After last night’s thrilling overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys have ridden the league’s best rushing attack and a surprisingly effective defense to a 7-1 start, good for first in the NFC East. Nobody expected this from Dallas, especially not after quarterback Tony Romo broke a bone in his back in the preseason, placing fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott in the starter’s role for America’s Team.
Then something weird happened. Prescott played like a seasoned veteran. Through seven games, here are his numbers: 253 YPG on 8.0 Y/A, 65.2% cmp. pct., 99.6 quarterback rating, nine passing touchdowns, four rushing touchdowns. And three of those games came without star wideout Dez Bryant in the lineup.
Those are impressive numbers, especially for a rookie, but the stats don’t measure the entirety of Prescott’s impact. The rest of the team loves him. His hard work and humble attitude have won him the trust of the locker room. He even earned the praise of the guy he stepped in for and the hard-to-please Bryant. Prescott has paired with Ezekiel Elliot to create a simultaneously explosive and mistake-free offense, and it has led to impressive wins over Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Green Bay.
But now Romo is practicing again, albeit in limited fashion. He still won’t be able to return until at least November 6, but the Cowboys are going to have to face the question: which quarterback should get the start when Romo is able to return?
Many have said it should still be Prescott, and I can see where they’re coming from. He’s been playing really well in Romo’s absence and he has a great chemistry in the locker room. He’s a poised player and leader who keeps his cool in big moments.
He’s also a better runner than Romo. It doesn’t show up in the stats because the Cowboys can’t afford for him to get injured, but Prescott is a fantastic running quarterback. He and Elliott could wreak havoc if allowed to run the read option, like they did several time in the Eagles game, a play Prescott specialized in during his very successful college career.
Prescott is much younger than Romo, who is also injury-prone. The Cowboys could have their quarterback of the future, but he could suffer from lack of confidence and reps if the Cowboys go back to Romo. That would be a huge problem were Romo to get hurt again and Prescott, in a less than ideal mindset, had to take over again. It could stunt his development and ruin a Cowboys team full of young talent.
But the main factor favoring Prescott is that the Cowboys have a really good thing going right now. It might be safer if Dallas takes the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” approach. What if Romo comes back, gets the start, and isn’t the same? They’re at the top of their division and are in contention for the top overall seed in their conference. Maybe the Cowboys shouldn’t mess with what is working well.
Now, that’s very easy to say, but that leaves out that Romo is an All-Pro quarterback when healthy, even if that’s rare. Here are his career stats: 65.3% cmp. pct., 5.7% TD pct., 7.9 Y/A, 97.1 quarterback rating. Those numbers are just as good as Prescott’s, but they’re over a longer period of time against better competition and with less productive teammates. To get a better idea of what Romo might look like with this Cowboys team, let’s look at his numbers from the 2014 season:
69.9% comp., 34 TD, 9 INT, 7.8% TD pct., 2.1% INT pct., 8.5 Y/A, 113.2 quarterback rating. The reason I’m using these stats is because that 2014 team was the most comparable situation to what Romo would have this year. In 2014, Dallas rode DeMarco Murray behind a great young offensive line to a 12-4 record and an appearance in the NFC Divisional round.
Murray led the league in rushing yards, and his production took some pressure off of Romo. He was given short, easy third downs to work with. The defense wasn’t awful. He wasn’t asked to win the game all by himself, which was when he would get into trouble before. He could make easy throws to Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten, then go for it all on a few big hitters to Bryant. Romo had an MVP-caliber year and Dallas could have made it to the Super Bowl had it not been for the Bryant non-catch.
And the supporting cast is even better on this team. The defense has been really good, for the first time really since Romo has been there. Ezekiel Elliott has been just as dominant on the ground as Murray was and is a better pass-catcher and blocker. The offensive line has reached its vaunted potential and is by far the best unit in the league. Dez Bryant isn’t as healthy as he was in 2014, but is still a force when on the field. Beasley has blossomed into a good slot receiver.
If Tony Romo can play at his 2014 level, he’s the best option. He’s just a more talented and experienced thrower than Prescott is at this point. Part of Prescott’s success has been based on making short, easy throws that limit mistakes. Romo can open up Dallas’ playbook. While Prescott makes plays with his feet to run, Romo makes plays with his feet to extend and find guys open down the field. When he gets on a roll, he can be just as good as anyone in the league.
The problem is, you don’t know if you’re getting 2014 Romo. After all, it’s only happened once in his career. He could come back and fall off a cliff. He could come back and be good, but get injured. But he could also come back, take the ceiling off of this team, and lead them to the Super Bowl.
That’s what this decision is about: upside vs. safety. Surprisingly, in this case the young, exciting athlete is the safe bet and the aging, experienced veteran represents the best-case scenario. If the team sticks with Prescott, they’ll definitely make the playoffs and have a chance to go far. If they go with Romo, they could range anywhere from missing the postseason to being Super Bowl favorites.
If you were to ask me, I’d go with Prescott. He, Elliott, and that offensive line represent a young core that could set the Cowboys up for a decade of success. And they could still win the Super Bowl with Prescott at the helm. He has them operating at a higher level than Romo had them in 2014, and now he’s shown that he can be a hero. He led a great comeback last night, with a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter, and the winning scoring pass in overtime.
This play reminded me of a certain legendary quarterback who used to play in Dallas: Roger Staubach. Prescott used his legs to keep the play alive, and ultimately found Jason Witten wide-open in the end zone. He came through when he needed to, overcoming his earlier struggles and making a statement about who should be the Cowboys’ quarterback. I think it would be dangerous to take him out now.
In my opinion, Romo presents more value for what they could get for him in a trade than the small increase in their chances of winning it all if he’s at peak performance again. The Cowboys better be comfortable with whatever decision they make, because it’s going to be a big one, and one that will be scrutinized or praised for the next 5 years.