The Dallas Cowboys‘ plan was to have Romo return to the starting role once healthy in 2016; however, the surprise success of rookie Dak Prescott has changed the calculus. Joseph Ferraiola looks at each player to try and see how Dallas may resolve their unexpected quarterback dilemma.
With a 30-16 victory against the Green Bay Packers in Week 6, the Dallas Cowboys ran their winning streak to five games heading into their bye week with Dak Prescott as the starting quarterback. Prescott will start Week 8 against rival Philadelphia Eagles because Tony Romo isn’t 100% healthy. The winning – and excellent – play of Prescott has created a dilemma at the QB position for Dallas:
Should the Cowboys roll with Prescott when Romo is physically able to play?
Early on, the team seemed to be Romo’s once he was available to return. As Prescott continues to lead the Cowboys to wins, however, the decision becomes more difficult. Owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have a tough decision to make, but having a backup like Prescott is quite a luxury in the NFL, especially considering who the team had at QB during Romo’s absence last season; the 2015 Cowboys were ranked 27th and 29th in yards and touchdowns, respectively, with Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore going a combined 1-11.
Prescott has put up stellar numbers as the starter so far. He’s completed 68.7% of his passes and thrown for seven touchdowns, one interception, and is averaging 8.2 yards per pass attempt. Indeed, his only interception came after breaking Tom Brady’s record of 162 pass attempts without throwing an interception to start a career, and then extending it to 176.
The dilemma, then, is whether or not starting Romo increases the productivity of the Cowboys offense. That may seem difficult, considering that the Cowboys offense ranks third in yards per game, first in 1st downs per game, and second in 3rd down percentage. In 2014 when Romo started 15 games he led the league in completion percentage with 69.9%. He threw for 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a league high 8.5 yards per pass attempt. A healthy Romo – emphasis on healthy – could be a better option than Prescott as of now.
The Case for Romo
Romo is very effective at diagnosing what the defense is going to do before the snap. An experienced veteran like Romo has seen a lot and he is well known for working extremely hard in the film room. How else would an undrafted rookie out of Eastern Illinois become one of the top QBs in the league?
Right now Romo is better than Prescott at diagnosing opposing defenses presnap. While Prescott has said that he’s been given the authority to make checks at the line, Romo has complete control of the offense when he’s behind center.
In Week 8 of the 2014 season against Washington, Romo displayed his ability to make the correct calls at the line of scrimmage presnap. During the second quarter he made a call that changed the routes of his receivers based on the coverage Washington was in – a call that set the Cowboys up for a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead.
Dallas is in 11 personnel with Romo and DeMarco Murray (#29) in the gun on 1st and 10. Before the snap, Romo is going to turn his back to the defense and signal an audible to his receivers that they are going to run another route combination. When the ball is snapped, Romo drops back and surveys his options. Cole Beasley (#11) and Terrance Williams (#83) run a dagger route concept against Washington’s Cover 4. This is favorable for Dallas because the safety has to defend Beasley running the vertical route, which leaves the corner to come over to defend Williams on the dig. Romo is able to step up through space in the pocket and deliver a pass to Williams for a first down. Romo made the right call presnap to set his receivers up for success.
Something that has been lacking in the Cowboys offense thus far has been the deep ball. Prescott has only thrown five passes in the 21-30 yards thrown range and completed just one of them. He’s also thrown four passes in the 31-40 yards thrown range, completing none.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Prescott can’t throw the deep pass, but it does tell us what offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is asking Prescott to do: Make the right read and don’t force the ball. To be fair, Prescott isn’t only dumping the ball off to short underneath routes. Rather, he’s completing a lot of his passes in the 11-20 yards thrown range. He’s 27-for-39 within 11-20 yards thrown for a completion percentage of 69.2%. It is quite plausible that Linehan is still easing Prescott into the offense and there will be more deep balls thrown in the upcoming weeks.
Romo’s abilities in this area are especially missed by the offense when the play is at the 25-35 yard range on the opponent’s side of the field. This is prime positioning for the Cowboys to call a vertical route for Dez Bryant to go up against one-on-one man coverage and win at the point of attack for a touchdown. During the offseason, I broke down Romo’s touchdown throw to Bryant against the Eagles in Week 15 of 2014.
Romo already has the ability to accurately place this pass to Bryant in the end zone. During Week 1 of the regular season, Prescott targeted Bryant in the end zone and didn’t give him much of a chance to make a play on the ball. Prescott has improved his ball placement since then, but it’s still not as refined as Romo’s. The rapport between Romo and Bryant is also already well established. On this play, Romo signals to Bryant with a thumbs up to go deep against man coverage.
The Case for Dak
An advantage that Prescott has in his favor is that he can add another element to the offense that Romo cannot at this stage in his career. Because of injuries, it is not wise for Romo to take off and run like he did on the play that injured his vertebrae in the preseason against the Seattle Seahawks. Prescott, on the other hand, is athletic and mobile; he can take off and scramble when the options downfield aren’t open and can also run the read option.
Earlier in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Cowboys called a read option run resulting in an Ezekiel Elliott 13-yard touchdown run to put the Cowboys up 7-0. That helped set up this play later in second quarter on 1st and goal from the 5-yard line with 14:47 remaining.
The Cowboys are in 11 personnel with Prescott and Elliott in the backfield. Prescott receives the snap and puts the ball in Elliott’s chest. At the mesh point, Prescott reads Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (#96), who makes the mistake of committing to stopping Elliott. Prescott makes a good decision and keeps the ball, running to the outside now that there is no one on the Bengals defensive line to set the edge. Tight end Jason Witten (#82) makes a good block on safety George Iloka (#43) that allows Prescott to easily run into the end zone for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Another wrinkle Dallas has used with Prescott in the lineup is the boot-action. Linehan called this play in the preseason with Prescott and has occasionally brought it out during the regular season.
On this play, the Cowboys call the boot-action on 4th and 1 in the first quarter against Washington. Early on this season, the Dallas offense was stuck kicking field goals and decided they needed a way to spark the offense. The Cowboys are in 13 personnel with the three tight ends lined up to the right. To start the play, Prescott motions Geoff Swaim (#87) to the left side of the line. The ball is snapped and Prescott fakes the handoff to Elliott and rolls away from the play action. Swaim works across the line as Prescott has two Washington defenders in his face. The rookie makes a quick decision and throws off his back foot to Swaim who makes the catch and picks up 28, putting the Cowboys inside the 5-yard line. The drive ended in an Elliott touchdown run to give Dallas a 10-0 lead.
These added elements are the most valid argument for Prescott keeping the starting job. The read option and the threat of being able to take off when the play breaks down are additional aspects of the Cowboys offense that a defense needs to prepare for with Prescott under center. It’s possible that Prescott’s ability to run play action makes the Cowboys rushing attack more dangerous for opposing defenses because it keeps them guessing.
In recent seasons, Romo has been rushed back from injury too quickly. Moreover, Dallas has not had the luxury of having a competent backup QB like Prescott. Now, though, Prescott is buying Romo time to recover and not be forced back onto the field before he’s fully healed. This may allow him to be as healthy as he has been when coming back from an injury, and that should help his play. Romo is an all-around better QB than Prescott when he’s able to be on the field, and a healthy Romo is the better option at QB for now as he can maximize the potential of this offense.
While Romo may be the better option if healthy, though, it is unclear if that version of Romo exists anymore. The reality is that Romo has suffered three injuries that have sidelined him for a significant amount of time since Week 2 of the 2015 season. There’s concern he may not be the player he once was and the Cowboys do not have the time to figure that out during critical games of the season. Losing the starting job to injury certainly isn’t fair, but the NFL is a business. If the Cowboys coaches feel Prescott gives the team a better opportunity to continue winning, they’ll roll with the rookie. The decision isn’t a clear one to make without knowing the health status of Romo. Ultimately, the coaches will have to make the call on whether or not Romo is able perform on the field. If not, the future may now be with Prescott.
Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jet Sweep Screen, the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Stanford Cardinal‘s unbalanced run schemes.
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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.