As day turned into night Sunday in the marshy wastelands along the New Jersey turnpike, a billowy snow shower began to fall.
Never in quarterback Dak Prescott’s football career — all 17 or so years of it, some of which transpired in Starkville, Miss. — had he played in such frosty conditions.
There was a Dallas Cowboys quarterback, uniformed and coincidentally standing on the sideline, who has. Tony Romo, after all, played high school football in wintry Wisconsin.
But let’s not go there — yet.
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Prescott got the Cowboys this far, the threshold of a division title on a December night against the New York Giants, and it was going to be Prescott’s job Sunday to figure this one out.
To stop throwing interceptions. To settle down and cease throwing so many errant passes.
To start playing, in other words, like the Dak Prescott that the Cowboys have seen nearly all year long.
Did the thought ever cross anyone’s mind that Romo should take over at quarterback, owner Jerry Jones was asked after the 10-7 defeat?
“No, no, no. Not at all. Let me just say that,” Owner Jones emphatically answered.
The weather certainly didn’t help, however, particularly early in the game. Receivers and would-be tacklers slipped in their tracks. Giants quarterback Eli Manning had the misty football suddenly squirt from his grasp.
It also was entirely possible that a bigger problem was the New York defense, which came at Prescott from multiple angles. And while the rookie quarterback was dodging onrushing Giants, the New York secondary also was shackling Cowboys receivers in their tracks.
When receivers can’t/won’t get open, a quarterback can only improvise. And Prescott seemed to have neither the will nor the way to operate on his own Sunday night.
Prescott passed 37 times Sunday night and completed only 17 for 165 yards. It was his lowest completion percentage (45.9) of the season. The two interceptions that Prescott threw doubled his season total. His 45.4 passer rating was less than half of what it was the previous five weeks.
His fault, or the Giants?
Or maybe it was the Giants’ defense, taking advantage of Prescott’s rookie nuances. Opponents have now had 13 games to study him.
“We were very inconsistent with the offense,” Jones said. “But we had that against Minnesota as well. In both cases, I think their defenses were capable of creating inconsistency in what we’re doing, so that’s what we need to work on.
“These last two ball games were a good little road map with what we have to do with our offense to get ready to play teams like that in the playoffs.”
New York defensive backs Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Landon Collins conspired to almost completely eliminate Dez Bryant from the Cowboys’ plans. Prescott targeted him nine times, but Bryant caught only one pass — fumbling it, fittingly, after a gain of 10 yards in the final three minutes.
And though Ezekiel Elliott ran for 107 yards, it wasn’t enough for Prescott to keep the first down chains moving.
Stunningly, the Cowboys converted only one of 15 third-down situations. In their previous game in Minnesota, the third-down conversion total was 1 for 9.
That’s not a glitch. That is a slump. And as Prescott has slumped, so has the Cowboys’ offense.
When you’re on an 11-game roll, as Prescott, Elliott and all the young Cowboys were, it was easy to ignore the glitches in favor of the glossy big picture.
But the team that beat the Cowboys on Sunday night, the team whose defense roughed the visitors up, has now swept the season series from coach Jason Garrett’s squad. The Cowboys still have a two-game lead in the division with three contests to play, but difficult tests against Tampa Bay and Detroit are next.
Can offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and his staff “fix” Prescott in time for the playoffs?
They have no choice, unless Garrett wants to wade into the deep end of the pool and replace Prescott next week with Romo. Or, at least, have Romo ready for the Bucs in case Dak experiences another sputtering start.
As Romo reminded everyone when reading his abdication statement last month, football is a meritocracy. You’re paid to win — and played if you do win.
If the idea ever drifted into Garrett’s head Sunday, he didn’t show it. Romo kept his wintry garb close to his uniformed chest and was never spotted huddling or warming up when he was needed in the fourth quarter.
That’s right. They needed Tony Romo on Sunday night.
They needed someone who has won here before — rain or shine. They needed a quarterback whose passing ability would have been more respected by the shadowing Giants.
When the media pressed the issue with Owner Jones after the game, though, he reiterated hi confidence in Prescott.
“He’s got 13 NFL ball games at a high level under his belt,” Jones said. “What’s he got -- four interceptions now? Four interceptions in 13 ball games? I feel good about our quarterback, and I like what we are at the quarterback position as well.
“We should have asked and wanted him to make the drive that might have won this thing for us tonight. We were within striking distance. I don’t want to make excuses. Most of what happened to us offensively tonight was a well-coached New York Giants defense more than a failing of a player or players.”
No doubt -- the Giants’ defense was outstanding. Playoff ready. But with two games with postseason implications ahead, the Cowboys have to at least be ready to use Romo, should Prescott have another struggling start.
Football is a meritocracy. The rookie quarterback helped crack the door for Romo’s return. No one else.