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Dak Prescott v. Tony Romo? Cowboys Have Time To Make A Decision

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With Dak Prescott’s poised performances in his first two NFL starts, and Tony Romo’s recent injury history and age, pundits are starting to write Tony Romo’s obituary. But if you are the Dallas Cowboys, there is no need to decide anything until more data is in.

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

This week, Deion Sanders and LaDainian Tomlinson took the radical position that Tony Romo should not play another down for the Dallas Cowboys, even after he regains his health.

Is there anything behind statements like this, or are Deion and LaDainian just seeking headlines?

Until this year, there was no transition plan at quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. In May, Romo said he thought he had four or five more years left in him. And who could question that? Tony Romo, regardless of health, his contract, or performance, was the only option the Cowboys had.

Enter Dak Prescott

Taken with the Cowboys’ fourth-round compensatory pick, Dak Prescott seemed to be Dallas’ fallback plan for drafting a backup quarterback, after they struck out trying to trade for Paxton Lynch and Oakland moved up to draft Connor Cook just before the Cowboys were on the clock.

Yet, only two games into his NFL career, Dak Prescott has the NFL world buzzing about his potential. One NFL analyst has proclaimed that “Dak Prescott Is Going To Be A Star.” Certainly, his performance from game one — a one-point loss to the Giants — and game two — a four-point victory over Washington, showed incredible improvement.

  • Game one - 25-45, 227 yards, 55.6% completion, 5.04 ANY/A, 69.4 QB rating
  • Game two - 22-30, 292 yards, 73.3% completion, 8.2 ANY/A, 103.7 QB rating

Those are certainly fantastic stats for a fourth-round draft pick (or first-rounder, for that matter) making his first two NFL starts, especially after he came into OTAs and training camp as the third-string QB.

It’s not just the stats for Prescott. The word POISE is universally used to describe him. He’s was very calm leading his team on a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown drive (something Tony Romo has always excelled at), and has done very well at converting third downs.

While two games do not a career make, many have started to make the case that Dak Prescott is going to be the FUTURE quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, once the Cowboys decide to move on from Tony Romo.

The question then becomes, is going with Dak over Tony a realistic option in the near future, or is the more likely scenario still a couple of years off?

Let’s Take a Look at Tony Romo.

Since he stepped on the field as a half-time replacement for Drew Bledsoe in a game against the Giants on October 23, 2006, and had his first pass tipped and intercepted, Tony Romo has had a storied career as the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Passing Records

Tony Romo owns almost all the passing records for Cowboys quarterbacks, and has stats that compare favorably with all-time NFL greats.

  • Romo’s 34,154 yards are 1,200 yards more than Troy Aikman.
  • Romo’s 247 TDs are 82 more than Troy Aikman
  • Romo’s career adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) of 7.02 is more than a yard longer than any other Dallas QB who threw for 10,000 or more yards, and ranks him fourth all time. This is one of the best stats for measuring how a QB moves the ball down the field and into the end zone.
  • Romo’s quarterback rating of 97.1 is almost 14 points higher than Roger Staubach, and third all time.

Playoff History

Tony Romo’s stats have always been stellar, but when it comes to division titles and playoff victories there has always been a gap in Tony Romo’s resume. In 10 seasons, the Cowboys have won the division three times, and made the playoffs four times, but the team is 2-4 in the postseason under Romo, with no NFC Championship game or Super Bowl appearances. In the great 30-year run of the Cowboys, the team played in 16 NFC or NFL Championships and eight Super Bowls. Getting back to that level of play has to be paramount. Of course, that burden shouldn’t fall completely on the quarterback.

Injury History

The biggest concern with Tony Romo at this point has to be his injury history. In 2015, Tony Romo went down, not once but twice, with a broken collarbone. It’s the same injury that ended his 2010 season after only six games. Romo has also missed several games due to back, hand, and rib injuries. As Todd Archer documented, these are the injuries that have caused Romo to miss games in his career.

  • 2008. Broken pinkie finger. Missed three games. Cowboys went 1-2, missed playoffs.
  • 2010. Broken left collarbone. Missed 10 games. Cowboys went 5-5, missed playoffs.
  • 2013. Ruptured disk. Missed final game, which Cowboys lost, missing playoffs again.
  • 2014. Two traverse process fractures. Missed one full game and part of Washington game. Cowboys lost both games. A win in either would have given them best record in NFC.
  • 2015. Broken left collarbone in week 2. Cowboys won that game, but lost next seven games. After he returned, he broke the same collarbone the second game back in a loss to Carolina. Cowboys won one more game to finish 4-12.
  • 2016. Compression fracture in tune-up game three of preseason. Return date not set.

Now, past injuries are not predictive of future injuries, but anyone looking at Romo’s history has to be concerned whether he will ever again play a full season in the NFL.

Romo’s Contract

As would be expected of any quarterback with Tony Romo’s history of production, he has a big contract. This season his cap hit is $20,835,000, or 13.5% of the total team salary. In 2017, it will be $24,700,000.

There’s nothing that could be done this year, but if the Cowboys decided to move on from Romo by cutting or trading him, or if he chose to retire, the team would have a dead money cap hit of $19,600,000 in 2017. Even so, the Cowboys would actually save just over $5 million on their cap next year without Romo, and they would have no further contract obligations to him. The Cowboys could also divide that hit over two years.

To sum up: In Tony Romo, the Cowboys have a quarterback who had his highest rated year as a quarterback as recently as 2014, leading Dallas to a 12-4 finish, tied for best in the NFC. But he’s also 36 years old, coming off multiple injuries that have sidelined him for more than a season’s worth of games, with a contract that eats up a substantial portion of the Cowboys salary cap. He’s still locked in for this year, but with his future replacement on the roster, when will it be time to move on?

The Cowboys Will Need To Make A Decision, But It’s Not Time.

The Cowboys are in an almost enviable position at the moment. Tony Romo is still recovering from his back injury, so Dak Prescott is the unquestioned starter for the next few weeks, at least. By prepping him to play and try to win each of those games, Dallas can continue to gauge Prescott’s performance in critical games. They can see his stats, his leadership skills, his ability to dissect a defense and make decisions quickly, and his accuracy in delivering the ball.

No decisions need to be made about the future during these weeks.

The earliest decision point would come when Tony Romo is healthy enough to resume playing. If Prescott is playing off-the-charts at that point — by winning every game, for example — some might argue, as Deion and LaDainian did, that the Cowboys should never put Romo back on the field. That argument is highly unlikely to win the day with Jerry Jones or Jason Garrett even IF Dak Prescott plays lights out going forward. But the more important point is that it’s too early to speculate about how this should unfold.

Prescott is going to play until Romo is ready. He’s almost certain to sit and allow Romo to take over when that day comes. Indeed, Dak is quite diplomatic in agreeing that “This is Romo’s team.” Whether or not Romo can stay healthy enough to finish the season, and regardless of the success or failure of the 2016 Cowboys, by the end of the year, the Cowboys should have all the data they need to make a reasoned decision.

Will the team move on from Romo, based on financial and health reasons, much like they once did with Demarcus Ware? Or will Romo’s play in 2016 be strong enough to keep him going forward on a year-to-year basis? We don’t know. But at least Cowboys fans and the team should not be panicked about facing the day when Romo is no longer the man in Dallas.