Tony Romo, when he’s healthy (an increasingly rare occurrence), is a better quarterback right now than Dak Prescott. But that doesn’t mean he should be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback once he returns to action.
Dallas won again Sunday, turning in its most impressive performance of the season: a 28–14 victory over Cincinnati that was nowhere near as close as that final score. The Cowboys manhandled the Bengals in the trenches on both sides of the ball, with their rookie tag team of Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott combining for 365 yards and all four Dallas touchdowns. Elliott currently leads the league in rushing with 546 yards.
Save for the undefeated Vikings and perhaps the Falcons, there is no team in the NFL hotter than the NFC East-leading Cowboys. Why, then, does owner Jerry Jones want to rock the boat?
“Tony is our No. 1 quarterback,” Jones declared, again, after Sunday's game. “We’re going to have the luxury of being able to, I think, see them both. I don’t want to presume that Dak is going to be necessarily healthy, I don’t want to presume anything like that. But I welcome the opportunity of having Dak playing at this level and Tony back in excellent health. It’s going to be really special for the Cowboys.”
He’s right in that this could be one of those coveted “good problems to have.” There are teams unable to find one reliable quarterback, let alone two. And while No. 2 pick Carson Wentz has been excellent this season and three other rookie QBs (Cody Kessler, Jacoby Brissett, Paxton Lynch) have made starts, Prescott, the 135th selection in this year’s draft, has provided the greatest return on investment thus far.
The 36-year-old Romo also is, for all the criticism he takes, a legitimately excellent NFL quarterback. Dallas was 15–4 over the past two regular seasons with him at the helm, and they picked up a playoff win in 2014, after Romo finished with the league’s best QB rating (113.2).
Between Elliott, the Dallas offensive line and the impending return of Dez Bryant, there is no question that Romo could have success back in his starting role.
The thing is, though, that Prescott already is having success. Romo would open up more of a downfield passing attack, which plays into Bryant’s strengths, but Prescott’s mobility also causes problems for opposing defenses. Plus, while the majority of his passes have come within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage, Prescott is doing exactly what the QB of this offense needs to do when the run game is clicking.
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“Zeke ran really, really well, but a big part of this game was the efficiency of our passing game,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said after the win over Cincinnati. “Dak read things out well, threw it to the right guy, and was accurate. ... He’s grown with the experience he gets. He goes about it the right way. We’re lucky to have him.”
Prescott’s progress happened rapidly in the preseason and has continued on through early October. Perhaps the deep ball’s not quite a consistent element yet, but Prescott is averaging 8.0 yards per attempt this season, good for fifth-best in the NFL; he posted 9.5 yards per attempt Sunday.
Better yet, he has yet to throw an interception on 155 passes to open his career, a new league record. He did commit his first turnover against Cincinnati, but it was a fumble that came with the Cowboys already in firm control.
Are there spots for improvement? Of course. Prescott has played just five regular season games, after all. However, there is no denying that Prescott’s presence has elevated the team.
So, why is there even a conversation about Romo reclaiming the QB1 slot? A variety of reasons, including Romo’s aforementioned excellence through the air.
Romo has 12 seasons and 127 starts’ worth of experience, and the second half of the season will be a grind within a surprisingly competitive NFC East. He has a $108 million contract, too, that runs through 2019. The Cowboys made that commitment to him because he had established himself as their franchise quarterback (albeit a somewhat fragile one). Because of the structure of that deal, moving him off the roster prior to 2018—via release or trade—would come with the significant dead-money penalty. Carrying a $20 million backup doesn’t make much financial sense.
It’s understandable why Jones and possibly even Garrett would want to hand the reins back over to Romo, once he is cleared from his back injury. There really are not even that many reasons to pin Romo to the sideline, except for the major one: Prescott is thriving.
As Crash Davis in Bull Durham, Kevin Costner says that “a player on a streak has to respect the streak.” Same goes for an NFL team. Barring an absolute meltdown by Prescott during Dallas’s Week 6 visit to Green Bay, the fourth-round pick will have done absolutely nothing to justify removing him from the lineup.
The Cowboys still believe that Romo is their quarterback of the present, but Prescott has emerged as their answer for the future. Allowing that loyalty to Romo to disrupt the momentum Dallas has found under Prescott’s watch would be a mistake.