“Tony is our No. 1 quarterback,” Jerry Jones said Sunday night, settling a Cowboys quarterback controversy that’s really just getting started.
Tony Romo is expected to be healthy enough to play as soon as Week 8, a Sunday night game against the Eagles, perhaps with first place in the division on the line. But in his place, rookie Dak Prescott has been the biggest surprise of the first quarter of the NFL season. The fourth-round draft pick hasn’t thrown an interception (and has only one turnover total) in 155 attempts, just seven passes shy of Tom Brady’s record of 162 throws without a pick to start a career. Prescott has completed 69 percent of his passes, which ties him for third among quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts. He’s thrown for four touchdowns, and rushed for three more. And most importantly, he’s won four in a row, the latest being Sunday’s routine hand-wipe of the Bengals. Prescott has done all this even with Dez Bryant missing the last two games with an injury. The Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East, and Jones is prepared to bench Prescott anyway.
Romo, out since the preseason with a compression fracture in his back, is 15-4 in his last 19 starts dating back to 2014. He also counts $20.8 million against the cap this season, which would make him the league’s most expensive backup if he were to sit. Romo is under contract through 2019, and he’s had his deal restructured twice, thus kicking some of the cap implications down the road. The Cowboys would have to eat nearly $20 million in dead money if they were to cut him before next year, and that figure is still nearly $9 million in 2018 before dropping to $3.2 million in the final year of the deal. But Romo made just four starts last season because of a pair of broken collarbones. And the Cowboys have constructed an offense that’s completely built up around the quarterback position, which has made it the perfect place for Prescott to thrive in ways sub-replacement-level backups like Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore couldn’t.
The Cowboys’ offensive line has been terrific for a while, especially left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin, but their decision to draft Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4 overall—thereby defying conventional wisdom about using a pick that high on a running back in today’s pass-happy league—has been the perfect complement to what that O-line brings. Through five games, Elliott leads the league in rushing, and the Cowboys are one of just three teams (along with the Patriots and the 49ers) to have run the ball more than they’ve thrown it.
Dallas has successfully tailored its offense for Prescott, without completely reducing him to a check-down artist. While most of Prescott’s passes have been at or near the line of scrimmage, he’s still 27-for-40 for 453 yards on throws that have traveled 10-to-19 yards through the air, per Pro Football Focus. Prescott is distributing the ball all over the field, too: Six of his targets have at least eight catches, and six completions have gone to the left side of the field, with eight to the right, and 13 down the middle. Three of Prescott’s four TD passes have also come in the 10-to-19-yard range. Also, per PFF, defenses can’t sell out to get after Prescott because of his own ability to run: He’s only been pressured on 34 percent of his dropbacks, and he’s only been blitzed 29 percent of the time.
A streamlined offense does not mean a predictable one, in this case. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has structured the system to get Prescott out of the pocket more often, in addition to incorporating some zone-read stuff and the occasional no-huddle look. So it’s stripped down, but it’s also juiced up to play to Prescott’s strengths. And it’s been effective enough through five games to start wondering it it might be as or more effective than what the Cowboys run with Romo.
With Romo, however, the Cowboys believe they can be even better, according to CBS’s Jason La Canfora:
The Cowboys are running a constricted version of the offense for him and astutely simplifying some things for him, and its scope should expand significantly with Romo back.
The Cowboys staff believes the downfield element and multiplicity of their offense could increase significantly under Romo.
That may well be true, especially with the deep threat Romo provides once Bryant gets healthy. These are questions about differences in philosophies, after all, and there aren’t really any right or wrong answers here. The league has seen plenty of quarterbacks develop by sitting and learning, and it might not be the end of the world for Prescott to spend time behind Romo. But right now, with Prescott, the Cowboys are winning. That complicates things even further.