It was around this time last year that the Dallas Cowboys stood as the hottest team in the NFL. Winners of 11 straight and well on their way to an NFC East crown and first round bye, the decision seemed very simple. Don’t change anything. That meant leaving in fourth round rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback instead of seasoned veteran Tony Romo, even after the long-time Cowboys gunslinger had recovered from his preseason back injury.
However, unlike last year’s top two overall picks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively Dak has regressed since that time.
The explanation is quite simple – Jerry Jones made the wrong decision. Dak Prescott should be an above average quarterback for years to come, but he hadn’t reached his highest potential, unlike Romo who was nearing the twilight of his experienced career. Evidence of the mistake first came to fruition in the Cowboys stunning playoff loss to the Aaron Rodgers-led Green Bay Packers. Yes, Aaron Rodgers is a consensus top two quarterback in the NFL today and one of the greatest of all time. But Dallas held the edge over the Packers in nearly every other facet of the game: offensive line, defense, special teams and running back. The problem was Dak’s inability to be prepared for the big stage – nor should he have been. The Cowboys rallied from a 21-3 deficit, but the point is they were too good of a team to have allowed themselves to fall behind that quickly.
This year, many people expected Prescott to continue excelling, yet failed to realize that with the supporting cast the Cowboys fielded last year, Scott Tolzien would’ve had a chance at posting respectable numbers. An elite running back, Ezekiel Elliott, combined with an even more dominant offensive line to create the holes made it very difficult to stop the Cowboys a season ago. All Prescott had to do was make the occasional obvious throw to a slanting Cole Beasley or streaking Dez Bryant to keep defenses honest and let them know Dak wasn’t just there to hand the rock to Elliott. However, despite Ezekiel Elliott’s talent, and despite Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Doug Free’s dominance in the trenches. One crucial truth remained: They couldn’t throw the football.
Football is a very complex sport. But when it boils down to crunch time or a reduced sample size, it’s very easy to see what leads to success more often than not – elite quarterback play. And despite the years of harsh criticism, Tony Romo was elite. No, he was not in the class of Rodgers or Tom Brady or what Peyton Manning used to be. But the tier just below that? The one with Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Russell Wilson – there isn’t a throw any of those quarterbacks can make that Romo couldn’t have (and probably still could) replicate. All three of those quarterbacks won a Super Bowl, it just took having the right supporting cast and the right circumstances. After a dismal 4-12, 2015 season, the Cowboys selected Elliott fourth overall in the 2016 draft, and Romo’s greatest shot at a title had finally arrived. Yet it was tragically ripped away from him just as quickly when he suffered a broken vertebra in the Cowboys first preseason game.
Aaron Rodgers was and remains superior to Tony Romo. However, Romo imitated many of the things that make Rodgers a perennial MVP candidate and the Packers Super Bowl contenders. He’s a poor man’s Aaron Rodgers. Romo’s ability to turn a broken down play into a big gain, read a defense and make the right audible, or turn a five yard sack into a 15 yard scramble are all things Rodgers does on a weekly basis. Though Rodgers does each of these things better, it still shows the point that Romo was capable of leading the Cowboys to a Super Bowl – especially with the talented roster the team fielded last year.
The Cowboys 6-6 record is not an accurate representation of this struggling team- after a 5-3 start they are lucky to have salvaged one win during Elliott’s suspension. And while a lot of that blame falls on Head Coach Jason Garrett and his ludicrous refusal being to make in game or even post game adjustments, the majority of the shortcomings are due to Prescott’s shortcoming and tendency to act as anything more than a high-end game manager who can scramble – he’s a mere step above Alex Smith.
Yes, Prescott will get better, but he should’ve been during his maturing on the practice field and in the preseason while Romo took advantage of the Cowboys opportunity. With a weaker offensive line and no Elliott the Cowboys have been exposed tremendously; shortcomings Romo was often able to mask with his propensity to extend plays and take daring, yet rewarding shots down the field.
Last year and again in 2017, the Cowboys missed an opportunity to do something they haven’t done in more than 20 years. Because while Tony Romo way be a poor man’s Aaron Rodgers. I’d take that any day over a rich man’s Alex Smith.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.