Nobody runs a quarterback keeper quite like Dak Prescott.
When he gets a starting quarterback job, he keeps it.
It happened at Haughton (La.) High School, after starter Matt Smith suffered a broken finger on his throwing hand.
It happened at Mississippi State, after starter Tyler Russell sustained a concussion in the 2013 opener.
And now, as a Dallas Cowboys rookie, Prescott was rushed into action because of Tony Romo’s back injury and has only tightened his grip on the starting job.
At 4-1, the Cowboys already have matched last season’s win total. They play at Green Bay on Sunday, and Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick, will be in the spotlight. With Romo on the mend and expected to be ready to return early next month, Prescott has completed 69% of his passes for 1,239 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In throwing his first 155 passes without a pick, Prescott has set an NFL rookie record.
Suddenly, the Cowboys have the high-class problem of too many good quarterbacks. The team that was lost at sea without the injured Romo last season is now confronting what this summer would have been unthinkable: The fixture or the future?
“I still think Dallas is going to go back to Romo, but I think they’ve got to be smart about how they handle this,” said Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, who will be in the Fox booth for Cowboys-Packers. “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to go back to Tony.’ There are a lot of players in that locker room that probably would question it. Those guys have thoughts and feelings as to how this is played out.”
Not surprisingly, the Cowboys are downplaying the decision, choosing instead to relish the solid start and focus on the present.
“Oh man, nobody is worrying about none of that stuff,” receiver Dez Bryant told reporters this week. “We’re just playing football. We’re doing what we love to do. We can’t control what’s going on outside this building. Everybody wants to talk. Everybody wants to do all that, say crazy stuff, but you know people need to understand those are just people talking.”
At some point, though, the Cowboys will need to make a choice. Romo had an MRI exam Monday that showed the compression fracture in his back had healed. He has begun conditioning work, and this week threw to Cole Beasley after practice.
Prescott understands the big picture. He knows that the richly experienced Romo is 78-49 as a starter and should be ready for the Nov. 6 game at Cleveland. The rookie knows he’ll most likely be asked to step aside.
“This is Tony’s team,” he told reporters. “I knew that going into the situation. I think everybody knew that. I’m just trying to do the best I can to give my team a chance to win week in and week out.”
While the Cleveland Browns and other teams have peeled through quarterbacks, going years and sometimes decades before finding long-term answers, the Cowboys have had incredibly good fortune with the undrafted Romo and Prescott. Before taking Prescott, the Cowboys were hoping to trade back into the first round for Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch (Denver got him), then targeted Michigan State’s Connor Cook (Oakland leapfrogged the Cowboys to take him). Prescott could turn out to be the steal of the draft.
Before the draft, coach-turned-analyst Rick Neuheisel compared Prescott to Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and pointed to the fact the Mississippi State quarterback’s completion percentage made significant jumps in each of his last three college seasons, from 58.4% to 61.6% to 66.2%, with substantial yearly increases in passing attempts, too.
In his first year with the Seahawks, Wilson had 26 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, and ran for four more scores. He was helped by the NFL’s third-ranked running game.
Now, Prescott has the league’s No. 1 rushing game, led by fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott has run 19 times for 63 yards and three touchdowns. That ability to move the ball on the ground makes defenses play the Cowboys honest, typically bringing another defender up close to the line of scrimmage and leaving a single-high safety to play center fielder. That makes it easier for Prescott to find passing lanes.
“Single-high defense creates the most air for a pass offense,” Neuheisel said. “It’s the easiest pass defense for a quarterback. That’s why the NFL disguises so much. They don’t want you to ever know it’s single-high.”
Prescott already has the rookie record for most passes without an interception, and he’s eight away from breaking the record of New England’s Tom Brady, who moved into the starting lineup during his second season and opened with 162 passes without an interception.
The Prescott-Brady connection is fitting, because it was 15 years ago that Brady took over for Drew Bledsoe and thereby launched his legendary career.
Could Prescott-Romo be the next such example?
“All coaches say, ‘We’re going to do what’s best for the team, and all we care about is winning,’” Aikman said. “If you’re winning and you’re making lineup changes when a guy’s playing great, to me that’s a hard thing to sell.”
That’s a sales job the Cowboys might have to make soon. And if Prescott wins Sunday, it won’t get any easier.