The Dallas Cowboys' worst nightmare has been realized.
Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo has been sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his back, a compression fracture to the L1 vertebra, per a source. Surgery is not required.
Romo is expected to be sidelined six to 10 weeks, per sources, though coach Jason Garrett refused to put a timetable on his return.
Garrett even declined to rule Romo out of the Sept. 11 season opener against the New York Giants because Romo has played with fractured bones in his back before. Garrett made it clear that Romo’s season is not jeopardy.
“We’re going to monitor his condition day by day and we’ll see how he feels going forward,” Garrett said. “There’s no time frame when he’s going to return. We are confident he is going be coming back and playing football for us this year.”
Romo’s most likely return is the Oct. 30 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles, putting him out for the first six games of the season, according to a source.
Rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott will take over until Romo returns.
The 13-year veteran is disappointed in missing games to start the season one year after missing 12 games during the Cowboys 4-12 finish in 2015. Romo will support Prescott in the interim.
“He's driven for this not to be like last year,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “He's certainly not deterred and he's really feels like it's going to be different, it's going to be able to get through this and he also feels confident that our team will be able to win games while he's not here. He's driven to help Dak win football games for us so when he gets back that he have a great chance to have a great season, get in the tournament and contend for a championship, nothing's changed."
Romo suffered the injury on the third play of Thursday’s 27-17 preseason loss to the Seattle Seahawks when he was sacked by defensive end Cliff Avril.
He stayed on the ground for a few minutes in pain before walking off the field on his own power. The pain dissipated and Romo tried to lobby to go back in the game. Garrett kept him on the sidelines out of precaution.
After the game, the Cowboys and Romo thought they had dodged a bullet. He felt fine and seemingly hadn’t suffered a serious injury.
But he woke up Friday morning in discomfort as his back stiffened up on him, resulting in a magnetic resonance imaging exam. They learned of the fractured bone Friday night.
Romo, 36, has not played a full season since 2012. He underwent two back surgeries in 2013. He missed two games in 2014 with fractured bones in his back. He missed 12 games in 2015 after twice fracturing his collarbone.
Garrett said Romo’s past injuries had no relation to Romo’s current situation and his ability to play with two fractured transverse processes in 2014 gives them hope he can return sooner than later.
“Again, it's not related to the other back issues that he's had (and is) very specific to the hit he took the other night at the game,” Garrett said. “He has played with fractures in his back before. That more than anything else is not giving us a time frame. We have heard a wide range of possibilities. We have to monitor it day by day and see how he responds. It’s a matter of the bone healing and Tony being able to function with this injury. He has done that before. We are all optimistic he will be back soon and be ready soon and play at high level for us.”
Garrett broke the news to the team after practice Saturday morning.
“Jason called us together and let us know,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “I don’t think it’s something you can really be prepared for.
“It’s bad news either way it goes. He is a big part of this team. Losing him is tough. We are putting our faith in Dak to get the job done while Tony heals up.”
Center Travis Frederick said the injury was a surprise to the team even though Prescott took reps with the starters in place of an absent Romo.
"Still trying to take it in a little bit," Frederick said. "The name of the game for us has always been focusing on taking things one day at a time and also have the 'next man in' mentality. Being able to have Dak step up and be able to take over that role and just support him in any way that we can."
Prescott has had a sensational preseason. Prescott has completed 39 of 50 passes for 454 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He has also rushed for two touchdowns. His quarterback rating of 137.8 in three games is the highest in the NFL.
The Cowboys were 1-11 without Romo last year and are 7-20 without him since 2006.
"Of course our success without Tony hasn't been good up to this point, but we fully expect to change that this year," Jones said. "We fully understand why everybody is going to question that, but we feel good about Dak (Prescott). 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 and people are going to question whether we can get it done."
Jameill Showers is currently the third quarterback, but the Cowboys will look to add a veteran to back up Prescott until Romo returns. Neither Showers nor Prescott has thrown a pass in an official NFL game.
"Obviously our focus will be on Dak in terms of the first part of this season,” Jones said. “We need to win football games and when Tony gets back, certainly will be good to have him back. It's unfortunate he's not here right now, but for the meantime we'll look if there's a backup out there that could be the right guy in terms of what we're doing in Dallas."