It’s “what if” week at SB Nation. Across our network, we are looking at how different things might have been if something had not played out the way it did. The Dallas Cowboys certainly have many such moments, like the 2014 playoff game with the Green Bay Packers (which is a twofer, since before Dez caught it, DeMarco fumbled it). But let’s find something a little less obvious, like this “what if” idea:
What if Dak Prescott never got the chance to be the starting quarterback during the 2016 preseason?
There are some huge ramifications to consider, but first, we have to remember just how improbable it was for Prescott to even get a chance. It didn’t happen just because Tony Romo went down against the Seattle Seahawks during preseason. Before that, Prescott had already gotten a promotion on the depth chart due to a freak injury to Kellen Moore, who was pretty well locked in as the backup.
If both those injuries had not happened, Prescott was going to be at best the third-string QB. He had not put on any kind of real challenge to Moore, and at the time, some even thought he might not be able to oust Jameill Showers, who had not yet been asked to switch to safety. Making the roster was probably still going to happen for Prescott, given the value the Cowboys place on players taken before the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft, but had Romo and Moore both remained healthy, Prescott’s rookie year would likely have been being inactive for most games, if not all of them.
And even if Romo had still gotten injured, but Moore was available, the veteran backup was going to get every opportunity to hold on to the job. And he probably would have. With the reps of a first-stringer, and getting to work with the starters, Moore would likely have been good enough to keep the team competitive. It is doubtful he could have locked down the starting job the way Prescott did after reeling off that long winning streak, but that would have just left the door open for Romo to return - and it could have been a legend-making return.
But for Prescott, it would have crippled his development. First, he was not going to show up in the preseason games the way he did, because instead of lining up with starters and second stringers, he would have been on the field with third- and fourth-string players. It is a given he would not have had the phenomenal preseason showings, and would have had far fewer opportunities to even try, since Moore would have been eating up all the reps in any situation. If Romo had been healthy, then Moore would have gotten a lot of work to hone his skills as the backup, and without Romo, the team would have been force-feeding Moore the way they did Prescott to get him ready for the regular season.
That would have relegated Prescott to trying to show something with a weak supporting cast during preseason, but what would have really hurt him was his poor performances in practice. He developed quite the reputation during his first three seasons for inconsistency during practices, only to turn it on during games. Without the chance to turn it on, he would likely have never shown the coaches potential.
In all likelihood, Prescott would still be a backup QB. He certainly would not have developed the way he has. There is no better way to learn than by doing, and the more you do, the better you learn. Prescott has started every game of his career. He has spoken of how a light came on for him in the latter half of last season, and we have seen some evidence of it as he finally shook that “bad practice player” rap with very crisp and efficient work during the OTAs and minicamp. Without those 51 games he played, that is something that almost never could have developed.
We don’t know what would have happened if, say, Moore had been the starter early in the season and kept the Cowboys in contention for Romo to come in and try to take them on to the playoffs. It is a fascinating idea to imagine Romo with Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten all playing. What we can be sure of is that the team would look very different today. While Romo probably would have come back the next year if he had gotten his starting job back, he probably wouldn’t have lasted much beyond that, especially with the offensive line woes that came in 2017. It is hard to imagine him surviving the sackfest that the Atlanta Falcons put on. And that probably wouldn’t have made much difference for Prescott at the time, since Moore was still around as a QB2 then. Since Prescott would not have been able to prove what he is capable of, the team would have likely been looking for a new franchise QB in the 2018 draft, and would probably have made some different choices in 2017 as well.
The most likely outcome of all that would be that Prescott would still be laboring as a backup, and no one would be complaining about the team having to pay him $30+ million a year. The team probably would not even be too concerned about retaining him in 2020.
Now, since history unfolded the way it did, we have a chance to see just how good Prescott can be. He has shown at times that he is very, very good indeed, and could well take another step forward this fall. All of that would never have played out if two somewhat freak injuries had not thrust him into the starting job.
It was a sequence of events that you would find completely unrealistic if it had been made up. Instead, it started one of the most remarkable football stories ever.