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The Replacements

An injured Tony Romo is being replaced by a 23-year-old upstart. If this feels more significant than most quarterback competitions, that’s because it is.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Heading into the summer of 1974, Terry Bradshaw’s numbers weren’t really anything to write home about. But he did lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a combined 19–4 record in games he started at quarterback over the prior two seasons, so the job seemed like a lock for Bradshaw, same as it had every year since 1970, when he snatched the reins from [snickers] Dick Shiner. However, opportunity intruded when the NFLPA called for a strike as training camps opened that year. Bradshaw — as well as his backup, Terry Hanratty — honored the strike, cracking the door just wide enough for a third-year pro and two-time All-American out of Tennessee State named Joe Gilliam to get a shoe in. The strike lasted through the fourth preseason game, and that was all then–head coach Chuck Noll needed to determine that Gilliam was The Guy, the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season. It was a designation that incidentally turned him into a symbol: the first Black Quarterback. But after six weeks, reports of drug problems cropped up, issues of Gilliam’s “acceptance” in the locker room arose, as Noll told it, and Bradshaw reclaimed his starting spot halfway through the season to lead the Steelers to a Super Bowl finish.

Though Gilliam’s tale is ultimately a tragic one of failed, and perhaps stolen, promise (coughRACEcough), it raises two questions that seem especially apposite with Dak Prescott’s recent christening as the Dallas Cowboys’ signal-caller. How often does the New Guy wind up being The Guy? And how often does he get to stay The Guy?

For any one of many possible reasons, quarterback competitions captivate. Maybe it’s because turnover at the position happens so rarely. Perhaps it’s because Starting Professional Quarterback is the most coveted job in American sports. But it’s most likely because we so nakedly invest in these guys, taking ownership of their successes and patting ourselves on the back should we choose to stick with them through their failures. It’s not unlike referring to the team you support with the Royal We: You find yourself saying “that’s my quarterback.”

And as sure as parks get overcrowded and driving to the beach at a reasonable hour becomes impossible, every summer we have a new competition — or controversy, in some cases — to preoccupy ourselves with until the season actually starts. Philip Rivers vs. Drew Brees, Nick Foles vs. Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez vs. [Googles] Trevor Siemian, and so on and so forth. But Prescott vs. Romo feels different; like it has the momentum of history behind it.

Prescott is like Gilliam in that both have, or had, a much bigger toolbox than their immediate predecessors. Gilliam had a good ground game, but he also threw for 1,274 yards and four touchdowns as the Steelers leapt out to a 4–1–1 start that season. Bradshaw was so shook about being frozen in second-string carbonite that he angled for a trade to the Oakland Raiders. Similarly, Prescott looks very much like The Future. He has the arm strength and accuracy to challenge defenses vertically — in or out of the pocket — and can also stretch a play out with his legs in the event that shit hits the proverbial fan. (See his 2,521 career rushing yards at Mississippi State, the third most of any quarterback in SEC history.)

Prescott and Gilliam are not alike in circumstance.

To be clear, Bradshaw didn’t lose the starting job, Gilliam took it. Bradshaw sat out on strike for only a single week in the leadup to the 1974–75 season, and therefore was both healthy and present to be looked over until Week 7. In Joe Gilliam: What Could Have Been But Never Was, a documentary released 11 years after Gilliam’s untimely death, Bradshaw admitted that the mantle of Starting Quarterback was handed back to him. “I didn’t earn it back,” Bradshaw said. “I didn’t beat him out.”

Prescott was thrust under center via a different kind of happenstance, owing less to picket lines than to the cold indifference of an unfeeling universe. Last week, perennially great regular-season quarterback Tony Romo went down with his latest back injury in an exhibition game against the Seattle Seahawks that didn’t count for anything. Romo is out for six to 10 weeks, and this feels like when Drew Bledsoe got smeared onto the turf by New York Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, sidelining him with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady stepped in, and you pretty much know the rest. But if you think about the Brady-Bledsoe deal on the second tier, meaning the motivations behind Bledsoe being benched even after he was cleared as healthy, it’s not quite the same situation. Bill Belichick was already smitten with Tom Brady by Week 3 in 2001; Bledsoe’s injury was just a luckless opening. On the other hand, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, until last Thursday, thought Prescott — the 135th pick in the most recent draft — would play the final game of this preseason and then disappear until the next.

The closest and easiest parallel to draw is Russell Wilson, who took over for Tarvaris Jackson in 2012 and became (stay with me) the only other rookie quarterback of the past 10 years not drafted in the first two rounds to be a Week 1 starter. That sounds like a granular sports broadcast factoid like, passes completed under pressure during prime time in October when there’s a light drizzle, but it’s an important one. It’s happened only three times total in 30 years. And, considering how Wilson panned out, it flings a lot of expectation on top of top of Prescott’s already sizable heap of responsibilities.

There’s no two ways about it: Prescott has been electrifying this preseason. He’s got a 78 percent completion rate over three games, throwing for 454 yards and five touchdowns, and rushing for two more. But success in exhibition games doesn’t guarantee the same in the regular season. And even if Prescott’s ability does make the transition, the ineluctable truth of football is that in the intervening time between touchdowns, you have to get stops. However it turned out, the Steel Curtain defense was already beginning to mature when Gilliam’s star was burning. Wilson had the best defense in the league. Prescott has … a defense. Competence on the other side of the ball acted as training wheels for both Gilliam and Wilson. Dak will have the screws put to him early and often.

If we can assume that head coach Jason Garrett will eventually come to and realize that Tony Romo is, at this moment, in a back brace, we can safely say that Prescott is The Guy now. And, being that compression fractures aren’t things that typically get “better” after 36 so much as they get “less bad,” he will probably stay The Guy. Dak could be fantastic. He can back up defenses by picking out Jason Witten over the middle or force-feeding Dez Bryant over the top, then run them into the ground either by himself, or by handing off to Ezekiel Elliott. But whether the Cowboys will build on the augur of 2014, when Dez Definitely Caught It, well, we won’t really know until we know, will we?