Prior to Super Bowl XXX, Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann spoke about the long-established, yet dubious label of the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team.”
“Dallas was never America’s Team, not when we played them. America’s Team is the team that wins the Super Bowl,” the Hall of Fame wide receiver said in 1996.
That line parallels something Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said earlier this week in response to questions about the impending return of Tony Romo: “This is Tony’s team. I knew that going into the situation. I think everybody knew that. I’m just trying to do the best I can to give my team a chance to win week in and week out.”
In short, he is dead wrong. For this incarnation of the Dallas Cowboys, the team belongs to the quarterback who is winning football games, and that’s not Romo, it’s Prescott.
This scenario isn’t new: Aging, beloved veteran gets hurt; young, unproven quarterback takes his job and wins games. This sets the stage for an epic quarterback controversy destined to fill the local sports pages for months, if not years. Steve Young supplanted Joe Montana and Tom Brady supplanted Drew Bledsoe. Even less dramatic and prestigious episodes such as Marc Bulger supplanting Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger supplanting Tommy Maddox or Brett Favre supplanting Don Majkowski are well-remembered and were initially met with great skepticism.
In each of those cases, the franchise made the difficult but justified decision to stick with the younger, far less experienced player who was winning games. And make no mistake about it, winning games is what matters. Prescott has solid numbers and the Cowboys are scoring points — currently their 25.8 points-per-game is eighth in the NFL — but the 4-1 record and first place in the NFC East (the Redskins are a half-game back) are what matters most. Even if he wasn’t playing interception-free football and averaging 3 touchdown drives per week, yet Dallas was winning games, he wouldn’t lose his job.
There are a few practical ways to look at the decision Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett face in the coming weeks, whenever Romo is declared healthy enough to play.
Romo undoubtedly knows the Cowboys offense better than any other player on the roster. He’s been in Garrett’s system 10 years. In fact, other than maybe Brady and Aaron Rodgers, no one has a greater command of his team’s playbook than Romo.
Still, knowing the fundamentals of the Cowboys’ scheme and executing specific game plans against the subtle nuances of opposing defenses are two different things. Remember, Romo has never played a Jim Schwartz-coached Eagles defense, a Joe Barry-coached Redskins defense and it’s been 10 years since he faced a Steve Spagnuolo-coached Giants defense. Assuming Romo hasn’t yet returned by the end of Week 8, Prescott will have faced each of those units.
The more important factor, however, is rust. Romo injured his back in late August. So even if he is on schedule to return to the lineup in a week or two (which is still a long shot) that would mean he hasn’t taken a snap in nearly two months. Prescott might be a rookie who had never taken a single NFL snap before September, but he has a significant advantage in running this Cowboys offense, one with Ezekiel Elliott and Cole Beasley playing larger roles than Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
The longer they wait to reinsert Romo into the lineup, the more damage that rust can do. Many people have championed the Cowboys’ luxury of being able to take their time on Romo’s return, assuming Prescott is playing so well they do not have to rush him back.
That’s all well and good early in the season, but if they wait until mid-November to make the switch, they might not be wise to mess with the chemistry Prescott has established. And considering the nasty schedule they have at that point in the season — at Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, at Minnesota and at the Giants — they don’t need the uncertainty Romo’s return presents.
All this assumes Romo can’t adapt quickly once he returns. That’s a tough sell: Romo is one of his generation’s greatest quarterbacks, and his instincts, intellect and work ethic are just as responsible for that as his physical tools. But at 36, having suffered multiple broken bones in the past few seasons, those physical tools are now, for the first time, something to question.
The bottom line is Prescott is the future of the Cowboys, and that may well be clear enough next spring, if Romo is traded, cut or he retires. But that’s not the reason why Dallas should keep Prescott under center even when Romo returns to full health. As much as it pains Jones, who is so loyal and so fond of Romo, messing with a great shot at a Super Bowl run would pain him much more.