.
If a veteran backup is brought in, he will take away reps, probably a lot. That is an argument to at least wait until much closer to the end of camp. Given the reduced urgency the team claims to be placing on acquiring a vet, they may well be eyeing when teams start making cuts, anyway. Even if the Cowboys do pick up an experienced QB before the season, they would still have a good chance of getting Showers to the practice squad, which means they do not have to give up on either of their young arms. But in the meantime, they need to take advantage of the opportunity to work them hard.
Matching skill sets to the offense.
Weeden, Cassel, and Moore all had one thing in common. They did not seem to have the full set of passing skills that the Cowboys utilize in their offense. While the scheme is highly tailored to Romo, there are some basic things that should still be part of the passing game. Although the lack of offensive weapons played a part last year, there was still not much that happened in the deep passing game with any of the replacements who saw the field. There were mostly checkdowns and short passes. Both Showers and Prescott have made at least a handful of deep throws so far in practice - and completed some of them. They have also shown some touch on shorter throws, but one skill both have that none of the trio from 2015 seemed to was the ability to make accurate passes while on the move. Showers and Prescott both are very mobile, and have shown that they are not just running quarterbacks. They can throw on the run, and that is a huge difference.
We have become somewhat spoiled by the ability of Romo to avoid the rush and get passes to his receivers. While it would be foolish to ever expect the new kids to be that good, they have shown they can do at least some of the same thing. From the limited evidence so far, either of them would require much less adjustment to the game plan if called on to replace Romo than any of last year’s substitutes. And that is likely true of any veteran brought in, as well.
Is it just too much of a risk to go with such inexperienced players backing up your starter?
This is an often stated argument, but it makes the assumption that anyone else would be less of a risk. Again, there were other factors, but last year’s evidence shows that experience is hardly a guarantee of more effectiveness. And all quarterbacks begin from the same place. They enter the league with no experience in the NFL.
The hope is clearly that Romo will not be hurt this year, which would allow the backups to observe and learn. If he is not healthy all season, no backup is going to guarantee wins. While preseason games may prove otherwise, Prescott and Showers both look like they could be capable of doing a credible job if called on.
The only argument for getting a veteran backup is that he MAY - I repeat, MAY - give the Cowboys a better chance to win some games in Romo’s absence. Unless either Showers or Prescott suddenly start to come unraveled, all the other considerations make keeping them look like a better option. We simply don’t know how high their ceilings are, but the team will find out much faster if they continue to work them heavily. The sooner they can determine that, the better. Yes, going with such unproven quantities has its risks, and there will be some vocal criticism if they do. But this is a rare opportunity to try and sort out the future of the position, and it comes with not one but two possible answers already on hand.
It still seems odd to see so much attention focused on a position that is filled across the league by a lot of very unimpressive players. But this is Dallas. Things are just a bit different.