Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra and will be out for six to 10 weeks, according to the latest reports. That means the best-case scenario for Dallas is that it will get its franchise player back sometime around the season’s midway point, but even that may be wishful thinking: Romo has a history of back injuries — he had two operations in 2013, and two transverse process fractures in 2014 — and the Cowboys must face the grim possibility that he may not play at all this year, or for that matter, ever again.
The keys to the offense will instead be handed to rookie Dak Prescott, and Dallas fans’ first instinct may be to panic. Romo is the Cowboys’ all-time leading passer, with 247 career touchdowns and more than 34,000 yards to his name; Prescott is a fourth-round draft pick who has yet to play an NFL regular-season snap. But the Cowboys shouldn’t have to drastically alter their game plan. The selection of Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in April was, in part, a contingency plan for Romo’s uncertain health. Dallas was around league-average in run-play frequency when Romo was healthy last fall, but look for its emphasis on the ground game to increase in his absence. Elliott represents the Cowboys’ capstone piece to five years of building the league’s best offensive line. Dallas won’t just use the run game as the foundation of its offense — the ground attack will be the offense.
Prescott’s athleticism will allow the Cowboys to add the read-option to their already-ridiculous arsenal of runs. The 6-foot-2, 226-pound QB rushed for 1,574 yards with 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons at Mississippi State, and Elliott has a lot of experience (and had a lot of success) with option football from Ohio State’s run to the national title in 2014. Romo’s injury shouldn’t cause a recurrence of Dallas’s 2015 nightmare, when the crew led by Darren McFadden and Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore ranked 31st in offensive DVOA. That group had a great offensive line, but with Elliott and Prescott operating behind the same blockers, we’ll get a chance to see a fascinating football experiment: Just how far can an elite run game take you?
Of course, the Cowboys will still pass the ball, and Prescott has the luxury of throwing to the platonic ideal of a no. 1 receiver (Dez Bryant) on the outside. And he should see more workable pockets than just about any quarterback in the league in 2016. Over the past few weeks, Prescott has been a revelation; in three preseason games, he’s posted a cool 137.8 passer rating. No rookie has put on a preseason passing clinic this impressive since Russell Wilson beat out big-ticket free-agent signee Matt Flynn for the Seahawks starting job in 2012.
Prescott has completed 39 of 50 attempts (78 percent) for 454 yards (9.1 yards per attempt) with five touchdowns and no interceptions, and has added a couple of scores with his legs. The numbers don’t really do his performance justice, though: He’s shown incredible poise leading the Dallas offense. Bryant called Prescott “the truth” after Thursday’s game against Seattle, when Prescott calmly stepped in following Romo’s injury in the first quarter, and his first play in relief was a 12-yard completion to Cole Beasley on third-and-8. That drive would eventually stall, but on the Cowboys’ next possession, we saw a microcosm of what to expect from this group with Romo on the sideline.
Without its veteran leader on the field, Dallas reverted to its base instinct — running the ball with authority. Elliott picked up 40 yards on five carries, directly challenging and rolling off of Kam Chancellor hits on two of them. Prescott added a 9-yard scamper for good measure.
He then hit Jason Witten in the back of the end zone for a score, capping a seven-play, 81-yard drive against most of Seattle’s first-team defense. He’d finish the outing an efficient 17-of-23 without turning the ball over.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype around Prescott’s excellent preseason performances, but he’s a rookie, and the Cowboys will design an offense that limits what he has to do in the passing game. When they’re not moving the ball on the ground, they’ll run a lot of their passing game through shotgun looks and simplify Prescott’s progressions, giving him quick and clear reads that he can hit in rhythm.
Unsurprisingly, young quarterbacks from college spread offenses often look their best when running concepts they’re familiar with. This includes the use of packaged plays — which Prescott ran frequently at Mississippi State — that give him multiple options (both running and passing) based on where the defense lines up before the snap. We’ll likely see a lot of screens, too.
If the Cowboys offense can stay on schedule on early downs, both with those screen plays and in the run game, that will give Prescott manageable medium- to short-yardage situations on third down, where Dallas can spread the field out and put him into his comfort zone.
Of course, when they need him to throw the ball downfield or attack the defense in less advantageous situations, he has at least shown that he doesn’t lack confidence to do so. His accuracy has been a little bit scattershot during the preseason, but otherwise he’s shown every trait you look for in a pro quarterback.
Through his subtle pocket movement — whether it’s avoiding the rush to keep the play alive, sliding laterally to buy a second or two to throw the ball, or climbing the pocket to step into a throw — Prescott has shown remarkable composure for a rookie.
He’s also shown an ability to throw when, as evaluators put it, staring down the gun barrel: stepping into a pass and letting it rip in the face of an oncoming rusher. Making these throws often means Prescott is going to take a big hit right after the ball is released.
When he’s asked to bootleg off of a play-action fake, he has shown that he has accuracy throwing on the move, and when a play breaks down and he scrambles out of the pocket, he has done a really good job of keeping his eyes downfield scanning for targets. When nothing is there, he has the athleticism to make plays with his feet.
Finally, and this might be the most important thing: Prescott has been aggressive in getting Dez Bryant the ball downfield, often throwing it well before Dez has even looked back for it. Bryant won’t have to worry about Prescott getting gun-shy when he gets lined up in one-on-one situations.
Now, there’s no other way to spin it: losing an All-Pro-caliber quarterback like Tony Romo again is a huge blow for the Cowboys. Expecting Prescott to pick up all the slack in his absence is unrealistic. But after going into last year with no plan B and plummeting to the bottom of the NFC East standings once Romo went down, Dallas has learned its lesson.
For just about every other team, throwing a rookie fourth-round quarterback into the fire as the new starter with just a few weeks’ notice might be an impossible situation. Except, based on what Prescott has shown in the preseason, he’s got a good chance to succeed. He’ll be protected up front by the league’s best line, he’ll have a future Hall of Fame tight end in Jason Witten as a security blanket, and when all else fails, he can throw it to Dez Bryant — even when he’s not open.