He predicted it.
When Tony Romo injured his back in the preseason and it was clear he would miss at least eight games, he watched rookie quarterback Dak Prescott command immediate charge. Romo’s shoulder injuries the prior season had left Dallas in shambles en route to a 4-12 record.
Before Prescott’s first regular-season snap, Romo told Cowboys executive Stephen Jones that Dallas would not drown again.
"At the offset," said Jones in a telephone interview from Dallas on Thursday morning, "Tony said we were in a better situation than last year. He said, ‘I think Dak can win at least half of these eight games and go at least 4-4.’ And then he said, ‘If he wins them all, changing back to me is going to be hard to do. But we’ll cross that river when it happens.’"
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Prescott did not win them all. But he won eight straight. Dallas is an NFL best 8-1.
Romo worked his way back from injury, is healthy now and during the process thought that his return as Cowboys starter would, indeed, happen. But there will be no unforced turn back to Romo. Dak Prescott is the guy.
Romo was told this last week before Dallas won at Pittsburgh.
"Jason (Garrett, the Cowboys head coach) had the talk with Tony first last week," Jones said. "Tony told Jason he understood that it was probably the only way to do it. It was an open conversation about the quarterback job. He understood.
"Then Jerry (Jones, the Cowboys owner) and I talked to Tony about it last week after his meeting with Jason. We have tried to stay on the same page every step of the way. When Tony said in his speech this week that sometimes he felt like an outcast, we did our best to do the opposite with him. Tony epitomizes team to me. He is a fiery competitor, top of the list. He understands a hot hand and the right chemistry. No one knows more than him how hard it is to go 8-1."
Romo was told last week. Possibly there was a glimmer of hope inside him that this new reality could subside. But after Prescott and Dallas won dramatically at Pittsburgh, this situation was further cemented. Romo decided to step forward and show his painful acceptance.
It is crushing for Romo. His news conference on Tuesday showed it.
He has been the Cowboys’ starting quarterback for the last 10 years. He owns a bushel of Cowboys passing records. With the prowess of Dallas’ offensive line, with the addition of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, with receiver Dez Bryant healthy, this would be Romo’s best offense, he thought. This would be his best team.
It is one of the reasons he said Tuesday that this situation has taken some "soul-searching" and put him in a “dark place, darkest I’ve ever been.”
“It’s not always easy to watch,” Romo said before acknowledging, "something magical is happening for our team." He promised to be an equipped backup.
In nearly 30 years of Cowboys ownership, Stephen Jones said his family has experienced nothing like this. They believed from the start that Prescott was more than capable in the regular season but that Romo clearly gave them the best chance to become champions.
But a river of change tore through that.
"It was a freak injury for Tony this year, very difficult for him," Stephen Jones said. "It’s just kind of how things have evolved. Dak has been able to walk in and check each and every box. It’s not normal for a rookie to pull that off. He’s brought us back in a game where we were down by two touchdowns. He’s had bumps in games and he’s done it at the end. The win at Pittsburgh speaks for itself. He’s just had a way of getting respect. Respect from Jason, from Dez, from all of us. He is a unique and gifted guy in terms of gaining respect."
Even from Romo, despite the sting.
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A quarterback’s play is the primary thing, but an ingredient not easily identifiable is also crucially important. It’s respect and that feeling among the team of belief and endearment in the quarterback. The combination can be powerful.
Romo had that in the Dallas locker room, superior to most current NFL quarterbacks.
Prescott’s amazing achievement, beyond his on-field success, is his duplication of that intricate, complex, elusive, desirable, and enviable trait.
"That’s right on the nail there," said Jones, "because that’s the ‘it’ factor that is so hard to find in a quarterback. When you are scouting, every college coach will talk up his quarterback. You just didn’t know how special and unique Dak is in that area, the league didn’t know and even we didn’t know because we didn’t even draft him until the fourth round. You just can’t learn that until you draft them and you get your arms around them.”
Prescott will look for more against the Baltimore Ravens (5-4) on Sunday at home. He will look to push Dallas to a ninth straight victory, knowing he is the guy. He is the latest symbol in Dallas, along with Elliott, that the Cowboys have built a lifeblood, a potent team through the draft.
Look at what has happened to Romo, and its easy to understand why quarterback Tom Brady’s passion to play never wavers, why an accomplished quarterback like Drew Brees never wants to miss a snap. A river of change can sweep through the NFL, through a team, in a blink. Your job this morning can be another’s by this afternoon.
"Dak has an insatiable appetite to learn, an insatiable appetite for knowledge," Jones said. "He wants it, wants it, wants it. We don’t have a crystal ball. But we have a chance with two great quarterbacks. There is no sense in speculating on four weeks from now. That’s not how we got where we are right now. Right now, we are focusing on the Baltimore Ravens. But we do know this -– if we need Tony Romo, he’ll be there, ready to answer."
A river was crossed in Dallas — and it is still winding.