Next man up: Dak Prescott?
The Cowboys starting QB is following in the footsteps of Steve Young, Tom Brady and even Tony Romo. So what’s all the chatter about?
Don’t think that Dak Prescott is off the hook. He’s not. Not by a long shot. As long as Tony Romo still occupies a spot on the Dallas Cowboys’ roster — and, more importantly, a special place in owner Jerry Jones’ heart — Prescott is still only one bad game away from the “it’s time for a change at quarterback” talk ramping up all over again. Come the playoffs in just a few weeks, a single stinker series in a single game would be sure to set off alarms. The rookie’s many irrational critics haven’t been won over. They’re merely waiting for another opening. They’re ready to pounce. Eager, actually. That’s Prescott’s reality. So don’t get it twisted.
Sure, fewer Cowboys fans are on edge after Prescott’s most recent lit performance. During Dallas’ 26-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 18, Prescott had the second-highest completion percentage in a game in NFL history for a passer with at least 30 attempts. If an effort like that doesn’t get most of the crowd back on your side, heck, nothing will. Going in on Prescott would make about as much sense as criticizing Texas barbecue. There are some things you just don’t do. Dallas head coach Jason Garrett hasn’t gone there. Garrett, for one, knows exactly what the Cowboys have in Prescott.
“He’s someone who’s handled every situation he’s come across since he’s been with us, very, very well,” Garrett said. “He’s handled success really well. He’s handled adversity. Adversities within games, adversities from week to week, he’s just the same guy. The guys follow him. He’s just a natural leader.”
Still, some Cowboys fans are convinced that — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — Romo gives the franchise its best chance to win a record-tying sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. That it’s time to replace the unflappable youngblood who rescued the team after Romo’s body betrayed him again with Romo, again. That it would make more sense to roll into the playoffs with someone whose otherwise successful career has been defined by postseason failure and injury. That the future will just have to wait. The Cowboys, they believe in their souls, need Romo. Now. None of that, of course, is logical. We’re talking about sports, though. And the Cowboys. So logic be dammed. When it comes to America’s Team, a mix of emotions on every side of all issues often makes even the clearest thinkers among us downright loco at times. Add to that the undercurrent of race, and we just can’t pull ourselves away from the Dak-or-Tony debate.
Because they lucked into Prescott – who’s 13 years younger than Romo – the Cowboys can finally be as spectacularly successful on the field as they have been off of it. To potentially ruin their good fortune in an effort to recapture something that never existed, well, that isn’t a risk worth taking. Anyone who understands the importance of stability at quarterback, especially for a legitimate Super Bowl contender late in a season, will tell you that the Cowboys need to let it be. For months, Trent Dilfer has been saying just that.
Dilfer, the ESPN analyst and former Super Bowl-winning passer, went all in on the notion that Prescott would unseat Romo after the 13-year veteran’s most recent major injury sidelined him during the preseason. With Dallas, the NFC East champs with home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, Dilfer doubled down. “I’m all about riding Dak,” he said. “In the short term this year, you have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl with Dak. And in the long term, you have a chance to have a six- or eight-year run with him. So I’m 100 percent Dak’s the guy. Tony’s the backup.”
Right. Makes sense. We feel you. But with the Cowboys, things are rarely that simple.
Just as everything allegorically in Texas, quarterback controversies seem bigger than in the NFL’s 31 other markets. Throughout Cowboys history, debates about who should be under center have been part of the conversation surrounding the team as much as the annual speculation on a potential Super Bowl run. It’s what Dallas fans do. Way back in the early 1970s, the question was Roger Staubach or Craig Morton? Fast-forward a decade, it was Danny White vs. Gary Hogeboom. In the 1990s, Troy Aikman had to battle Steve Walsh. For real. Steve Walsh. In some regards, nothing happening now is new. Except this wasn’t supposed to happen. This time, the Cowboys said, things would be different. Remember?
In November, Romo moved to squash the drama before it began. Reading from a prepared statement during a news conference, Romo eulogized his career while simultaneously passing the torch to Prescott. It was truly heartfelt stuff. Very emotional. If any die-hard Cowboys fan teared up, you wouldn’t have been surprised. In the run-up to Romo’s comments, the Cowboys repeatedly told us it was all good. Internally, at least, there was no quarterback controversy. And after Tony backed Dak, the Cowboys kept on grooving. Ultimately, Dallas extended its franchise-record winning streak to 11 games. Prescott continued to produce off-the-charts efficiency numbers for a perennial Pro Bowler, let alone a wet-behind-the-ears rook. Only one problem: Jones.
Whenever there’s a microphone or television camera around, he’ll find it. Jones kept waxing nostalgic about Romo. He just wouldn’t clam up. It’s not his style. In a bizarre interview, Jones said he envisioned Romo playing a part in helping the Cowboys win the Super Bowl title this season and returning to the team in 2017. Then after Prescott had his first clunker as a pro in the New York Giants’ 10-7 Week 14 victory, Jones went at it again on the radio, suggesting possible scenarios in which Romo could get back in the game. Aikman called out Jones for his repeated head-scratchers, the Hall of Famer saying he was “dumbfounded” by what he heard. From listening to Jones, you got the sense that if others in the organization hadn’t held him back, Prescott would have been back on clipboard duty the moment doctors gave Romo the thumbs up.
Jones has acknowledged he enjoys keeping the Cowboys in the media spotlight. Also, his affinity for Romo is understandable. They’ve developed a bond over Romo’s long run as the face of the franchise on the field. On this one, however, Jones has entered into dangerous territory. By stoking a quarterback controversy, Jones runs the risk of further undercutting Prescott with fans, who, on social media last week, pounded the fourth-round draft pick after the loss to the Giants. Prescott possesses the smarts, physical tools, temperament and confidence to be a cornerstone player for a decade or so. But even for the most gifted athletes, confidence can be a fragile thing. The more Jones keeps yapping about the Cowboys’ former quarterback, their current one who’s thriving may start to wonder if the guy who signs the checks totally believes in him. Through his own words, Jones could essentially undermine his own product. That’s like voting against one’s own self-interests. Why in the hell would anyone do that?
Even if Jones is trying to drum up a trade market for Romo by pumping him up and making it seem as if the former undrafted rookie free agent could still ride off into the sunset wearing the Blue Star, much more could go wrong than right for Dallas with the owner doing anything other than creating the best environment to help Prescott realize his enormous potential. Just like Aikman, Warren Moon doesn’t get Jones’ angle.
The Hall of Famer knows how hard it is to excel in the fishbowl existence of being a starting NFL quarterback, “and it’s a lot more difficult today than it was when I played, just because there’s so much more media out there,” Moon said. “Whether it’s social media or just all of the football-related shows on television, people have so much more access to voice their opinions all day long.
“As a young player, a lot of that stuff can get into your head. You definitely don’t need to also get it from [within your own team]. If anything, the Cowboys should just squash this. But Jerry Jones is not doing that. He’s keeping it alive. If they do mess around with this thing, they could wind up losing that locker room. Dak is very popular in that locker room. You can tell those guys believe in him. So if they mess around with this, they could wind up ruining everything they’re trying to accomplish. It’s really that simple.”
Two wins. Four losses. Zero conference championship game appearances. That’s Romo’s playoff resume. Yet Romo’s supporters will tell you that the ‘Boys won’t reach the Super Bowl unless he gets his job back. They say that with Romo healthy and well-rested, it would be foolhardy to entrust the team’s playoff hopes to a kid with no playoff experience. It’s a point of view rooted in something other than reality.
As the franchise’s all-time passing leader, Romo’s statistics blow away the numbers Aikman and Staubach produced. Except in the category that matters most: Super Bowl victories. Aikman is a three-time Super Bowl winner. Staubach won two. Romo hasn’t earned the postseason cred being laid at his feet. This isn’t merely revisionist history. It’s a straight-up trip to Fantasyland. ESPN analyst Ryan Clark figured this might happen. Prescott is competing against an idea — not an actual person — Clark said. “It’s really more the idea of Tony Romo, a concept of what Tony Romo could be, than the person,” the former longtime NFL safety said.
“What’s crazy is people forget how bad we dogged Tony Romo throughout the years. In a lot of cases, I think unjustly, but we’ve talked about him not being able to win in the playoffs. We’ve talked about him never even reaching a conference championship game. All these things have been knocks on him. The biggest reason people listed for saying he shouldn’t still be the quarterback of the Cowboys, even before Dak Prescott arrived, is suddenly forgotten about? And he has to replace Dak because Dak had a bad game? One. Bad. Game. We’ve seen Tony Romo have those games, too. That’s why it’s an idea that Dak is going up against. And it’s hard to compete against an idea.”
A discussion could be had about Romo’s true effectiveness in the playoffs. Many factors contributed to the Cowboys’ repeated postseason heartbreak with Romo in charge. It’s not all on him. In the NFL, though, quarterbacks are their record. That’s how they’re judged. Romo hasn’t gotten it done in the playoffs. As much as the legions of Romo jersey-wearing fans have romanticized Romo’s postseason past, it’s bad. You can’t sugarcoat that. Romo’s lack of durability also is something his backers, including Jones, apparently have all but erased from their minds, too. Including the preseason, Romo has suffered major injuries in three of his last five games. At this stage of his career, forget about Romo navigating the playoffs and triumphantly leading the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. First, Romo must prove he can even make it through an entire game. Dilfer has his doubts.
“As great as Tony is, you can make the argument that he’s not a championship quarterback,” Dilfer said. “He never has won a championship, so that is a realistic argument. Now, that’s not my argument. My argument is that you don’t risk the opportunity to have a six-year run with this kid [Prescott] because he has … one stinker. Great players have stinkers. But what you trust is that they will use those to play better in the long run. And you still have time for him to correct his mistakes.
“The other thing is that everybody who wants Tony back, and Tony does have a cult following, is assuming that Tony is going to come back [to play in the regular season] after all this time, play Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback and stay healthy. They’re assuming he’s just going to step back on the field, stay healthy and pick up right where he left off when he was playing at a high level. Those are massive, massive assumptions. To believe that after all this time, and everything Tony has been through physically, is a massive leap of faith. He hasn’t proven he can stay healthy.”
Let’s not pretend that race has no place in this discussion. A tatted-up, biracial rookie (Prescott is the product of a black father and white mother) ascended to the most important job on America’s Team while displacing a franchise icon who has the traditional look of the overwhelming majority of quarterbacks in NFL history. Race is most definitely part of this discussion.
Prescott is the Cowboys’ first superstar African-American passer. After 14 games and his long list of accomplishments, Prescott has earned the status. A whole lot of black folks will give the side eye to anyone who threatens to topple what Prescott has built so quickly. His success, in their world view, is our success. Even after so many brothers have overcome decades of institutional racism in the NFL to shine in professional sport’s most important position, there’s still inherent distrust in the black community whenever African-American quarterbacks encounter issues that challenge our notion of fairness. Sins of the past still color how many African-Americans process situations. And rightfully so. If Prescott were to be benched for Romo, you better believe many brothers and sisters would be hot about it. And barring injury or stunningly poor play by Prescott over a period of several games, the type of discouraging performance the 23-year-old hasn’t come close to exhibiting, you’d get their frustration. That’s not to suggest that racism, in fact, would be a factor in the Cowboys making a change despite no appreciable drop-off in Prescott’s performance. It’s just that in that scenario, the Cowboys would open themselves up to a bunch of unwanted questions.
For some fans, no matter what Prescott does, he’ll never fit their image of who a Cowboys quarterback should be. We’re not talking about some wide receiver, running back or edge rusher. Those are supporting roles. The QB is The Man. No matter what they may say to the contrary publicly, many white people are uncomfortable seeing black men in positions of authority. Just look at how President Barack Obama caught hell the past eight years. He was opposed for his skin color as much as his policies. With Prescott, you get the sense that there’s an ongoing effort to delegitimize his accomplishments. On sports talk radio and social media, it’s emphasized daily that Prescott benefits from playing behind an offensive line that’s second to none. That league-leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott makes his job much easier. Well, duh. Any quarterback is helped by a great supporting cast. That doesn’t mean Prescott is just along for the ride. He deserves a lot of credit for the Cowboys’ success. Star wide receiver Dez Bryant will tell you about it.
Still in uniform in the home locker room after Dallas’ win over the Bucs at AT&T Stadium, the fiery player left no doubt about his position on Prescott: ride or die. “The guy’s a stud,” Bryant said. “The way he [has] handled himself is amazing.”
Then Bryant pivoted, zeroing in on people who, in his opinion, simply don’t get it. “I’m talking to the fake Cowboys fans. I’m talking to the bandwagons. I’m just talking about everybody,” Bryant said. “First off, just jump off. Jump off. Like, we lost one game. We were 11-2. Like, c’mon, man. This guy [Prescott] put us in this position and you just get to talking crazy. We have one bad game. It’s crazy.”
What’s going down in Dallas has reopened some old wounds. Pioneering black quarterbacks such as Doug Williams know what it’s like to constantly have your credentials questioned. “All this started after they were 11-2. You look at that and just kind of shake your head,” said Williams, the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. “Some things … you know how it is. You just chuckle and move on.”
But you don’t forget. Along with Williams, Moon has seen similar stories play out for years. “African-American quarterbacks have always been judged on a different standard, when it comes to patience and [public] perception,” Moon said. “You always wonder how long they’re going to get if they don’t perform at a high level. Dak Prescott is no different in that. What is different is that he is performing at a high level and still having to deal with that.”
The Romo-ites say it’s not a black-white thing. In the strictest sense, it can’t be: Romo is Latino. He’s of Mexican heritage. When I previously wrote about the Cowboys’ quarterback situation, several readers contacted me to point out that Romo is an ethnic minority, as well. No argument there. It’s also a fact that Romo hasn’t been marketed as a Mexican-American quarterback. Around the NFL, Romo’s background isn’t universally known. By just looking at Prescott, on the other hand, you can tell a lot. Then, there are the things people choose to see.
Joe Montana or Steve Young? That was a key question from an earlier time.
Although the Cowboys long ago cornered the market on multiple high-profile quarterback controversies, the San Francisco 49ers had the all-timer. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Montana-Young debate was big, big news. Montana guided the 49ers to Super Bowl victories after the 1981 and 1984 seasons. In a quarterback league, he was the gold standard. Montana didn’t have a cannon arm like Dan Marino. He wasn’t nearly as athletic as John Elway. But Montana won. And won and won. Think of a Tom Brady for the 20th century. Well-run teams, however, always cast an eye toward the future. In 1987, San Francisco acquired Young from Tampa Bay. It was clear he was the heir apparent to Montana – but Montana wasn’t ready to leave.
Montana led the 49ers to two more Super Bowl titles before the 49ers finally cleared the path for Young, who is five years younger than Montana, to start by trading the four-time Super Bowl winner to Kansas City before the 1993 season. Despite Montana’s injury history and Young’s obvious talent, ownership had an affinity for Montana, which made turning away from him difficult for the club (that sure sounds familiar). Mike Shanahan had a front-row seat for the unsettling transfer of power.
The 49ers’ offensive coordinator from 1992-94, Shanahan played a major role in transitioning the team from Montana to Young, “and let me tell you, it wasn’t easy,” Shanahan recalled. “But in San Francisco’s situation, after Joe got injured, and Steve was playing the way he did, and obviously he was much younger than Joe, the organization made a decision to go in that direction.”
After the 1994 season, Young led the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl title. Both Montana and Young are in the Hall of Fame. “Now, could either guy have won the Super Bowl that year? Yes. I really believe so,” said Shanahan, who later led the Denver Broncos to consecutive Super Bowl championships as a head coach.
“With the way Joe played that season in Kansas City, it was very evident the 49ers could have had two great quarterbacks. But even though Joe was there for a long time and everyone knew what he did, San Francisco decided to go in another direction. When you know you have that younger guy and you’re thinking about now and in the future, that’s what you have to do. Even though you know it will be hard.”
That’s where the Cowboys should be. It’s clear what they have to do. They have a chance to go far behind Prescott — as long as he doesn’t have to keep looking over his shoulder.