Cowboys fans with even the shortest memories probably expected Tony Romo to get injured at some point during this 2016 season. They just weren't expecting him to get hurt before September. For the second time in three years, Romo has broken bones in his back, and while he was able to play through the transverse fractures in his back in 2014, he won't be able to play through the compressed vertebrae he suffered against the Seahawks. Early reports suggest Romo will be out for a minimum of six games, leaving the Cowboys in a vulnerable state heading into the regular season.
One saving grace in light of what has been an injury-filled August is fourth-round pick Dak Prescott, who has been one of the breakout players of the 2016 preseason. Among quarterbacks with 25 attempts or more this preseason, Prescott leads the league in passer rating (137.8). He's third in completion percentage (78.0 percent), fifth in yards per attempt (9.1 yards per throw) and has thrown for five touchdowns without an interception. Toss in two rushing touchdowns and Prescott has arguably been the offensive MVP of the preseason.
Still, the questions for the Cowboys are everywhere.
What have the Cowboys done to put themselves in this situation? Can they work their way out of it? And is their 2016 season doomed before Week 1? I watched Prescott's preseason tape, ran through some numbers, and found some echoes from bad Cowboys decisions of the past still haunting them years later. Let's attempt some answers.
Romo is hurt, but Prescott has looked great so far. So should the Cowboys be worried about their offense?
Yes, the Cowboys should be worried. Obviously, there's no reason to feel worse about things with Prescott playing well; you would much rather have your rookie quarterback look precocious in the preseason than overwhelmed and underprepared. I just don't know how much Prescott's preseason performance means and how well he fits in the offense the Cowboys have run over the past few years.
There's no real history of preseason performance by rookies (or players in new places) having any meaningful value in projecting their immediate NFL futures. I wrote about this very topic in regards to Blake Bortles in 2014 after the then-rookie got off to a sterling start in August. Bortles was a mess during the same regular season. In 2015, Bortles' preseason performance was worse, and yet, he was a much better quarterback during the regular season. During that same 2015 preseason, Sam Bradford was so incredible during a 15-pass preseason that he turned down a four-year, $72-million contract extension.
Raw rookies can look great in the preseason for a number of reasons. One, they're often playing against the opposing team's backups with the second and third strings. Second, the schemes they are running are simplified and nowhere near as complex as the responsibilities they'll be forced to run when the games count. And even more important, the same is true of the defenses they're up against: Preseason defenses are less likely to blitz and regarded as far more vanilla than the stuff they'll show to the opposition during the regular season.
Thanks to Romo's injuries even before this past week, Prescott has spent some time during this preseason with the Dallas ones. He has exhibited all the tools you would want from a modern quarterback, showing off arm strength, a quick release and the speed to get out of the pocket when things get hairy. You can see why Dallas drafted him despite less-than-impressive efficiency numbers at Mississippi State.
But I would be lying if I didn't say the numbers look better than Prescott on tape. He has made some excellent throws, and I'm not a scout, but watching with impartial eyes, Prescott has been inconsistent. He underthrew a fair number of his passes, including the touchdown pass to Dez Bryant against the Dolphins and the score to Jason Witten against the Seahawks, the latter of which was nearly intercepted. Miami also dropped a would-be pick. Prescott has had a clean pocket for many of his throws, and when teams have pressured him, his throws have suffered. Prescott did a good job of eluding one rush against the Dolphins and had a checkdown to Lucky Whitehead that should have gone for a huge gain, but Prescott's throw was off and Whitehead needed to make a shoestring catch without any hope of picking up yards after catch. He also has stared down his receivers at times. There's nothing fatal about those mistakes -- they're the sorts of things rookies do. It doesn't make Prescott a fraud, but his true talent level right now probably isn't as the best quarterback in football, either.
Dallas head coach Jason Garrett also has begun to build a scheme around Prescott that doesn't really look much like the scheme Romo typically operates. Prescott has spent much of his brief time in Dallas (especially against the Seahawks and their No. 1 players) operating out of the shotgun, allowing him an easier, broader view of the field while creating quicker passes on checkdowns. It's the right way to use Prescott at this point of his career, given his reported deficiencies with footwork, pocket pressure and scanning the field through his progressions coming out of school.
Specifically, the Cowboys have installed run-pass options (RPOs) for Prescott to take advantage of his athleticism and identify simple, safe throws to make. Chris Brown, my former colleague at Grantland, wrote about a third-level RPO with Prescott earlier in the preseason, with Prescott reading a deep safety before throwing a back-shoulder fade to Bryant for a touchdown.
RPOs haven't been a notable component of the Dallas offense in years past. They've barely been there at all, in fact. ESPN Stats & Information has tracked zone-read attempts by offenses since 2010, and while it's always going to be difficult to truly track read-option plays without knowing the play call, their estimate is that the Cowboys have run three zone-read plays in six years. Not per game. Not even per season. Three run attempts in 96 games. The Cowboys might top that number on their first drive in Week 1.
The Cowboys are also typically a team which operates under center more than most. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2016, Dallas took 54 percent of its offensive snaps out of the shotgun last year, which was 25th in terms of frequency around the NFL. Lest you think that was a Matt Cassel-driven problem, the Cowboys were at 48 percent the year before, which was 28th in the NFL. Those numbers surely will rise with Prescott at the helm.
There's nothing wrong with RPOs and operating out of the shotgun in a vacuum, but I would be worried about how they will fundamentally change the Dallas running game, and with the Cowboys built to run the football, that's a problem. Remember the case of DeMarco Murray? When he went to the Eagles last year and struggled mightily, the complaint coming out of the Murray camp was the Eagles were forcing him to run the ball out of the shotgun and in a RPO-laden scheme that didn't play to the strengths he had shown in Dallas. Now, having drafted Ezekiel Elliott to serve in the workhorse role, the Cowboys seem likely to install many of the elements that made a back like Murray look ordinary elsewhere.
Perhaps Garrett can find a way to serve all of these masters overnight. Gary Kubiak managed to combine his scheme with some of the shotgun elements Peyton Manning wanted to run in Denver last year by installing the pistol in midseason, and while Manning still struggled, it satiated some of the future Hall of Famer's concerns and awkwardness. That was also with one of the most experienced, seasoned quarterbacks in league history, though, and not a rookie. (The Denver offense also wasn't very good.)
Garrett has talent to work with, and the Cowboys' dominant offensive line will make life easier for Prescott and Elliott regardless of the scheme they run, but this seems like a problem that will be difficult to solve in two weeks. Does Garrett stick with his traditional scheme, build around what is likely to be an incredible running game, and hope that Prescott operates well under center? Or does he build the scheme to make things easier for Prescott, even if it comes at the possible expense of the timing and efficiency of his rushing attack? The answer is somewhere between the two, but I'm not sure which way Garrett will -- or should -- lean.
Is there a chance Prescott succeeds?
Let's just say the odds are against him. It's not just negativity by guesswork, either. The list of rookie fourth-rounders to play regularly in recent years isn't very long or impressive, at least during their debut campaigns. Since 1980, just four fourth-rounders have thrown 200 passes or more during their rookie campaigns. After adjusting for era by using pro-football-reference.com's index statistics, none of the four were above-average even once in passer rating, yards per attempt, completion percentage, net yards per attempt or adjusted net yards per attempt. It's an ugly bunch.
The worst-case scenario would be Mike Pagel (1982 Colts) and Chris Weinke (2001 Panthers). Their teams went a combined 1-22-1 across the two rookies' starts. Steve Beuerlein completed just 44.1 percent of his passes while chucking the ball downfield for the 1988 Raiders, who went 4-4 during the future Panthers starter's eight starts. You can make the case that Beuerlein and Weinke are also dissimilar from Prescott, given that Beuerlein was in his second professional season after missing his entire freshman campaign with an injury, while Weinke entered the NFL at 29 after spending six years playing minor league baseball.
The best-case scenario for Cowboys fans is the most recent one, and it's a player they already know. Kyle Orton was bad by just about every measure during the 2005 season, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns and completing just 51.6 percent of his passes, but the Bears were blessed by the league's best defense and its luckiest special teams. Chicago finished with the league's fifth-worst offense and fifth-worst passing attack and still went 11-5, including 10 wins in Orton's 15 starts.
Nobody drafted lower than Prescott has done well as a rookie, either. The only rookies chosen after the fourth round since 1980 to post a NY/A+ better than league average on 200 or more pass attempts are Marc Bulger and Mark Rypien, each of whom had extenuating circumstances. Rypien was a 26-year-old taking over after two years on injured reserve, while Bulger had spent two years bouncing around practice squads and inherited the Greatest Show on Turf from Kurt Warner.
It's entirely possible that Prescott is the next Russell Wilson, who excelled as a rookie after being taken in the third round, but Wilson fell in the draft because of now-misguided concerns about his height. There aren't the same concerns about Prescott, who was seen as a project coming out of school. Wilson also struggled mightily during the first half of his rookie year before things slowed down for him during the second half, and even that would be too late for the Cowboys. While he might turn into a useful quarterback down the line, it would be a major surprise if Prescott were even a league-average quarterback as a rookie.
Should the Cowboys trade for or sign a veteran backup to compete with Prescott?
We saw what happened with the Cowboys last year, when they sent a fifth-round pick to the Bills in the middle of September to acquire respected backup Cassel, who had been cut by Buffalo earlier in the year before re-signing. Not only did Cassel fail to live up to the lofty heights of Romo, he was even a sight worse than Brandon Weeden, whom the Cowboys deposed after three starts to give Cassel the job. Cassel is probably a better quarterback than Weeden in a vacuum, but the former baseball player had an advantage on Cassel: Weeden knew the playbook. Cassel had to come into Dallas and pick up Garrett's scheme on the fly, which went disastrously.
Unless the Cowboys bring in a veteran who already knows Garrett's scheme -- a list that is limited to my knowledge to Weeden (with the Texans), Cassel (now the backup in Tennessee), Dustin Vaughan (in Steelers camp), and retired former Cowboys like Orton and Stephen McGee -- they're going to be teaching somebody their offense on the fly, taking away valuable time for their coaching staff that could otherwise go to Prescott.
The idea of trading a draft pick for a veteran like Josh McCown now just doesn't make any sense, given the time it will take to integrate him into the offense and the value of picks for a capped-out team like the Cowboys. If the injury had occurred in June, that sort of deal would make much more sense. There's little harm in waiting for a backup to come free at the end of camp or going after a veteran flier in free agency like Tarvaris Jackson or Josh Freeman, but those moves don't exactly augur much confidence, either.
Should the Cowboys play Prescott in their final preseason game against the Texans?
This is a fascinating question, and I'm not sure I know the answer. Prescott needs all the reps he can get as he learns the Dallas offense and gets used to the speed of the NFL game. The Cowboys also need Prescott to stay healthy; as distressing as the idea of turning things over to a rookie fourth-rounder might be, the idea of Prescott getting injured and the Cowboys being stuck with Kellen Moore and Jameill Showers under center is far, far worse.
I can see the argument for both sides, but even if very narrowly, I lean no. The argument about giving Prescott reps is valid, but where Prescott really needs to get comfortable is playing with the first-team offense, and just about everybody in the league sits their starters during the final week of the preseason. Indeed, every one of Dallas' 11 offensive starters were inactive during the preseason nightcap last year. If you want to get Prescott reps with your regulars, you have to bring them all back into the lineup, and that's a huge injury risk for a team that is in this predicament because of injury risks to begin with.
In fact, I think it's more plausible that the Cowboys and teams around the league start leaving their starting quarterbacks on the sidelines for most, if not all, of the preseason. Assuming that he's left inactive this week, the Packers will have left Aaron Rodgers inactive for three of their four preseason games (and would have likely sat him in the Hall of Fame Game if it hadn't been canceled). One of the more valuable non-quarterbacks in the league, oft-injured Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, hasn't played a preseason game since 2012. At some point, the argument suggesting players need to shake loose their rust means less than the risk of irreplaceable stars suffering injuries. I suspect the Cowboys and Romo lean more toward the latter right about now.
Is this it for Romo with the Cowboys?
You could understand if the Cowboys decided this was the moment they were going to stop treating Romo as if he were likely to be their starting quarterback going forward. Romo played at an MVP level in 2014, but he missed the vast majority of 2015 and is set to miss half of 2016 without any guarantees that he'll stay healthy upon his return. The 36-year-old might very well figure that it's time to look toward his post-football future given how he has spent the years alternately injured or undergoing constant treatment and injections just to be able to play.
There's only one problem: Even if the Cowboys are through with Romo, Romo's contract isn't through with Dallas. This is an issue going back years now, so bear with me for a minute. During Romo's second contract with the team -- the six-year, $67.5 million extension he signed in 2007 -- the Cowboys were desperate for cap space and repeatedly restructured Romo's contract to create breathing room. Those restructures turned Romo's base salaries into signing bonuses, paying Romo upfront while defraying much of the salary-cap burden into the future.
By the time the final year of Romo's deal rolled around in 2013, the Cowboys were stuck. Romo's cap hit was set to double from $8 million to $16.8 million, and because there was a clause in Romo's contract preventing the Cowboys from franchising him in 2014, their quarterback held all the leverage. (If this sounds like Drew Brees's current situation in New Orleans, that's because it is essentially identical.) Dallas' cap situation also was squeezed by the controversial penalties imposed on them and Washington before the 2012 season. As a result, the Cowboys were forced to give Romo a massive, player-friendly extension with $55 million all-but-guaranteed over its first three years.
Had the Cowboys been able to stick to those terms, they would have been fine: Romo had no guaranteed money due after 2015, and Dallas could have moved on from Romo after this season without owing him a penny. Romo's deal was so onerous -- and Dallas's cap situation was still ugly enough -- that the Cowboys restructured it during the 2014 and 2015 offseasons, converting a combined $28.5 million of Romo's base salaries into signing bonuses and pushing them into the future.
Those moves tie Romo and the Cowboys together for the foreseeable future, regardless of how either Prescott or Romo perform in 2016. In 2017, Romo has a cap hit of $24.7 million. If Dallas decided to trade its quarterback or if Romo decided to retire, $19.6 million in dead money would accelerate onto the cap, which is a non-starter for a team that already has $185 million in contracts on the books next year. The only way the Cowboys could feasibly move on from Romo would be to designate him as a post-June 1 release, and even that would slap them with $12.7 million in dead money in 2017 before an additional $8.9 million hit them in 2018.
This is exactly why Dallas' strategy of giving its star players lengthy, massive extensions with the intention of repeatedly converting base salaries to signing bonuses is a bad idea. The attrition rate for players -- even great ones -- is too high. Dallas gave an eight-year, $97 million deal to left tackle Tyron Smith and a seven-year, $22.5 million deal to kicker Dan Bailey, two of the best players in the league at their respective positions, but the deals are likely to create problems if anything goes wrong. (The Cowboys could obviously survive the smaller stakes of the Bailey deal, but it's everything wrong with their cap management in one deal: the absurd length and the need to lock up an admittedly talented player at an incredibly fungible and inconsistent position when the team desperately needs cap space.)
The Cowboys, then, do not want Romo to retire, given that the only way they can realize any sort of cap savings is by cutting him. The earliest they can feasibly move on from Romo is in 2018. If they released their longtime starter during that offseason, the Cowboys could turn his $25.2 million cap hit into $8.9 million in dead money (or, more plausibly, $5.7 million in dead money with $3.2 million due the following year). To do that, they'll have to resist the urge to convert any of Romo's $14 million base salary in 2017 into a signing bonus, and to avoid using that crutch, the Cowboys may very well have to, say, cut Sean Lee and Doug Free. It has been years in the making, but the Cowboys have managed to work their cap -- and perhaps their quarterbacks -- into a situation where every possible move seems to be bad.
Do the Cowboys have any hope of winning the NFC East now?
Let's finish up with the most pressing short-term question. Before the Romo injury, I felt like the Cowboys were the favorites to win the NFC East, even while assuming that the veteran starter was going to miss a couple of games. Now, though, Romo's timeline has him missing up to two months, with the Cowboys targeting their post-bye game against the Eagles in Week 8 as the most likely moment for Romo to return. Their schedule starts off relatively friendly, with two division games before matchups against the Bears and 49ers, but then the Bengals and Packers show up to ruin things before that Week 7 bye.
With Romo, the most likely scenario for the Cowboys was that they combined a truly great offense with a very middling defense. That was the case in 2014, with that defense riding the league's best takeaway rate to finish 22nd in DVOA. Takeaway rate can be very random from year to year, and indeed, with mostly the same personnel, Dallas finished with the league's worst takeaway rate last season.
Now, with Prescott taking over as quarterback for what appears to be a minimum of six games, the Cowboys can't count on having the same sort of offense. This should be a team with a very good running game combined with a mediocre defense and a questionable-at-best passing game. That's roughly similar to the 2015 Cowboys. Let's say -- just to throw a possibility out there -- that Romo misses seven games with this injury and one more after returning, and suggest that the defense produces a league-average takeaway rate. For eight games, they're the 2014 Cowboys, and for eight games, they're the 2015 bunch.
The 2014 Cowboys had the point differential of a 10.6-win team per their Pythagorean expectation. The 2015 Cowboys were a 5.2-win team by that same mark. A half-season from each of those teams would produce, with a typical amount of luck, a combined 7.9 wins per 16 games. To call it a back-of-the-envelope calculation would be an insult to envelopes, but it seems fair enough.
While the NFC East does not have a great team, 8-8 probably isn't winning it. To get up to nine or 10 wins and regain their crown, the Cowboys will probably now need a little bit of luck. Romo will need to come back earlier and play at a high level, or the defense will need to force takeaways at a top-five rate, or the Cowboys will need to do disproportionately well in their one-score games. That's my best guess at what the Romo injury means for the Cowboys. Back in May, the Cowboys were the favorites to win the NFC East. Now, they're back in the pack.