PITTSBURGH — The oil man’s son burst into the locker room before even his father, making his way from locker to locker, showering gollys and hot-damns on whomever would clasp his outstretched hand. He found Tony Romo, the former starter, in a suit, and Dak Prescott, the rookie, emerging from the showers, and the three came together. “How about this guy?!” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones exclaimed, pointing to Prescott, who only grinned. “He’s the man,” Romo said. “Unbelievable.”
That was the word Romo kept repeating on Sunday evening underneath the bleachers at Heinz Field, as he stuck around the dispersing locker room and hugged or shook hands with coaches and players, including his former understudy. Unbelievable. Dallas’s eighth win in a row with Prescott under center came with his most impressive performance: The fourth-round pick from Mississippi State cracked 300 yards for the first time in his pro career and threw a pair of touchdowns.
And after Prescott and his juggernaut offensive line and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott delivered the game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation to win 35-30, the oil man himself, Jerry Jones, stood in the middle of the locker room and handed Prescott the proverbial keys. No longer would it be Tony Romo’s job to lose when he’s fully recovered from the back injury he suffered in August (and only Romo and the Cowboys’ inner circle knows if that day had already come and passed before Sunday).
“Dak has got a hot hand, and we're going to go with it,” Jerry Jones said.
“Dak’s doing a hell of a job,” Stephen echoed after Sunday’s game. “We’ve got a great situation, and if something were to happen, we’ve got Tony.”
Unbelievable. That’s what every football columnist in America would have said if you’d predicted Prescott, something of an afterthought in the much-hyped 2016 QB class, would assume the reins of the Dallas Cowboys by rattling off eight straight reliable performances in eight straight wins after a balky opening week loss to the Giants. Make no mistake: The W’s matter. As much as the NFL aficionados on Twitter would like to disavow the notion of team wins as a measure of quarterbacks, they matter here in the case of a red-hot football team and a 23-year-old playing point guard.
He’s not LeBron. He’s not Kobe. He’s John Stockton. And that’s an important distinction, because if Prescott had offered up the same individual performances— passing for 250 yards or so and one or two touchdowns—over the first nine games and the Cowboys had lost one-score games to San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the argument for Romo to return as starter would be reaching a crescendo this week. Romo is 36 years old, one season removed from the best year of his career, and he gives Dallas the best chance to win in January. That’s what you’d be reading out of Dallas, and probably hearing from the Joneses.
But the Cowboys’ offensive line has matured into the best unit in football, and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and his staff cobbled together a front seven that is one of the NFL’s biggest surprises in 2016, and the Cowboys are rolling. It’s also November, well past the bye week, with the inconvenient Thanksgiving speed bump looming, which means the prospect of Romo getting sufficient first-team reps in practice for a true competition is dubious for a team preparing for a playoff push.
Plus, there’s obvious chemistry between Prescott and Elliott, and growing chemistry between the quarterback and his receivers. And Prescott has a way about him that was obvious when he first showed up to rookie minicamp in Irving, Texas.
“He was getting a lot of respect from Day One,” Stephen Jones said. “The way he interacted in the weight room—you didn’t think necessarily that it was going to translate into a great quarterback, but he showed unique people skills.”
“He can keep a level head in tough situations. It’s almost like he’s already a vet.”
That’s what stands out to Alfred Morris, who watched a rookie phenom become the toast of the NFL in Washington in 2012, only to crash to earth in the span of three seasons in part because of in-fighting with coaches. Recently removed from the Robert Griffin III saga, Morris approached Prescott before the first regular-season game with some advice.
“I told him, you keep handling yourself the way you are and continue to work, the sky is the limit for you,” Morris says. “Dak’s just a natural leader. You can tell when somebody is trying to hard or being fake or phony, but he’s just a natural born leader. And you could tell off the bat he was really, really composed. He can keep a level head in tough situations. It’s almost like he’s already a vet.
“I say that cautiously because you don’t want to get in a comfort zone, because that’s when it goes downhill.”
Maybe it won’t go downhill, and Prescott will be the Romo succession plan nobody truthfully expected him to be. But there’s a good chance the 2016 ride will come to a stop sometime before Houston, site of Super Bowl 51. No rookie quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl. And if Romo remains on the bench for the rest of the season, Cowboys fans will be left to wonder what the wily vet could have done with the benefit of several months of rest and a tantalizing array of skill-position players.
As for Romo himself, he’s said and done all the right things during the Rise of Dak—he even stands up under the scrutiny of the television broadcast cameras. Against Pittsburgh, when Prescott completed the 50-yard bomb to Dez Bryant for a go-ahead touchdown, Romo, in awe, appeared to say into his headset, “That’s a dime.” Some speculated that his words were “Now’s his time.” In either case, if Romo is privately burning for his old job, his efforts to hide it are Oscar-worthy. Surely he would like a chance to simply compete with Prescott in practice, but as of late he’s been relegated to the scout team while new backup Mark Sanchez takes the second-team reps and a handful of the first-team opportunities.
“It’s hard not to be a fan of Dak. It’s hard to root against him—not to say Tony would ever do that,” Morris says of the veteran QB who once supplanted an aging veteran himself, Drew Bledsoe back in 2006. “Tony was once that guy, so I think he kind of relates to him.”
With a smile, Romo declined to comment on the situation, preferring to let the crowded depth chart situation play out in private. Asked to clarify what he’d said after the go-ahead touchdown, Romo invited a reporter to do what those of us writing and yapping about the Cowboys have done, with little success, since August:
“I’ll just let you guys speculate.”
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