IRVING, Texas (AP) — Backup quarterback wasn’t on the list of needs a year ago when Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones thought he had maybe his best offseason.
Tony Romo’s No. 2 is the top priority now after he missed 12 games with a twice-broken left collarbone in a first-to-worst season of 4-12.
It was the biggest drop-off in wins in franchise history following a 12-4 year that included the NFC East title, a playoff win and Jones’ belief that he addressed the biggest weaknesses — pass rushing was the most glaring — coming out of a divisional-round loss to Green Bay.
“I’m just really taken aback by the fact that we’re sitting here with four wins after this year,” Jones said following the Cowboys’ worst season since a 1-15 showing in 1989, the year he bought the team. “Last year you guys made me executive of the year. This year, I’m on my way out.”
Well, that’s an exaggeration because Jones has always said he won’t fire himself as GM. But the reality is that three different quarterbacks — incumbent Brandon Weeden, followed by in-season additions Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore — went 1-11 starting in place of Romo.
There are three ways Jones can go at quarterback:
—A commitment to the future through the No. 4 pick in the draft, although that’s pretty high considering the 35-year-old Romo has at least two years left before salary cap considerations make it reasonable to move on without him.
—A veteran along the lines of former Cowboys Jon Kitna and Kyle Orton, who was paid $3 million per year for two years as Romo’s backup before forcing his way out so he could start in Buffalo. Weeden’s base salary was just $660,000 this season.
—A former first-round pick who flamed out early in his first stop, which was the case with Weeden. Yes, this could bring former Texas college stars Johnny Manziel (Cleveland via Texas A&M) and Robert Griffin III (Washington via Baylor) into play.
“I think it’s the example that we should make our decisions off of, is the consequences and the impact of losing our starter in Romo,” Jones said. “I think this is a great one to put on the wall and say, ‘Now, burn that in your memory, burn that in your thinking,’ when you start thinking about how important backup quarterback is.”
Things to consider with the Cowboys potentially drafting the highest they have since taking Hall of Famer and three-time Super Bowl winner Troy Aikman No. 1 overall in 1989:
THE HARDY QUESTION: Jones and coach Jason Garrett were noncommittal on the potential return of defensive end Greg Hardy. He started quickly after his four-game suspension over his domestic violence case, but was quiet late in the season — on and off the field after creating numerous distractions since signing a one-year deal last March.
“Don’t want to get into any personnel decisions right now,” Garrett said when asked if he wanted Hardy back.
REST OF THE RUSHERS: If Hardy doesn’t return and the Cowboys don’t go after another free agent, they will be looking for an elite rusher among a handful of younger players.
Second-year end DeMarcus Lawrence had seven sacks in the final eight games and finished with a team-best eight. Lawrence’s emergence offers hope that Randy Gregory can follow a similar path after going without a sack in an injury-shortened rookie season.
REPLACING MURRAY: Darren McFadden turned out to be a solid replacement for 2014 NFL rushing king DeMarco Murray, who went to Philadelphia in free agency. But the Cowboys didn’t commit to him as the lead back until the sixth game. McFadden played all 16 games for the second straight season after battling injuries his first six years, getting the second 1,000-yard season of his career.
Running back still figures to be a high priority in the draft a year after the Cowboys didn’t take one even though they let Murray go.
SECONDARY CHANGES: Starting cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne didn’t have an interception; it was the second straight year without one for Carr. It won’t be too costly to release Carr, and the Cowboys already declined the fifth-year option on Claiborne’s rookie deal. With Orlando Scandrick returning after missing all of 2015 with a knee injury, it seems unlikely Carr and Claiborne will return.
Dallas also needs to decide between cornerback and safety for first-round pick Byron Jones, who played plenty of both as a rookie.
LB SHUFFLE: Sean Lee might have to move back to the middle if the Cowboys don’t bring back enigmatic veteran Rolando McClain. Lee led the Cowboys in tackles for the first time since 2011, but the injury question will always hang over him. He has yet to play a full season in six years.