Say what you will about Tony Romo’s playoff failures as the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, but the team’s history of being able to win games without him is even more depressing.
The Cowboys are 7-20 without Romo since he took over as the starter in 2006. More important, they were 1-11 when he missed 12 games during last season’s 4-12 campaign.
Now Romo is out at least the first six games of the season with a fractured bone in his back and the Cowboys are being turned over to rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott.
Yet, somehow the Cowboys don’t believe they are embarking on another nightmare.
Credit Prescott’s sensational play in training camp and the preseason as well the team the Cowboys are building around him as the basis of their hope that they will finally be able to win games without Romo.
"Our success without Tony hadn't been good up to this point, but we fully expect to change that this year,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “We fully understand why everyone will question that, but we feel good about Dak. We think our team feels good about Dak. The chemistry is there with the players and that's what we're going to focus on, but we totally understand there's going to be question marks, people are going to question whether we can get that done."
Prescott has done his part by being everything the Cowboys hoped for and more since the NFL Draft. The Cowboys liked the poise and composure he showed at Mississippi State, but had every intent on developing him for the future behind Romo and presumed backup Kellen Moore.
But that was before Moore suffered a broken leg in training camp, making Prescott the primary focus for the backup job. And he has been nothing short of impressive ever since.
He’s completed 39 of 50 passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in three preseason games. Prescott has also rushed for two touchdowns on the ground. His 137.8 quarterback rating is the highest among any qualified passer in the NFL.
Coach Jason Garrett said it’s not just Prescott’s play on the field, but his work in practice and meetings.
“One of the best things Dak has done is he has gone out every day and simply done his job,” Garrett said. “That’s on the practice field and in game situations. He has done a good job leading the unit. He has command in the huddle, command at the line of scrimmage. He has shown he can be a good decision maker. He has shown he can make plays in and out of the pocket, in the system and when things breakdown. He can go make plays on his own. He has shown he can move the ball and help us score points. And he has handled a lot of different situations really well. So he is a mature player, mature beyond his years _ both as a player and as a person. Everyone feels good about what he can do for our football team.”
The Cowboys also believe they have a better team around Prescott than they did a year ago when Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassell and Kellen Moore all struggled in Romo’s absence, despite being more experienced than the rookie sensation.
Pro Bowl receiver Dez Bryant was injured for much of the year with a fractured foot and a sprained ankle. He missed a total of seven games because of a fractured foot. Bryant is back to his dominant form.
The running game should be much better with rookie top pick Ezekiel Elliott leading the way in a strong backfield that includes former Washington Redskins star Alfred Morris, who signed with the Cowboys as a free agent.
The team still boasts the top offensive line in the NFL, featuring Pro Bowlers in tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin.
“Obviously, when Kellen got hurt, we didn't harp on that, we focused on Dak. It's a good thing because he's got in valuable reps here throughout the preseason,” Jones said. “Ask the question, is that going to be enough - are you kidding me - three preseason games where you play parts of it, of course not, not in the NFL. At the same time, he answered the bell and answered the questions as far as the preseason was concerned and we're on to the next challenge for him. I do think there's a quiet confidence in our football team about having confidence in him to come in here. One of the things we did in the off-season was create an atmosphere on the offensive side of the football with our offensive line, depth at running back and our receiving core, tight ends, to take pressure off of Tony and consequently to take pressure off of Dak.”
Said Garrett, “One of things we feel good about is how we have built the football team. On the offensive side of the ball, we have built a big strong, talented offensive line who play the game the right way. We can run the football. We can pass protect. We have tight ends who can be difference-making players for us. We have receivers who we have a great deal of confidence in. We have a running game that we really like. The environment for a quarterback is a good one.”
The Cowboys’ belief in being in able to win games without Romo is about to be tested.