After Thursday night's preseason game against the Seahawks, it seemed like the Cowboys, and Tony Romo, had gotten away with one. Despite Romo's getting knocked out of the game three plays in by a Cliff Avril hit, the injury to Romo's back wasn't serious, according to Romo and Cowboys Head Coach Jason Garrett. Romo's sin, in this case desperately trying to extend a second down play in a preseason game, would be forgiven.
Saturday morning, we found out that Romo and the Cowboys had not escaped judgement. For the third time in four seasons, Romo has broken a bone is his back. This time time, he's set to miss six to 10 weeks, according to the latest from the Cowboys. (The Cowboys have a week six bye.)
This, for the last five years or so, has been the risk with Romo. His body can no longer cash the checks his style of play writes. And that would be fine, if the Cowboys had a decent succession plan in place. They haven't, and it's shown. Since Romo became the Cowboys' starting quarterback in 2006, the Cowboys are 10-23 when he can't play, having suffered through the terrible play of greats like Brooks Bollinger, Jon Kitna, Kyle Orton and last year, Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassell.
When Romo went down during a week two win over the Eagles last season, hopelessness rippled through the team and Cowboys fans. It was justified, too. The team went 1-11 behind Weeden and Cassell, stumbling to its worst record since the Cowboys went 1-15 in 1989.
This year, surprisingly, there is hope. When the Cowboys drafted Mississippi State's Dak Prescott in the fourth round of April's NFL Draft, the signal caller was viewed as more of a project than Romo's heir apparent. As he's worked with the first-team offense at training camp and throughout the preseason though, Prescott has been a revelation, completing 39 of 50 passes and accounting for seven touchdowns. He has moved the Cowboys offense every time he's led a drive and established connections with Dez Bryant and Brice Butler, who looks like he might be developing into the speedy deep threat that Bryant needs to thrive. Prescott wasn't even slated to be Romo's backup when he was drafted, now he's going to start at least the first five games.
Prescott fell to the Cowboys at pick 135 for a couple of reasons. In college, he struggled with consistency on deep passes and often held on to the ball too long in the pocket. He also rarely took snaps under center, something that is essential for NFL quarterbacks. Prescott had potential, but was not viewed as being as NFL-ready as the quarterbacks picked before him on the first two days of the draft.
If Prescott can lead the Cowboys to a 3-2 record in the five games Romo is sure to miss — games against the Giants, Redskins, Bears and 49ers are imminently winnable — it will be a huge momentum boost for the rest of the season. If he can play like he has in the preseason — admittedly, teams run less complex schemes and don't play their starters as long before the regular season starts — that should be doable. The rest of the Cowboys' offense is so good that anything better than terrible quarterback play makes it above average. The offensive line is the best in the league, Bryant is finally healthy and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is the heavy odds-on favorite to be the rookie of the year. If any rookie quarterback was set up to succeed, it's Prescott. Unlike Weeden and Cassell last year, Prescott seems capable of doing more than going out hoping not to get beat, he's capable of helping the team win.
There's another silver lining, too. If Romo isn't out for the season or longer — it's certainly possible that Romo's body simply can't take any more punishment — he could be fresh for the stretch run and the playoffs after rehab. All the team, and Prescott, has to do in the meantime is hold things together.
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