Mac Engel

Cowboys’ QB controversy history says decision needed soon

An unwritten passage for all established members of the Dallas Cowboys quarterback fraternity is to survive the controversy.

Roger Staubach survived it. Danny White did. The same for Troy Aikman. Tony Romo made it through as well.

The first and the third are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The last one has HOF numbers but, barring a J.J. Abrams rewrite to his career, will finish shy of Canton.

So Dak — welcome to the club.

It was 10 years ago this week when coach Bill Parcells said “I’m going to start Romo” and Romo made his first NFL start. Romo Mania began and it did not cease until his famous trip to Cabo with Jessica Simpson before the 2007 NFC playoffs.

Ten years later, the Cowboys continue to quietly celebrate their “drafting genius,” having fallen face forward into Dak Prescott and DFW’s latest QB controversy. Now they must figure out what to do with Romo, who is all but ready to play after rehabbing from his latest back injury.

If anything this franchise’s previous “controversies” have taught us is that coach Jason Garrett will make a decision, and he needs do it within the next few weeks. And it’s going to be Dak.

“If they lose, the players have a crutch and you open yourself up to second-guessing,” former Cowboys running back and player/coach Dan Reeves, who coached three NFL teams, said in a phone interview. “When you make the decision there is a finality to it and no one is guessing who will be the leader. It unites the team.”

Romo will ride out the season here in town — he may even play — and he will enjoy similar fates as the other “losers” in the previous high-profile Cowboy quarterback controversies:

No. 1: Roger Staubach vs. Craig Morton

One of the NFL’s most storied and beloved “controversies” involved the quarterback whom coach Tom Landry preferred, Morton, and the one who was simply better — Staubach.

In 1970, Morton started 11 games and led the Cowboys to Super Bowl V — a 16-13 upset loss to the Baltimore Colts. He did so despite requiring elbow and shoulder surgeries in 1969.

Morton was more of a coaches’ player; he was conservative and stationary. Staubach would break plays, free-lance and scare his coach to death.

Fans, and some of the players, gravitated toward the charismatic Staubach. During the 1971 season, it was not uncommon to see bumper stickers that read “We Want Stauback” throughout DFW.

“I was a player-coach and I was in those meetings and it was a tough decision,” Reeves said. “The decision was split among the coaches. And it was among some of the players, too, because some of them wanted Craig.”

At one point during the season, Landry rotated his two quarterbacks, not from week to week but play to play.

“They had different strengths, but it can be first-and-10 and a certain guy was up when you wanted the other guy,” Reeves said. “Landry saw that he had to make a decision.”

Landry went with Staubach, who led the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title that season.

Because of a shoulder injury to Staubach, Morton actually played for the Cowboys for two more years before he was eventually dealt to the New York Giants during the 1974 season. One of the draft picks the Cowboys received from the Giants was used on defensive tackle Randy White, who is now in the Pro Football of Fame.

Morton eventually settled in with the Denver Broncos and led them to the Super Bowl in 1977. He was defeated, of course, by Staubach, Randy White, Landry and the Cowboys 27-10.

Morton was no bum — he is in the Broncos Ring of Fame. He just wasn’t Roger.

“We had a good football team and both were good quarterbacks; Craig showed that,” Reeves said. “And there’s no question coach Landry made the right decision.”

No. 2: Danny White vs. Gary Hogeboom

This Cowboys QB controversy is often lost in team lore for the obvious reason — Danny White had the unfortunate distinction of not being Roger Staubach.

In 1984, Hogeboom began as the starter, and in the season opener against Eric Dickerson and the favored LA Rams in SoCal, he threw for 343 yards and a touchdown in an upset win.

“Gary played out of his mind,” Cowboys offensive lineman Brian Baldinger said in a phone interview. “He was incredible and I don’t know if he ever did that again. What I remember was that The Dallas Morning News ran a fan poll about who should be the starter — Danny or Gary — and the fans favored Hogeboom. And it was like Landry listened.”

Hogeboom started the season 5-3, but eventually was relieved by White on a team that finished 9-7.

“There was a real split on that team about it because, and not to disparage Danny in any way, Hoge was a team favorite in a lot of ways,” Baldinger said. “It’s not like it’s a real emotional split because players know who the better player is. And from what I remember, Gary just sort of petered out with us.”

The following year, Danny White was the starter even though Hogeboom saw some action; he was traded to the Indianapolis Colts and his career never flourished. White remained the starter through the ’87 season.

No. 3: Troy Aikman vs. Steve Walsh

Aikman was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft, but that did not stop first-year head coach Jimmy Johnson from selecting his former college quarterback at the University of Miami in the supplemental draft.

“There was not a lot of momentum one way or the other because we were so bad,” former Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton said in a phone interview.

Walsh had won a lot of games for Johnson at Miami, so at a minimum the quarterback had a relationship with Jimmy while Troy did not.

Aikman started the season as the No. 1 but was eventually replaced as he dealt with various injuries. The Cowboys’ lone win that season, at Washington, came with Walsh as the starting quarterback.

“We would sit in those meetings with [offensive coordinator Dave Shula], and he’d ask Troy a question and he’d give an answer and Dave would say, ‘Good answer,’ ” Newton said. “Shula would ask the same question to Steve, and he’d answer it, and he knew it because he had run that offense before. Steve had the advantage, but Troy was our quarterback — that [stuff] bothered me.

Nate Newton is not the smartest guy in the room, but if I saw it, you know everybody else saw it. Steve Walsh is a great man, and Troy never said anything, but we didn’t take off until we hired Norv Turner as [offensive coordinator] and he named Troy the guy. When Norv came in, Troy turned into a different quarterback.”

Aikman went on to lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Walsh was traded to the Saints in the 1990 season and played for four more teams until his retirement in ’99.

No. 4: Drew Bledsoe vs. Tony Romo

Bill Parcells was entering his third season with the Cowboys when the team signed the quarterback who had led him to a Super Bowl appearance with the New England Patriots.

In Bledsoe’s first season as the team’s starting quarterback, the Cowboys missed the playoffs by one game; early in the ’06 season it was apparent Bill was tired of Bledsoe.

There was also considerable noise coming from receiver Terrell Owens, not to mention NFL TV analyst Deion Sanders, clamoring for Romo to play over Bledsoe, who in his time with the Cowboys was 12-10 as the starting quarterback.

The team was split over wanting to go with the young guy versus a veteran.

“What I remember was guys like [defensive backs] Terence Newman and Roy Williams always saying, ‘Tony is good. Real good,’ ” former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis said in a phone interview. “Drew was at that point in his career where he was not at the level where he had taken a team to a Super Bowl when he was in his prime. And you had a young guy who really had no credentials.”

At halftime of the Cowboys’ Monday night game against the New York Giants — the sixth game of the season — Parcells had an assistant tell Romo he was playing.

“I knew what I had done. I knew that was what we needed to do and I was ready to find out if this guy was going to work,” Parcells said in the book I wrote about Romo, Tony Romo: America’s Next Quarterback.

“Let’s be real,” Ellis said, “the quarterback position is the most publicized position on the team and when you have instability there it trickles down and it can negatively affect your whole team. It was good when Bill made the decision. You need to know who it is; that way you can stop getting questions about it from the media or fans or whatever and you can just concentrate on football.”

Other than injuries, for the next decade Romo was the starter. He has been named to four Pro Bowl teams, set numerous franchise passing records, and the team routinely fell apart without him, until ...

No. 5 Dak Prescott vs. Tony Romo

A rookie fourth-round pick from Mississippi State, Prescott was supposed to be the team’s No. 3 quarterback behind Romo and veteran Kellen Moore.

But Moore suffered a fractured ankle early in training camp, and Romo sustained a broken bone in his back in the team’s third preseason game.

Prescott has turned into a gift from above; he is 5-1 as the starter and has completed 68.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and one interception.

Garrett said Romo is “still rehabbing” and no decision has been made.

“Everybody in Dallas respects and loves Romo, but I don’t think anybody in that locker room doesn’t think Dak is not better,” said Baldinger, now an NFL analyst. “Look at the way they are having fun and look at the rhythm of that offense. Everybody is involved; we have not seen this from a Cowboys offense in a long time.

“The conversation is — what is the ceiling on Dak and what is the ceiling with Tony? Can [Romo] take us further? There is that faction — when the big games happen let’s put the veteran in. But is there anything Dak can do that Tony can do better? No, so why would you break that up?”

Which is why they won’t.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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