Inside the Dallas Decision
Last week, finally healthy, Tony Romo expressed to the Cowboys brass a desire to fight for the job he now could acknowledge wouldn’t be just handed back to him.
And then, he went out and backed it up by having as good a week as possible piloting a scout team. According to those there, 100 percent is selling it short. “He looked like [Ben] Roethlisberger,” is how one Dallas source illustrated the Steelers look that Romo gave the Dallas defense in practice.
That was as good a sign as any that there really wasn’t anything Romo could do. The job he held for 10 years isn’t his anymore. And the idea that a red-hot Dallas team could open a quarterback competition in November was never realistic.
The 2016 Cowboys are Dak Prescott’s team. Officially now, and not just for Sunday’s showdown against the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens.
And Romo isn’t the only person who finds the conclusion hard to accept.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen Jones are exceptionally close to their quarterback, who has been a Cowboy for longer than Troy Aikman was. My sense all along was the exhilaration of an eight-game winning streak was tempered by the increasingly obvious call looming on the horizon. So when I told Stephen Jones, the Cowboys’ chief operating officer, I’d heard Romo privately asked for the chance to wrest the job back, Jones acknowledged that with deference.
“Tony’s smart,” Jones said from his cellphone, in the middle of his Wednesday workday. “He’s very bright. And so when he came out and said it, in the end, I don’t think it took him long to figure that wouldn’t be a great thing for the team. We’ve got a good thing, and no one wants Dak looking over his shoulder.”
Elsewhere in this week’s Game Plan, we’ll hit on the Dolphins’ revival, the NFL’s return to Mexico City, a (likely) Heisman quarterback to watch this weekend, and Tom Brady returning to San Francisco—his first time playing in the home of the team he grew up cheering. And we’ll check on the Titans, and Jared Goff, too.
And yes, Peter King and Robert Klemko capably wrote about the Romo situation this week, so we’re tripling down on the Cowboys. But to me this is more than a quarterback change; it’s a seismic shift for a franchise that’s always on the marquee. The magnitude of the call, in fact, was largely why Dallas maintained a cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it approach to the QB-of-the-future question.
That is over now too, officially. The Cowboys believe they have the answer.
“We’ve got supreme confidence that Dak is our future,” Jones said. “We’ve just seen too much. And you may say, ‘Well, it’s only been nine games.’ No, it’s the full body of work. And it’s not just on the field, it’s off the field too. It’s how he handles every situation—bringing us back down two scores in San Francisco; last week, he leads the game-winning drive twice in Pittsburgh; coming back against Philly.
“He keeps checking every box.”
You know how Prescott’s play has affected all this, as does everyone with two eyeballs and a cable subscription. What you might not know is why—beyond just what Prescott had put on tape—this decision fast became academic for Dallas.
That brings us back to Romo’s request, which is similar to what Drew Bledsoe wanted in 2001 when Tom Brady was seizing his spot. It was the chance to compete for the job. The truth? The idea isn’t realistic.
For the first nine game weeks of this season, Prescott has taken all the first-team reps with the exception of a half-dozen that go to Mark Sanchez, the healthy backup, at the end of each Friday practice, and even those six snaps are a concession to the ex-Jet/Eagle simply because he wasn’t with the team until September. The fact is, there’s a lot of work to do, and a finite time to do it.
In November, each snap a quarterback takes counts, and is built on what the team needs to do for the next game. It’s not a time for figuring out if that guy is the right one for the job. Jason Garrett said Wednesday he’d extend practices to get Romo a little more work than Sanchez got, but there really is only so much you can do.
“I think he understands that,” Jones said. “As a competitor, does he want it? Yes. He wouldn’t be in the NFL if he didn’t have that burning in his belly. He’s dying to get out there. And we talked all offseason, he’s never been this fired up about a team, he couldn’t wait. And now to see it work like he thought it would, and the team doing something special, and to want back in, that’s not selfish. It’s just hard. He’s tremendously unselfish, because he understands it.”
Prescott is the right fit for this group of Cowboys. He and Romo are very different types of leaders. Romo is more demonstrative. Prescott is more natural, which is one of the things Dallas loved about him in March and April, in how he handles teammates. Part of that, to be fair, is because Prescott is far closer in age to most of Dallas’s roster.
And for a franchise that went through the Greg Hardy dumpster fire in 2015, a year after a great locker-room mix was part of a 12-4 recipe, there’s an acknowledgement that a team’s chemistry can be fragile and first place is no time to upset the apple cart.
“Different people lead different ways,” said another Cowboys staffer. “Dak’s way is good now because we’re 8-1, just like Tony was the right leader for the 12-4 team. Different leadership works for different groups. Dak’s clearly right for this one.”
Now, could Romo potentially take Dallas to another level if they put him back in?
Based on how he looked last week and in camp, sure. There’s a belief internally that he could juice the downfield passing game, and the institutional knowledge of his 14 NFL seasons would help open up the team’s game-planning and make the offense more dangerous on third down and in the red zone.
But the risk of doing that far outweighs the reward, with the gap between what Romo could bring and what Prescott does bring closing by the week. All of which led to Romo, who’d been quiet around the team, baring his soul Tuesday.
After watching it, Jones explained his reaction like this: “Tremendous respect, and compassion. To me, that was the epitome of team. Everyone preaches team. That was the epitome of team first. He’s just tremendous competitor, and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But at the same time, he respects what’s going on with the team. I can’t tell you much you respect the man.”
The cliché would be that this is, very much, a great problem to have. But Dallas saw the other side between the Romo and Aikman Eras. So the Cowboys know better.
“I wouldn’t call it a great problem. It’s a great situation,” Jones said. “It’s hard on Tony and everyone who loves Tony, and that’s this whole organization. But we’re all in on Dak. … Dak’s special as well. This is a great situation. This is the most depth we’ve ever had on a football team in the cap era. Every guy here believes it, and it’s been next man up. That started when Kellen [Moore] got hurt, and Dak went from 3 to 2.”
The Dallas COO said he hasn’t considered the possibility that Romo has thrown his last pass as a Cowboy, because he knows they may need him in the next few months as the team looks at a manageable finish to its schedule. He added, to that end, that he hasn’t thought past this year. (It’s logistically possible to keep Romo as the backup in 2017, though it’s hard to believe the 36-year-old would want that.)
What matters, for now, is the big question that’s hovered over the Cowboys for two months has clarity. And what once seemed to be a far-fetched conclusion has become the obvious one.
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• Can’t leave off Jared Goff this week. Look for the Rams to do all they can to build his confidence early against an aggressive Dolphins front by trying to establish the run game get the No. 1 pick some high-percentage throws.
• Panthers rookie cornerback James Bradberry has shown promise, and his play will be crucial Thursday night against the high-flying Saints. The second-round pick missed Carolina’s first tilt against Drew Brees and Co.
• The Ravens are showing a lot of life, and that’s thanks in part to a rejuvenated Terrell Suggs, who has six sacks in seven games. Should be interesting seeing him against Dallas’s starry line.
• Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones has been a bright spot in an uneven Arizona season, and this is the kind of week where he should feast, playing against a depleted Vikings line and a quarterback who doesn’t move.
• Patriots CB Logan Ryan’s midseason struggles have handcuffed a coaching staff that needs to be more creative up front with Jones and Jamie Collins gone, and this should be a good week for Ryan to get well.
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1. Bledsoe knows the feeling. Before we move on from the Cowboys quarterbacks, there is someone who knows both Romo’s spot and Romo himself, and that’s Drew Bledsoe. He went through what Romo has in 2001 with the Patriots, and then was usurped by Romo in 2006 in Dallas. And so I called Bledsoe on Wednesday to try to get the best gauge on where Romo’s head is and what’s next.
“It’s a hard thing, because there are conflicting emotions,” Bledsoe said from Oregon. “You’re happy and excited for the team, you want the team to succeed. But at the same time it breaks your heart to not be as big a part of it. He said it—it’s the best team he’s had, they’re rocking and rolling, and all of a sudden that’s when you get relegated. I really felt that way in New England. When I stepped in the huddle at camp and looked at the offensive line, it was like, ‘We really have something here. … That was the hardest part, thinking, ‘this team is ready to rock,’ and having been through the hard part, and then once you got good it’s time to go stand over there and watch. It’s like, ‘I paid my dues, I was a good soldier, I got my ass knocked off,’ and now the team is ready and I gotta watch. It’s just difficult. I’d never in my life been the guy on the sideline. I’d been hurt, but from the time when I was 15 years old, I was the starter. As a freshman in college, it was five games before I was the starter. I’d never done it. I didn’t know how to do it.”
Bledsoe’s ability to deal with the situation is part of the reason why he’s still tight with Tom Brady to this day, and has been able to mend and maintain a relationship with Bill Belichick. So while he hasn’t talked to Romo this week, Bledsoe certainly knows what he’d tell him if Romo called. “There’s two things,” he said. “First, you should try to stay out of the media, other than to publicly support the guy playing and your team, and accept that backup role. You’re not gonna be in the news, that’s not your role. And then you prepare like you’re going to go back on the field. And at the same time, you share info with the guy that’s starting, and put your own desire to play aside, to help the starter as much as can.” As a high school coach now, Bledsoe gets to pass along the things he learned through that experience. Safe to say, there’s plenty to draw on.
2. Dolphins suddenly dangerous. Don’t look now, but the Dolphins have emerged as the top challenger to the Patriots in the AFC East, having reeled off four straight wins as the Jets and Bills scramble to recapture their early-season promise. And it’s easy to look at the shiny thing—the improvement of quarterback Ryan Tannehill—as the reason why. That’s actually valid, to a degree. The much-maligned former first-round pick posted an 83.6 passer rating, six touchdown passes and seven picks during Miami’s 1-4 start; since, he’s thrown four touchdown passes and no picks for a 102.4 rating. Which is great, but the turnaround is bigger than that.
With a tactic similar to what the Cowboys did earlier this decade, the Dolphins focused their offseason on building a team around their offensive line, and that’s paying off now. For the first five games, injuries to Mike Pouncey and Branden Albert prevented the group from making its debut together. The team couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t protect as a result, and all of that prompted coach Adam Gase to tell the defense (as he recounted to me on the podcast), “Listen, you guys are fine, I haven’t come through for you, I’m gonna get the offense rolling.” And then, the line got healthy. And the last four games, the group (which includes four former first-round picks, and a guy who once was a big-ticket left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, playing guard) has been dynamite together, blazing the trail that Gase, GM Chris Grier and vice president Mike Tannenbaum set back in the spring. “Getting those five guys healthy, it really changed the entire mentality of our football team … We weren’t playing football [the first five weeks] the way we built this team,” Gase told me. “Once we hit that Pittsburgh game, all of a sudden, now [the offense was] 73 plays in, [the defense was] at 48 going into the last drive of the game, they’re rushing the passer [playing with the lead]. They’re doing exactly what we built this team to do.”
Meanwhile, Tannehill has gotten more aggressive downfield, and his work in improving at moving in the pocket is showing up. (He’s routinely stayed by himself after practice to get work on his movement in.) And Jay Ajayi’s early-season stint in the doghouse has given way to a more determined, driven player capable of answering all the questions that surrounded the tailback position coming into the year.
So are the Dolphins a playoff team? That remains to be seen. But they have the Rams this week, the Niners next and a real shot to go into a showdown in Baltimore in Week 13 at 7-4, which all seems pretty probable, given how it’s all come together.
3. Titans zig as the NFL zags. So why does it feel like the 5-5 Titans are on the verge of much more? Maybe it’s the optics of Sunday’s demolition of the Packers. Maybe it’s that their star quarterback just turned 23. Or maybe it’s that they have a familiar, sustainable look that we haven’t seen in those parts in quite some time. A chunk of my conversation with Mike Mularkey on Monday (catch the podcast here) centered on how philosophically aligned he and new general manager Jon Robinson are. Just look at the resources they’ve poured into the running game. Four of the seven linemen they had active against Green Bay, and three of the five starters (first-round pick Jack Conklin, mid-level free-agent signing Ben Jones, waiver claim Josh Kline), are new. Titans tailbacks have carried 255 times through 10 games, and 253 of those carries are accounted for by trade acquisition DeMarco Murray and second-round pick Derrick Henry. So, in essence, they built the rushing attack from the ground up coming off a six-year stretch during which the team just once ranked in the top half of the league running the ball, and never cracked the top 10. Through 10 games, the Titans are third in the NFL in rush offense and averaging 4.9 yards a carry.
Beyond that, they’re on no one’s list of favorite teams to play because of the problems they create that so many others don’t anymore. “You assist a young QB with the ground game, so he doesn’t have to do it all alone, and you hold serve until you can put more perimeter weapons around him,” said one rival exec who’s been impressed by the work of Robinson and Mularkey. “If you can run the football, the play-action game comes alive, and [Mariota] can use his feet with more manageable down-and-distance situations, and you can open up the playbook. If it’s built on the run game and the line, it just makes the passing game strong and gives you balance, and you control the clock and the tempo. … They obviously made a commitment to getting bigger and more physical and tougher.” And they accomplished all of that, which makes them a pretty tough matchup for the Colts this weekend, and everyone else going forward.
4. NFL returns to Mexico City. A lot has changed in the 11 years since the NFL last played in Mexico City, but one important thing hasn’t. Outside of the U.S., only Canada rivals our neighbors to the south in support for not just consuming the product, but also playing the sport. And so while it took a lot of work to set the stage for Monday’s Texans-Raiders game, there’s no doubt the sentiment with the NFL folks was that this was overdue, and that they’ve finally got everything right. Azteca Stadium has been renovated, with the technological concerns (headsets, etc.) allayed and the blanks (locker rooms for football) filled. The two competing teams are among the top dozen most popular in Mexico, and both are from markets with an audience that’ll appreciate the significance of being there. And the Mexican public and government are eager to showcase their ability to host big sporting events, a year after the Mexican Grand Prix returned for a worldwide Formula 1 audience.
“We wanted to make sure we’d really do something that would resonate,” said NFL vice president of international Mark Waller. “It’s two popular teams with huge Hispanic communities in their home markets. So it’s great for the fans back in home markets to see it. … And we wanted this to feel special for the presenters and the players who are coming down.”
There are, of course, elements to monitor with the two teams. The first thing, for the NFL, is the logistics. After the game, both teams will be flying out of a private airport rather than the international airport, to ensure they get out on time and back to the states to start a short week with Thanksgiving in the middle. Secondly, the effect the elevation has will be worth watching. Mexico City sits 2,000 feet higher than Denver, and is more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Third, there’s how the game helps the teams harvest their fan bases south of the border.
In the end though, while Mexico City is very different from London (where the NFL has staged 17 games over the last 10 years), the goals here mirror the ones set in the U.K. “It’s the same as London,” said Peter Griffiths, NFL chief operating officer of international. “It starts with the teams. Do the teams go home having had a great experience? That marker is always clear with London. Then, for us, it will be did Mexico show that it can deliver in terms of the stadium? How does the game look on TV in the States? And the third thing, the longer we play here, what is the impact of the game on the passion of Mexican fans for the NFL, in terms of things like sponsor activation, consumer product sales and people watching?”
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• Speaking of Monday night’s game, expect a heavy Mexican flavor to the broadcast. The lead producer of MNF, Jay Rothman, helped produce the 2005 game there and certainly has his regrets from that experience. “My memory is we blew it,” he said Wednesday night. “I say we blew it, we were stupid Americans going down there. We had a fear instilled in us about where to go, what to do. We just went in, did the game and got out.” So to atone, ESPN’s plan is to focus the flavor of this one. All the network’s NFL programming on Sunday and Monday will be based there, and they’ll be highlighting everything about the city and stadium, right down to the through-the-stands commute players will have from the makeshift locker rooms to the field. “This time, we’re really gonna showcase the ball, blow that out,” Rothman said. “The game itself will be spectacular.” ESPN is sending about 300 people for the two days.
• I’ve been meaning to do this for a few weeks, but I wanted to mention how often I hear coaches and scouts talk about Philip Rivers, which makes me think there simply isn’t enough appreciation for what he’s done over his career and who he is as a quarterback. In fact, this week I was talking to a coach and Rivers came up, and he quickly said, “Stop right there. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. He has the ‘it’ factor, his pocket presence is second to none, he makes throws out of the well, when everything’s collapsing around him, better than most can make them out of a clean pocket. And his command, he’s a coach on the field.” Sometimes we go crazy assigning win/loss records to quarterbacks, and Rivers hasn’t won Super Bowls like his draft classmates Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. But it’s OK to acknowledge that he’s great and, just maybe, that San Diego not getting to the mountaintop isn’t on him.
• Good for the NFLPA for looking deeper into the marijuana issue. The NFL has bigger fish to fry, and at some point someone will have to explain to me what the upside to testing is anymore. It’s legal medically in many states, and completely legal in others. And all testing for it does is make teams and individual players look silly, and it hasn’t done much to stop the fact that hundreds of players are deft enough to just go around the rules. I don’t know a single person who cares if players smoke or not. It’s time to catch up with the times. If someone gets arrested for possession in a state where it’s illegal, then fine, punish them. But actively looking for guys who are getting high in their free time is a waste of everyone’s time.
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH ON SATURDAY
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson (at Houston, ESPN, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET): OK, so Jackson’s not playing Saturday, and we already featured him once here earlier in the season. But the Heisman front-runner deserves another look with the regular season winding down, and it’s not to explain why. In 10 games, Jackson has run for more than 100 yards seven times, and he’s thrown for more than 300 four times. As it stands, he’s at 2,898 yards and 27 touchdowns (against six picks) through the air, and another 1,334 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. So yeah, the true sophomore is like something out of a video game, if you set the difficulty on Madden to “rookie.” And when he’s draft-eligible in 2018, despite some of his flaws, it’s unlikely Jackson will be on the board long. “He throws a good ball, he’s a freak athlete, explosive, and he gets to top speed quickly,” said one AFC exec. “All the Mike Vick comparisons aren’t far off. … He has to continue to learn to process and go through reads. But honestly, if [Robert Griffin III] went No. 2, then he’d certainly have a chance to go that high.” A lot can happen between now and April 2018, and there’s no question Jackson has to put on weight and learn the position from a mental standpoint. But one thing’s for sure: It should be a blast to watch. “He’s an unreal athlete,” said an area scout assigned to the Cardinals. “Impressive live. Just a different athlete on the field from the others he’s playing against.”
2. LSU CB Tre’Davious White (vs. Florida, SEC Network, 1 p.m.): At a school that proudly has declared itself DBU, White is the rare four-year starter in the Tigers’ secondary and a kid who may have been a first-round pick had he declared last year. LSU is stacked to the point where White probably won’t be better than the third Tiger drafted—behind Leonard Fournette and Jamal Adams—but is still likely to go inside the Top 20 or so picks. “He’s a first-round pick,” said one area scout assigned to LSU. “He’s just a straight up man-to-man cover guy, he’s everything you want in a man cover guy. He’s not huge, he’s probably 5'11", 6-foot, 190 pounds, size is good enough. But the movement skills are very, very good. He can run, he can cover. He’s incredibly solid and steady, and that’s what makes you feel good about him. There’s no aspect of the game he’s not at minimum good at.” And teams will feel good about him off the field, too. Each year LSU gives the No. 18 to the player with the highest character on the roster, and White has worn it two years in a row.
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There’s only one team that Tom Brady has never played a road game against, and that so happens to be the team he grew up rooting for. As the NFL schedule rotation would have it, the Patriots have only been at San Francisco once in Brady’s career, and that was in 2008, the year Brady blew out his ACL.
So this week’s Patriots-Niners game may seem like a snoozer on the schedule, but to the quarterback piloting 7-2 New England, it’s anything but.
In fact, Brady’s family held Niners season tickets for 24 years, with his parents, Tom Sr. and Galynn, only ceding them after all the kids were off to college. The Bradys figured, at that point, they were spending all their time at the college games for Tom and his sisters anyway.
The only disappointing aspect? That the younger Tom never got to play at old Candlestick Park, where all those memories took place.
“Yeah, that’s a little disappointing, we were really looking forward to that in 2008,” Brady Sr. said on Wednesday. “That year, the rotation would’ve had Tommy playing four games on the West Coast—Raiders, Niners, Chargers and Seahawks. It was the only time that rotation would’ve happened, and it won’t happen for many years again, so that was too bad.
“But we’re looking forward to this one, it’ll be fun to go to a Niners game. It’ll be the first time I’ve been at Levi’s Stadium.”
It’s about a 15-mile drive from Brady’s childhood home in San Mateo. And as you might expect, he’ll have plenty of friends and family there. His dad says there will be about 26 people in the family contingent, with more friends sure to go on their own.
In the big picture, as Brady Sr. explains, it’s hard to quantify what going to Niners games meant to all of them. They’d head straight up from church on dozens of Sundays, set up shop in the parking lot with the early games on, and got to watch the quarterback that the kid brother of three older sisters wound up being most often compared to.
The easy conclusion to draw, of course, would be that seeing Joe Montana (and later Steve Young) up close had an impact on the younger Brady picking football over baseball, after he was drafted by the Montreal Expos as a high school senior. Brady’s dad isn’t sure whether it did or didn’t, but he knows the memories are still vivid for everyone who was there.
“We had a lot of great memories at Candlestick,” Tom Sr. said. “I guess the one that’s most notorious is The Catch, with Dwight Clark and Joe Montana. But we loved just tailgating and throwing the ball around, in the parking lot. … So this weekend will be fun. It’s very true that it’s not Candlestick, and he’ll never get to come out of the tunnel he saw Joe come out of.
“But we’ll have so many friends there, it’ll be a wonderful weekend.”
It’s also a nice reward for going through what’s been an emotional couple years for the family.
Brady Sr. declined to get into his feelings about the NFL or commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of Deflategate, but you can be assured he’s proud of how his son has come out of it—as perhaps the leader for MVP despite having playing just five games so far.
“I’m just excited that he’s back doing what he really loves and put all the nonsense behind him,” said Brady Sr. “He had a wonderful September, a wonderful vacation, and he’s picked up where he left off. … He’s been constantly working so hard to stay in shape, and it’s been the same thing for his 17 years as a Patriot. I’m not at all surprised to see how well he’s played.”
The dad will admit this though. Last week, when Kam Chancellor hit his son low, he had a little flashback to what kept the younger Brady off the 2008 trip to the Bay Area.
Thankfully, the result here is a much different one.
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