Way back in October, I put the notion in print that there was no wrong answer for the Cowboys at QB. There still is not a wrong answer, but there are now two questions.
Who do the Cowboys play at quarterback to give them the best chance to win the Super Bowl this year?
Who do the Cowboys play to give them a more experienced quarterback in the coming years?
The answer to those questions is not the same. While Dak Prescott and the team will reap benefits next year from every snap he takes from now until the season ends, if the Cowboys and their fans truly want their best shot at a title THIS year, that answer is clearly Tony Romo.
First, let’s put this out there: Dak has been far better than anyone could have expected or dreamed. He was the quarterback for a team that went 11-2. Fantastic. I’ve enjoyed every week and have even found reasons to be optimistic for the future following each loss. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the latest loss. The Cowboys are in good hands for the next decade if Prescott stays healthy and continues to improve. Absolutely.
However, for the faction of Cowboys fans who believe that Romo was the cause of the Cowboys’ struggles over the past decade, the prevailing argument has long been that Romo is only good for piling up huge stats. He can’t win. Prescott can win, so you play him and send Romo out to pasture. I’m hearing a lot of people defend Prescott’s performances in the last two games by pointing out that other people made mistakes, too – that it’s a team game. If that argument works for Prescott, you can’t ignore that fact when you want to bash Romo.
It is true that Romo has compiled impressive statistics while his team, overall, has only achieved mediocrity. That isn’t a testament to his inability to win, folks. That’s amazing. For the overwhelming majority of his career, Tony played with an offensive line assembled during the “we don’t spend first-round draft picks on linemen” era. It was only five years ago that the team drafted Tyron Smith. It was only two seasons ago that they drafted Zack Martin and the pieces of the “Great Wall of Dallas II” were finally (for the most part) set. During the last ten seasons, Tony has played on the same team as a top-10 defense exactly once, in 2009. His Cowboys have been a top-10 rushing team twice, in 2009 and 2014. However, they had a top-10 passing offense in every year from 2006 to 2012. In 2014, with DeMarco Murray leading the league and the team gaining the second-most yards in rushing, the Cowboys passing attack ranked 16th.
Despite the middle-of-the-pack ranking for passing yards in 2014, Romo had what many consider to be his finest season. His passer rating was the best in the league. But, his stats – the bane of the Romo hater’s existence – were actually very Dak-like through 13 games. In the same amount of games that Prescott has played so far, Romo had about 50 more yards. He also had four more interceptions. He also had eight more touchdowns. The big difference is that, at this point in the season, Romo was not regressing or stagnating, he was improving. He played his worst game of the season in a loss to the Eagles in week 11, then pounded the Bears in week 12 and avenged the loss to the Eagles in week 13, throwing three TDs with no INTs both weeks. In the following two games to end the season and two playoff games, he added ten more touchdowns and only one interception.
In the last three games, Prescott hasn’t passed for 200 yards. He’s thrown three touchdowns and two interceptions (if you blame Dez falling down for one, remember, you have to take circumstances into account for many of Romo’s, as well, so be careful with that). Call it the rookie wall, make excuses about great defenses or being on the road for two of them, but facts are facts. In 2014, with a similar running attack and a defense that wasn’t playing as well as this one has lately, Romo had one – one – game under 200 yards the whole year, a 26-10 win over the Titans.
In December and January, the time of year that the haters like to point out that Romo folds (a tired argument that hasn’t been factual or even arguable for years), Romo threw for 1,471 yards, averaging 294 yards per game, and 16 touchdowns with only 1 interception. The guy who can’t win had a passer rating of 143.6 in the loss to Green Bay in the playoffs. Most people remember Dez’s catch that wasn’t (I still contend it was), but few people talk of the defense’s absolute inability to stop a one-legged Aaron Rodgers. Romo did everything he could do to win that game, but he can’t play defensive line or cornerback.
The next year, he broke his collarbone, came back too early in an effort to save the season, and re-injured it. This year, a guy landed on him awkwardly and he suffered a compression fracture. To start this season, there were those who believed the Cowboys were Super Bowl contenders with Romo and the addition of Elliott. Dak has played very well and helped the team win 11 games. But, let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that because he hasn’t lost games – games that Tony, in all likelihood, would have won, also – that he is as good as Tony at being an NFL quarterback. There is no possible way he could be at this moment in time. In five years? Maybe. In ten? More likely. Now? No.
“But, changing quarterbacks will mess with the chemistry!” What if Prescott would have gotten hurt this past Sunday? Would we just throw in the towel, because the chemistry is gone? No, we'd expect Tony to come in and win. He's played with everyone on the offense, except for Zeke. The chemistry would be fine. The locker room is the only valid argument in this situation. Substituting for play quality is different than replacement due to injury, I grant you. However, winning takes care of everything. The only reason division would creep up is if Tony plays and isn't the player he was. From every report, he looks as good in practice as he ever has, so that's unlikely. There may be a bit of getting used to the speed of the game again, but this isn't his first rodeo, either. Shouldn't take long.
“You’ll ruin Dak if you take him out.” Please. Have we not praised Prescott’s maturity and mental toughness? Those are two of the things we love about him, right? Will it really shatter his psyche and ruin his NFL career if he is sat down after three games in which the offense sputtered and told that he did a great job, but we’re going to see what Tony can do? I don’t think so. And if it would, is that really who we want leading this team once Tony hangs it up? Someone so fragile that his career will be destroyed if he is told that we’re going to see if this guy who was 2nd-team All-Pro just two years ago can give us a spark?
I don’t think Prescott would handle it like that. Romo gave his blood, sweat, and tears for this franchise for ten years. He’s the main reason the Cowboys have even been somewhat relevant over that time and when he’s had any semblance of a supporting cast, he’s elevated them higher than almost any other quarterback could have. Yet, when he was ready to come back and the team was on a winning streak, he swallowed his pride and did the right thing for the team. You think he’s destroyed after being benched for a rookie? I don’t. I think he’d run out there tomorrow and fight like hell.
I give Dak the same credit. If the Cowboys decide to make the switch, Prescott’s got to be big enough to say that, for the good of the team, he understands. I think he will. Then, when it’s time for him to go back in, whether it’s this season or next or the one after that, I expect he’ll be even better than he is now and he’ll fight like hell for his team.
This is the best Dallas team in the last ten years. It isn’t perfect. There are areas that will need to be addressed in the offseason. But, it’s good enough to have a real shot at the title if the quarterback play elevates the team. Dak hasn’t elevated the team the last three weeks. True, they squeaked out two wins. But, they are going to need more than what Dak has shown if they’re going to be a serious threat in the postseason.
If the Cowboys want the best chance to win it all this season, they have to play the person who is the best at each position. At quarterback, the answer is Tony Romo. If they want to give every possible snap this season, no matter when it ends, to develop their quarterback of the future, that answer is Dak Prescott. There is no “all of the above”.
There still isn’t a wrong answer to the QB question. It just depends on what QB question you’re asking.