The wry smile on Tony Romo’s face suggested he knew what had just happened and what it meant for him. The play he had just watched Dak Prescott make in the third quarter Sunday — a calm diagnosis of a Pittsburgh Steelers blitz up the middle, followed by a nimble shuffle in the pocket and a laser-guided rocket down the sideline — provided the last evidence necessary. Romo’s time as the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback, barring injury, had ended.
It was only the end of the third quarter when Prescott launched a 50-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant to give Dallas the lead, when Romo grinned as he watched the replay. “Well,” he seemed to be thinking, “what are you gonna do?” What seemed like a decisive moment, the start and end of an era, was only the beginning. Prescott would lead the Cowboys on two go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown drives, the final one covering 75 yards in 33 seconds, capped by Ezekiel Elliott’s 32-yard jaunt.
There will be no going back, not after this game. The Dallas Cowboys belong to Prescott, and Romo’s future will have to be figured out later. Prescott led the Cowboys to another road victory Sunday, a bewildering, 35-30 defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field that gave Dallas an 8-1 record, a chokehold on the NFC East and eight consecutive victories.
Romo watched in a hooded sweatshirt, still inactive. But he will be healthy soon, maybe by next week. Prescott put to rest — for now, if not for good — any questions about who will play quarterback for the best team in the NFC.
The NFL, hemorrhaging viewers and providing dull football for so much of the season, desperately needed a game like this. Two marquee franchises and exciting teams traded the lead seven times. The Steelers provided grist for the talk-radio mill by going for four two-point conversions, including two in the first quarter, making none of them. Ben Roethlisberger faked a clock-killing spike before he fired a touchdown to Antonio Brown, who is only the most exhilarating player in the league. Elliott emerged as an MVP candidate after gaining 209 total yards and scoring three touchdowns.
The most substantial development, though, was Prescott seizing Dallas’ quarterback position. Before he out-dueled Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Prescott had already tipped the argument in his favor. But Romo had not yet been cleared to actually play, and he loomed, a controversy waiting to spring up the minute Prescott faltered. That hasn’t happened, and it doesn’t look like it will.
Against the Steelers, Prescott set a new career high with 319 yards while completing 22 of 32 passes. As the offenses traded leads in the second half, Prescott completed 13 of 16 passes for 162 yards and both his touchdowns.
Prescott plays behind the NFL’s best offensive line and has the luxury of handing off to Elliott, the fourth-overall pick in this year’s draft and an utter revelation. As far as quarterbacks jobs go, it’s not a heavy lift. But the Cowboys have coalesced around him with such obvious zest because he delivers when he needs to. From the start, he has made all the plays he should and avoided mistakes — he still has just two interceptions in 280 passes.
As the season has worn, he has continued to expand what he’s capable of accomplishing. Early on, Prescott proved unable or unwilling to throw down the field to wideouts. But he has started to look more often for Bryant down field, never with more assurance than Sunday in the third quarter. On third and seven from midfield, Prescott slid to his left to avoid a linebacker, reset his feet and hit Bryant in stride down the left sideline. In a critical moment, Prescott showed poise, athleticism and accuracy.
When the Steelers took the lead back, Prescott showed even more. He completed all four passes he attempted on the Cowboys’ ensuing, including the final and biggest. On third and eight from the 28, Prescott dropped back and rifled a 14-yard option route to tight end Jason Witten, a perfect pass delivered with perfect timing. It was a vintage Romo play, made by the rookie who has usurped him. On the next play, Elliott dashed in from the 14 to give the Cowboys the lead.
The Steelers responded again, blowing down the field on a drive Roethlisberger finished with the fake spike and toss to Brown. Prescott never flinched. Armed with all three timeouts, he stayed cool and never forced a throw, even after his first pass fell incomplete. He completed the next three passes, moving the Cowboys up the field, helped immensely by Pittsburgh cornerback Sean Davis’ face mask penalty on Witten.
The calls for owner Jerry Jones to leave in Prescott were never as simple as many believed. In 2014, his last full season, Romo was the NFL’s highest-rated passer, went 12-3, threw 34 touchdowns against nine interceptions and gained 8.5 yards per pass attempt, the best rate in the league. He has been the Cowboys’ starter since 2006, and in his last full season, he brought the Cowboys to within a hair of the NFC title game. His benching should not happen easily.
But what Prescott has done has left no doubt. He nearly performed a miracle Sunday. He’ll be starting for the Cowboys next week and for all the weeks he remains upright, and even Romo would have to admit that.