This story was originally was published on Thursday morning. It has been updated to reflect the news that Tony Romo miss 6-10 weeks with a broken back.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
So far, that appears to be the case when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys and their backup quarterback position.
With today’s news that starting quarterback Tony Romo could miss significant time after an MRI revealed a broken bone in his back (the result of an awkward slide and then tackle by Seattle end Cliff Avril on Thursday night) the Cowboys better hope fourth-round pick Dak Prescott continues to be impressive. In the 14 games Romo has missed the previous three seasons, Dallas has gone 1-13, including 1-11 last season.
After striking out on two draft-day trades to move up and select Paxton Lynch (Broncos) and Connor Cook (Raiders), the Cowboys settled Prescott with the 137th overall pick in the fourth round. Even after having Prescott in the building and watching backup Kellen Moore break his ankle early in camp, the Cowboys reportedly tried to sign Nick Foles (Chiefs) after he was released by the Rams.
But three games into a sensational preseason for Prescott, the Cowboys stopped looking at other options at the backup quarterback position behind Romo, who is 36 and had two recent back operations and broke his collarbone twice.
Are the Cowboys right to think they’re in good hands should Prescott be pressed into service? Is Prescott for real?
After watching Prescott’s first three games against the Rams, Dolphins and Seahawks, even a bitter curmudgeon would have to admit it looks like Jerry Jones and the Cowboys lucked into a backup quarterback for the present, and perhaps a future starter.
The rapid timetable is obviously not desirable. Rookies, especially at the quarterback position, are susceptible to highs as well as lows as they learn on the job. And as opposed to the preseason, teams in the regular season will specifically tailor their gameplans to stop what Prescott does well.
Everyone heard the eye-popping statistics after facing the Rams and Dolphins: 22 of 27 passes for 338 yards, four passing touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, zero interceptions, a perfect passer rating of 158.3 and 9-for-9 on scoring drives (51 points). Those are phenomenal. No rookie quarterback in the past decade has come close to putting up those type of statistics.
But let’s be real, most of his throws didn’t come in the face of immediate pressure that most rookie quarterbacks face, whether they’re top picks (usually on rebuilding teams) or mid-round picks playing with few guys that will make the 53-man roster. The Cowboys are a good team that, when Romo was healthy, went 15-4 in his starts the past two seasons. Standout left tackle Tyron Smith didn’t play until the Seattle game, but Prescott has had the unusual advantage of playing behind 4/5ths of the best offensive line in football, and throwing to veteran targets like Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley (against the Rams, partially versus Miami). You’d have to go back to Jay Cutler (11th overall in 2006, Broncos) and Matt Flynn (seventh round in 2008, Packers) to a find rookie quarterbacks on similarly talented teams (108.3 and 100.2 rating, respectively), but with one huge difference: neither started any of the first three exhibition games. Prescott had that advantage against the Rams, but remained stellar against the Dolphins.
So, basically, Prescott has been given the rare opportunity to drive a luxury car as a mid-round rookie. He’s also had the advantage of having one of the game’s great play callers (offensive coordinator Scott Linehan) crafting his script, and both the Rams (either soft coverage or safe one-on-one coverage) and Dolphins (a 20-yard untouched scramble for a touchdown, really?) looked lost in the secondary.
But I don’t care what you’re rolling with, a Rolls Royce or beat up pickup truck, or throwing against first-team 11-on-11s or routes on air, or facing the 1981 Baltimore Colts defense, what Prescott did in the first two games under any scenario is very impressive.
That only continued against his stiffest test yet, the Seahawks defense at CenturyLink Field. Prescott finished 17 of 23 for 116 yards and a touchdown. He did it coming off the bench in an emergency situation after Romo went down during the first drive. Showing his aversion to pressure and ability to calmly deal with anything thrown at him, Prescott completed his first two throws before the Cowboys had to punt. They scored a touchdown on the next possession when Prescott hooked up with Jason Witten on a 17-yard pass that was underthrown but it was a good decision to throw to the Pro Bowler with the back of Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright (a good coverage linebacker) facing Prescott.
The manner in which he’s done it that has been most striking. No, he hasn’t faced a ton of pressure (ProFootballFocus.com says Prescott has been under pressure more than not, but that’s a bit misleading; a lot of it was late in the down, especially in the first two games), and he’s yet to really thread the needle down the middle of the field where the highest degree of difficulty resides, but he’s been remarkably poised in every circumstance. Whether it’s getting the play call, getting the team to the line of scrimmage, facing down a blitz or picking out the man coverage and lofting a pass where only his receiver can get it (he’s done that multiple times), Prescott has the look of a seven-year veteran, not a rookie.
Prescott started in the Rams’ first game at the Coliseum since returning to Los Angeles, in front of the largest-ever crowd for an NFL preseason game and against an excellent defensive line, and he carried himself like it was the spring game at his alma mater, Mississippi State. On his fourth pass, the Rams dialed up a delayed safety blitz. Most rookies either wouldn’t see the blitzer and get decked, flee the pocket early or rush a throw. Prescott saw the blitzer, stood his ground, and found his hot route in Beasley for 8 yards. Simple, but telling.
Prescott loves to throw the back-shoulder pass, which is normally a veteran toss. But he can also drop it in the bucket along the sideline like he did on the 32-yard touchdown to Terrance Williams.
That continued against the vaunted Seahawks defense. It certainly wasn’t as easy or polished as the first two, but Prescott showed he can handle the pressure, survey the field and make good decisions. He also showed well in a two-minute drill before halftime, leading the Cowboys on a 12-play drive that resulted in a field goal. Only once in Prescott’s seven drives against Seattle did Dallas go three and out.
Prescott looks like the real deal. Can he get the job done and keep Dallas afloat (or better) until Romo returns on an accelerated timetable? That might be a tall task, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. If that’s the case, the Cowboys really are lucky.
All good in Tampa (in the locker room, at least)
There were rumors, after defensive-mind head coach Lovie Smith was ousted after just two seasons with the Buccaneers for offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, that the Buccaneers could split along offensive-defensive lines. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, Tampa’s leader and an early believer in Koetter, said all is good with the team as the Buccaneers wrap up their first camp under Koetter.
“As far as Coach Smith goes, when you were in his meetings, he was always smiling,” says McCoy. “When you’d see him around the building, he was always smiling. And it goes to show how much he loves this game and when he's coaching it, he can't stop grinning and he's kind of giggling. He takes it so serious but you can tell he loves it so much that he gets a joy from coaching us. When you have a coach like that, you can't help to feed off that energy and it makes you want to do things the right way. So (his firing) was tough to see.
“(But) I always said last year that Coach Koetter carried himself like a head coach. He's such a great coordinator—he's not a good one, he's a great one—he has to constantly focus on what his offense is doing. And then he had the No. 1 overall pick (Jameis Winston). He didn't have time to fraternize with the defense, he had to get this guy ready to play because he's going to lead our team. So he didn't talk to the defense much, but when he did, he just carried himself like a head coach. So when he got hired, I was like, 'Oh, we're good.' You didn't have to wonder what we were getting because we had been around him. So if nobody else was happy, I was. I know Jameis was, for sure. But I definitely was happy when Coach Koetter got hired, that's what I was at his press conference. And I’m still happy about it. I think everyone is.”
Aguay-o: Buccaneers kicker Roberto Aguayo, a surprise pick in the second round as an underclassman by general manager Jason Licht, has gotten off to a terrible start with a missed extra point in his first exhibition, two missed field goals in the second, and a practice so bad this week that fans heckled him. Aguayo, who had a stellar career at Florida State, is obviously going through a mental slump. While everybody’s having fun piling on Aguayo and Licht, and there is the possibility that he never recovers (a la former Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax), the odds are Aguayo pulls himself out of this at some point. Like losing streaks, all it takes is one good game, or kick in this instance, and Aguayo can get back on track. But, boy, Licht has to be nervous.
Brady v. Belichick?: The New England region has been going nuts with conspiracy theories since quarterback Tom Brady missed an expected start against the Bears because of a scissors incident, and then was excused from two-straight days of practice for personal reasons. Everyone wants to know if coach Bill Belichick and Brady are on the same page as the quarterback prepares for his four-game suspension, or is Brady throwing a hissy fit because Belichick is making the preparation for backup Jimmy Garoppolo a higher priority? My response: who cares? Even if Brady is pouting, he’s done it before (Lawyer Milloy, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins) and he’s gotten over it. It’s not like it’s going to cause a problem on the team. Brady’s an unbelievable competitor and a sore loser when he doesn’t get his way, but it’s part of what makes him great. And Belichick is going to do exactly what he thinks he needs to do to prepare his team. If that means ticking off Brady, Belichick really doesn’t care. And that’s part of what makes him great. Belichick’s in a tough spot. It would make sense to let Garoppolo play with the guys he’s going to take the field with in Arizona. Do you then let Brady play with the scrubs? Or do you defer to Brady, start him and let Garoppolo make due with his reps? Belichick’s going to do what he thinks is right. If Brady doesn’t like it, who cares?
Same old, same old on domestic violence: The NFL had the Ray Rice incident blow up in its face in part because it appeared that the league took the word of a team, the Ravens, that had long-standing ties to the commissioner’s office. In the wake of the Josh Brown reports, it appears the league has repeated its mistake when dealing with the Giants and the Maras, one of the league’s standard-bearer franchises. “Violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to enhanced discipline. A first offense will be subject to a suspension of six weeks without pay,” was the policy rolled out by Roger Goodell post-Rice. Brown received one game because the NFL said it couldn’t find more evidence (the same excuse used to serve Rice with his initial two-game suspension before video of the incident emerged). If you apply the NFL’s “more probable than not” reasoning, there should have been grounds to hit Brown with a multiple-game suspension. But, no, the NFL again used subjective punishment. Was it because this was the Giants and not, say, the Saints? We’ll never know because Goodell doesn’t know what transparency means, and his track record is inconsistent at best, terrible at worst.
Chargers are being childish: In what might be the point of no return in the contract stalemate with third overall pick Joey Bosa, the Chargers released a statement that put the blame on Bosa and threatened to lower the offer. Then president of football operations John Spanos told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Bosa’s contract stance is “absolutely asinine.” Oh, that’s mature. Did former hard-line general manager A.J. Smith get rehired and no one said anything? The Chargers are being babies because they want offset language in the contract, and defer a huge amount of his signing bonus to 2017. Draft picks that high almost always agree to one or the other. The Chargers want to have their cake and eat it too, and now they’re throwing a hissy fit.