The Dallas Cowboys are in Romo-less mode once again as the new NFL season gets under way, trying to somehow get by without their franchise quarterback. This time, Tony Romo is sidelined by a broken bone in his back suffered during a preseason game.
Yet even on the heels of a 2015 season that came completely undone when Romo was shelved by a twice-broken clavicle, it is not exactly a sense of total dread that accompanies this attempt by the Cowboys to play minus their centerpiece quarterback. It is, for Dallas and its fans, a mixture of disappointment and déjà vu and . . .what, exactly? A pinch of anticipation, maybe? Even a dash of excitement?
That’s because this time, the Cowboys are not turning to Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel, last season’s failed fill-in starters who led the 2014 NFC East champions to just four wins. They have not signed another retread quarterback to plug into the lineup. They are pinning their hopes to a rookie, Dak Prescott, coming off a dazzling preseason in which he looked every bit like the team’s future at quarterback with his displays of pinpoint passing and effective running.
Now the Cowboys will find out whether he can be their present-day solution, albeit by necessity. Never mind that Prescott lasted until the fourth round of the NFL draft. Put aside the fact that few, if any, draft analysts were talking about him in the spring as a quarterback ready to step in and immediately solve a team’s issues. That is, in the Cowboys’ view, ancient history.
“Once you have them, it doesn’t really matter when they got drafted,” Cowboys Coach Jason Garrett said. “You just put them into the program, and you try to work with them every day. And Dak’s certainly done a good job up to this point.”
It will be a storybook moment for the Mississippi State product when he takes the field Sunday against the New York Giants. Prescott rooted for the Cowboys as a kid. His fandom is so deeply rooted that he once vented his social-media frustration at Romo before Romo was a teammate and mentor.
He has had to overcome much to get to this place. Prescott and his two brothers were raised by a single mother, Peggy, who died in 2013 after a fight with colon cancer. Prescott’s draft status was complicated when he was arrested in March in Starkville, Miss., and charged with driving under the influence. He was found not guilty in July.
“Everything I’ve been through, the obstacles – to sit there and to wait on draft day for it actually to come, and then to come to the team that I grew up watching, and then . . . the way things fell in place unfortunately with Tony and Kellen [Moore, the likewise injured Dallas backup quarterback],” Prescott said last week. “But I’m prepared for it. I believe I’m supposed to be here . . . and I expect good things to happen each and every day I come in this building.”
Prescott said during his weekly availability with media members that he has long dreamed about the opportunity that will come his way Sunday.
“As long as dreams are possible in your head,” he said. “A long time. From a little kid, the moment I picked up a ball, I’ve been a Cowboys fan and wanted to play in the NFL. For it all to come [true], I’ll be excited. I’ll make sure I’m ready for it.”
It is Prescott’s mature and professional approach to his craft, Garrett said, that makes the Cowboys believe he can succeed.
“I don’t think it’s changed since we met him,” Garrett said at a news conference. “That’s one of the things we’re most impressed by him. That was the feedback that we got from everybody who had been around him at Mississippi State, the guys that coached him at the Senior Bowl, our experiences with him leading up to the draft and after we drafted him.
“He’s a very professional guy in his approach. He comes in. He’s got a poise and a composure about him that’s beyond his years, and he understands the importance of preparation – how to call a play, how to handle himself at the line of scrimmage. You can tell he’s played a lot of football in his life. But the best thing he’s done is he’s focused on himself and getting himself ready to play each and every day. And that’s been a really good thing for him and for our football team.”
The Cowboys have opted, at least for now, to keep Romo on their 53-man roster rather than placing him on the injured reserve list and activating him from it later. That is to allow for the possibility that Romo could be ready to return closer to the shorter end of the six-to-10-week estimate of his recovery time. For now, the Cowboys simply are trusting in Prescott.
“He’s a smart guy who loves football,” Garrett said. “That’s where it starts. And so he picks things up quickly, and he understands the importance of knowing every detail. And so regardless of what system you’re in, if you start with that, you have a great chance of learning it and growing quickly.”
Everything is different for a rookie quarterback, of course, once the preseason gives way to the regular season and the games start to count. The bland opposing defensive schemes of the exhibition games will be replaced by far more complex looks designed to fool a young passer.
But Prescott does not have to do it all. The Cowboys have a powerful offensive line and a prized rookie running back in Ezekiel Elliott, chosen with the draft’s fourth overall selection out of Ohio State. They can try to recreate the successful balance they struck between DeMarco Murray’s running and Romo’s passing during their NFC East-winning 2014 season.
“They’re always gonna lean on that offensive line,” Giants Coach Ben McAdoo said this week. “It’s one of the best in the league, if not the best. They’ll take their shots down the field. But they’re gonna lean on that line.”
Prescott seems to realize that playing unspectacular but mistake-free football could be good enough.
“Just looking at these guys now, you’ve got Pro Bowlers everywhere,” he said. “You’ve got great, great players, offensive line to the running back in Ezekiel Elliott. . . . I don’t have to do too much. I know that myself. I’m gonna play my game, and it allows me to just play fun, play free and just do the best I can.”
The Cowboys signed veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez upon his release by the Denver Broncos, but turning to Sanchez clearly is not the plan. This is Prescott’s team for now, and the Cowboys can only hope he plays well enough that another season is not lost to a Romo injury.
“At times you look up,” Prescott said. “You see the star. But I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. It’s meant to be. You set goals and you have dreams. But you’ve got to work your butt off to get there. And I think I’ve worked a long time very, very hard. But there’s a lot more I want to accomplish in my life, and this is just another step.”