Around the time Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner not exactly known for his patience and reasonable expectations, was finishing an impromptu news conference in a FedEx Field hallway Sunday, Coach Jason Garrett was beginning his post-game remarks.
Jones had, over the course of 17 minutes or so in that hallway, invoked the names of a few other quarterbacks when describing his thoughts on rookie Dak Prescott, who had just beaten the Washington Redskins and who, in one way or another, reminded Jones of Tom Brady, Troy Aikman, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger.
Garrett was more measured, though that didn’t take much. He praised Prescott’s poise and leadership, along with the young quarterback’s maturity and physical gifts. The young passer has yet to commit a turnover, and true enough, the Cowboys might have uncovered a gem this past spring in the fourth round of the NFL draft.
“You put all those things together,” Garrett said of Prescott’s abilities, “and you feel good about where he is and all aspects of the game. Now, we’re two weeks into this and we’ve got to understand that.”
Prescott – the 6-foot-2, 226-pound passer who made Mississippi State a must-follow program the previous two years – has indeed been the story of these first two weeks. Aikman and former Coach Jimmy Johnson are impressed by Prescott, and receiver Dez Bryant on Sunday called his quarterback “extremely amazing.” If Garrett is cautiously optimistic on his rookie, Jones can barely conceal his excitement. He likes Prescott – really likes him – and watching Jones get prematurely revved up about a new quarterback simultaneously makes the Cowboys’ season more interesting while intensifying pressure on Prescott, Romo and, most of all, Garrett.
Already there are rumors Prescott has stolen the starting job from Romo, who suffered a broken bone in his back during a preseason game. He has pledged a return, but the end nevertheless seems near for the 36-year-old, who has missed all but four regular-season games the past two seasons. With that in mind, the Cowboys selected not only Prescott but Ezekiel Elliott, the former Ohio State running back who’s one of the best blocking backs of the past decade, as it began preparing for Romo’s career twilight.
Jones wouldn’t say Romo is finished, though, insisting for now the Cowboys’ offense is better with Romo -with his uncanny ability to read defenses and make pre-snap adjustments – under center. He also wouldn’t say when Romo might be healthy; though he was initially estimated to return around midseason, Jones told reporters after Sunday’s game that the veteran passer was examined Sunday but remained in the early part of his recovery protocol. The veteran’s return, Jones said, hinged on Romo’s “own ability to heal, his own ability to tolerate” pain.
Whenever that threshold is reached, a decision awaits the Cowboys – return the reins to Romo, a franchise passer and a face of the franchise, or move on from him in favor of a rookie? It’s a crossroads Jones will be involved in, but one Garrett will have to make work.
Six years ago, Garrett was a beneficiary of Jones’s famed reactionary nature. The Cowboys fired Wade Phillips in 2010, and Garrett – himself a former Dallas quarterback – became the team’s seventh head coach since 1993. He inherited a talented and overachieving quarterback in Romo but not much else.
Perhaps Garrett’s most impressive feat since taking over has been his ability to survive – he’s the longest-tenured Cowboys coach since Tom Landry, who last walked the Dallas sideline in 1988 – despite reaching the playoffs twice and accumulating a 45-43 record entering this season. Johnson, Barry Switzer, Bill Parcells — none, despite high profiles and in Johnson’s and Switzer’s case, Super Bowls, could coexist with Jones more than five years.
Garrett, though, somehow won the patience of Jones, who acts as his team’s general manager, and, eventually, his trust. Alongside Stephen Jones, the team’s top executive and Jerry’s eldest son, influenced disciplined player selections when Jerry wanted to constantly swing for the fences.
Dallas passed on Johnny Manziel two years ago – one report suggested Jerry Jones had to be “physically restrained” from taking the Heisman Trophy winner – and instead went with guard Zack Martin – who has since become a two-time Pro Bowler while Manziel is out of football. They cut ties with running back DeMarco Murray after he led the league with 1,845 yards (and 392 carries) in 2014; a salary-cap casualty in Dallas, Murray looked nowhere near as dynamic last season in Philadelphia.
The Cowboys constructed perhaps the league’s best offensive line, playing the long game and using restraint unseen in Dallas in a generation. In a strange way that very philosophy is what could funnel Garrett toward this next career-defining decision.
Looking beyond Romo, who suffered collarbone injuries last year and missed a dozen games, the team seemed committed to avoiding another 2015 nightmare; under Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden and Kellen Moore, the Cowboys went 2-14.
So they played the long game again, hoping Romo would be healthy but selecting Prescott, perhaps his eventual replacement, in the fourth round. They planned to develop a home-grown quarterback, something Dallas hadn’t done with any success since Aikman. They liked Prescott’s size and mobility, the way he seemed to retain information after one study session and how he never seemed to get rattled. He had led Mississippi State to the nation’s No. 1 ranking in 2014, became used to being a local celebrity – though nothing can prepare a young man for being the Cowboys starting quarterback – and was committed to keep learning and improving.
“I focus on the moment, focus on the day,” Prescott said Sunday, and that attitude seems to have defined his college career and, so far, his brief career as an NFL starter.
And so there he was in late August, when Romo slammed into the turf in Seattle, reached for his back and barely moved. Prescott warmed up, entered the lineup and began making impressions on fans, his teammates and the Cowboys’ coaches.
“He’s been very impressive,” Garrett said, “from a poise and composure standpoint from day one.”
Jones wasn’t quite so measured. Like Brady and Romo, he reminded reporters, Prescott wasn’t a high-round draft picks. Like Roethlisberger, Prescott is that a rare mix of size, speed and instincts. And unlike Aikman, Prescott is gaining traction with a ready-for-primetime offense, gaining teammates’ trust after two games.
So, yes, the Cowboys owner likes what he sees, which lights the fuse on what could be the most interesting decision of the 2016 season. Bench Romo in favor of a rookie, unseen a month ago, as a franchise quarterback? Or gamble once more, potentially disrupting team chemistry by sending Romo back into the huddle?
“Playing quarterback in the NFL is a lot about dealing with pressure,” Garrett said, and he surely knows by now that the same can be said for coaching the Cowboys.
That is especially true when Jones is excited, which never leads to boredom. He’ll surely influence the team’s decision at quarterback. But it’ll be Garrett alone who, when the time comes, will have to make it work. Or, if it fails, he’ll be the man who will have to live with the consequences.