Last season was a wash for Tony Romo. A broken collarbone in Week 2 short-circuited his 12th season in the NFL. It also confined the Cowboys to the scrap heap. They lost seven straight games without him, and when he came back in Week 11, he lasted one more week before being shutdown for the year, along with whatever faint hopes Dallas had left.
This season was supposed to be different. He needed his health to shoulder the heavy expectations the Cowboys brought into training camp. That lasted exactly one preseason game — three snaps to be specific.
But there wasn’t the same level of panic in Dallas thanks to the impressive play from rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott (not to mention first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott and an offensive line that could turn back Genghis Khan).
Prescott’s journey from backup just filling in to one half of a looming quarterback controversy has been a weird one.
At first, the Cowboys made it clear that this was still “Tony’s team.”
Prescott kept playing well week after week, going from a backup who didn’t cost his team wins by making mistakes to a guy who lead a double-digit comeback against a division rival in a primetime game.
Along the way, Romo’s status of sunny prognostications of an early return kept getting doused with cold water and pushed back. It went from “Tony’s team” to a bridge they didn’t have to cross until they came to it. Only now, halfway through the season, does it finally look like the Cowboys are Dak Prescott’s team, and that’s still not official.
Here’s how we got to this point.
Romo goes down
Romo started training camp dealing with back “stiffness” and a lot of talk about his dad bod. None of it kept him off the field, but he got extra rest from the day-to-day grind, which allowed Dak Prescott to get plenty of early work with the first team offense, including the team’s first two preseason games.
He finally made his first start of the year in Dallas’ third preseason game on Aug. 25 in Seattle. Three snaps into it, he scrambled out of the pocket and took a hit from Cliff Avril while he was trying to slide. It wasn’t an illegal hit, or even a particularly hard one, but his back twisted in an awkward way and he walked gingerly off the field and out of the game.
It wasn’t too long after that hit we saw him on the sidelines hopping around and asking to get back into the game. He was even throwing passes.
“We don't think it's a serious thing,” head coach Jason Garrett told the sideline reporter at halftime that night. Jerry Jones said during the broadcast that Romo “wasn’t injured” and that his back was just “tight or jammed.”
Wisely, the Cowboys declined to let him back in the game.
The day after that, Romo was talking up how lucky he was to have avoided serious injury. An MRI proved him wrong, revealing that he had a compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae, a different one than that which he broke in 2014 when he played through the injury. At the time, reports were that he’d be out six to 10 weeks.
Dak takes over
Panic wasn’t what you would have expected in the wake of Romo’s injury. Dak Prescott was impressive enough through camp and the preseason to alleviate much of the panic we expected. The team confidently named Prescott the starter.
Cowboys WR Cole Beasley said rookie QB Dak Prescott "belongs" in the huddle.
"When Tony didn't practice during training camp, Dak got a lot of time with the starters," receiver Cole Beasley said. "He did a lot of the two-minute drills and showed us he could handle it.
"You can read a person's demeanor, and he commands the huddle. It's the way he calls the plays and the confidence he shows. It's like he belongs."
On August 31, news of Romo’s recovery time changed. It was reported that he would miss closer to 8-10 weeks than the initially reported 6-10. Still, Dallas never placed him on injured reserve, instead opting to have the flexibility to bring him back before the eight weeks he’d be required to sit if he was on IR.
But it’s still Tony’s team
Throughout September and into October, the Cowboys sounded upbeat about Romo’s recovery. And they were still making it clear whose team it was.
Team COO Stephen Jones told Peter King on Aug. 29: "“I can’t imagine a scenario where Tony’s not our quarterback when he’s ready.''
In public, the Cowboys’ position didn’t change, but the possibility of Prescott taking over, even with a healthy Romo, began to filter out in the press.
Jones acknowledged the possibility of a Brady/Bledsoe situation in that same interview with Peter King. On Sep. 11, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported that the Cowboys are leaving "the door cracked slightly" for Dak Prescott to supplant Tony Romo (back, out indefinitely) as the starter.
Romo’s recovery was going great, and then it wasn’t
The Cowboys’ brass kept singing a cheery tune about Romo’s recovery.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tony Romo expected to return "sooner rather than later," in a report from the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He added that X-rays showed “nothing that would in any way get in the area of a setback or would show concern” for the veteran quarterback’s recovery.
On Sep. 23, Stephen Jones told the Dallas Morning News that Romo was already throwing the ball and “everything was looking great.”
Positive prognostications continued into October. Garrett said Romo’s rehab consisted mostly of work in the training room, getting his back healthy. All reports indicated that Romo would be ready to play in Week 8, after the team’s bye.
There was a setback on Oct. 10. Garrett told reporters that Romo’s return to full team drills in practice would be “a little bit further down the road.”
The day before that, Prescott had maybe his best game as a pro up to that point. He was 18-for-24 with 227 passing yards with a touchdown and no interceptions as well as a rushing touchdown in a 28-14 win against the Bengals.
Jerry Jones re-emphasized “Tony is out No. 1 quarterback” the same day that Garrett pushed his recovery back from previous estimates.
However, Jones had a new position to accompany his statement, putting a positive spin on it, describing having both quarterbacks as a “luxury.”
Jerry Jones says #Cowboys "will play this thing out" in regards to QB controversy with Prescott/ Romo.— Drew Davison (@drewdavison) October 11, 2016
Delaying the decision
If the possibility of taking over the starting job had crossed Prescott’s mind, he wasn’t acknowledging it. On Oct. 14, days before their game against the Packers, the rookie said that the Cowboys were “Tony’s team.”
Dez Bryant echoed Prescott’s sentiment. “It’s the truth. Tony’s been here, but it’s not for me to speak of.”
By this point, it wasn’t so clear cut anymore for the team’s leadership. The Cowboys were 4-1 through Prescott’s five starts, where he had a 101.5 QB rating, seven total touchdowns (four passing, three rushing) and still hadn’t thrown an interception. Romo’s never played five straight games without an interception.
If Dak wins Sunday is he starter going forward? Jerry Jones: "I don't know if I'd look at it that way...There's nothing simple about this."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 14, 2016
He finally threw a pick against the Packers in Week 6, but he also threw three touchdown passes in a convincing 30-16 win.
The morning before that game, the Cowboys gave themselves even more room to postpone the inevitable Romo/Dak decision when Ian Rapoport reported that they wouldn’t consider starting Romo until he was 100 percent healthy.
With the bye week, the story died down for a little while. On Oct. 27, Romo was back at practice, officially, for the first time since training camp, albeit in a limited capacity. He was ruled out for Week 8’s game against the Eagles.
Prescott struggled that week, completing less than 50 percent of his passes, against a relentless Eagles blitz.
However, before columnists could crank out their 1,000-word cases clamoring for Romo’s return, he came through when the Cowboys needed him, throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Bryant with three minutes left in regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime.
In the extra frame, Prescott and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott drove the Cowboys down the field from their own 25-yard line on the opening possession. Prescott was a perfect 5-for-5 for 56 yards, hitting Jason Witten on second-and-5 from the Eagles’ 5-yard line for the game-winner.
Unofficially making the switch official
The word in Dallas now is that the Cowboys don’t know when Romo will be ready to play again. Jerry Jones maintained following the Eagles game that he still wasn’t ready.
More interesting was the fact that he put that call on the head coach.
“That is subject to Jason Garrett making the decision. But as far as the health issue is concerned of Tony, there is no need to push it that fast.”
Garrett wasn’t in any mood to push it either: “We’ll take it day by day and see how he’s doing with his rehab.”
Romo was throwing again at practice this week, despite being officially ruled out against the Browns. Bryant talked up how good Romo looked too, calling him a “little missile.”
Others have said that Romo looks as if he could play now, but the team maintains that he’s still not quite ready to play. The latest report on Sunday, Nov. 6, had Jerry Jones excited that Romo was getting healthier.
The Cowboys know that day is going to come ... eventually. At the beginning of the week, on Nov. 1, the elder Jones put Romo’s return “near the end of the year.” On Thursday, Stephen Jones acknowledged that “when he’s ready to go that, at some point, we are going to need him.”
Dallas might very well need Romo, but that’s a vague enough statement to cover a lot of possibilities.
This is a team that’s needed its backup quarterbacks before, when Romo was hurt. Now, they’ve found their quarterback of the future who also happens to be entrenched as their quarterback of the present.
Nine weeks into the season, with a 7-1 record that’s the best mark in the NFC, it would be hard for the Cowboys to replace the quarterback who helped get them there. He was dominant against the Browns, breaking Troy Aikman’s franchise record for touchdown passes by a rookie and becoming the first quarterback in NFL history with a passer rating of 100 or better in six of his team’s first eight games.
More importantly, it’s become clear that he’s the team’s leader. Even Dez Bryant acknowledged as much after this week’s win in Cleveland.
"You want to be very mindful of what you've got going, which right now we've got a lot of chemistry going," Jones said Tuesday on his weekly radio appearance. "That has got to be really recognized if you're making a decision."
Sound familiar? It should, because that’s essentially what Cole Beasley said about Prescott back in August, “it’s like he belongs.”
By Friday, Jerry Jones acknowledged that he sees the 36-year old Romo active again “in the near future.” More importantly, he floated for the first time the idea of a healthy Romo behind Prescott.
Monday, Jones changed his tune. “Unlike last week, I wouldn’t speculate,” he said. He added that Romo’s stronger with another week under his belt, and when asked about his workload, he said, “I don’t know, but he will do more. And he’s really doing things that are strong, relative to last year – his strength is ahead of last year.”
“I think Tony Romo is one of the best quarterbacks that have played this game,” Jones said. “My real regret would be to have had him here and not won a Super Bowl with him – he’s that talented. Then I look at Dak and how he’s playing, his future – I just don’t have a problem with his situation.”
* * *
No decisions have been made, officially, and the Cowboys are leaving themselves plenty of room to do whatever it is they feel they need to when Romo is healthy enough to play.
Dallas is favored by a full touchdown against Cleveland in Week 9. It’s unlikely that Prescott would force their hand on a decision because of that game. After that, there’s still half a season to play.
Even if the rookie does struggle in a game and even with all the flexibility the Cowboys have given themselves over the last two months of waiting for Romo to get back to 100 percent, it gets harder and harder to give Prescott the hook if he plays one bad game. He’s cemented his place in the huddle, in the locker room, in that delicate mix of ingredients that goes into the “chemistry” that Jones referred to last week.
The Cowboys are Dak Prescott’s team now.