Cowboys’ fans biggest nightmare came true Thursday night when Dallas traveled to Seattle for their third preseason game, better known as the “rehearsal” game. On just the third play from scrimmage, Tony Romo fled the pocket and was awkwardly tackled from behind while attempting to slide to end the play. He immediately went down, turned on his stomach, and held his back in pain waiting for the trainers to come scope him out. Just like that, the Cowboys 2016 season — and more importantly, Romo’s career — flashed before our eyes.
It was an encouraging preseason for Romo while it lasted. Coming off two separate fractures to the same clavicle in a season where Romo played in only four games and finished just two of them, the 36-year-0ld quarterback was in prime position to start the season completely healthy. With Dallas’ offensive line in tack and rookie Ezekiel Elliott ready to handle the load, the Cowboys looked poised to return to their 2014 style of play: run the football a ton, protect Romo by throwing quick passes, and control the game by executing on third down and efficiently scoring on long drives. With one meaningless snap of the ball in a pointless preseason game, that dream turned into a nightmare; Romo is yet again due to miss more football because of a back injury, a narrative that has proven true far too often in his 10-year career.
Romo suffered an L1 wedge compression fracture caused by the flexion force exerted on his back when Seahawks’ defender Cliff Avril landed on him, according to former NFL head team doctor David J. Chao, MD. The injury is likely to be mild, with no nerve damage, and likely won’t require surgery. Once Romo’s healed, according to the well-respected Chao, there shouldn’t be any long term issues or medical reasons he should retire, something Romo is openly against.
With Romo set to miss anywhere from 3-10 weeks of football (likely 6-10), it’s officially “Dak Time.” It’s the beginning of the “Dak Era” according to some fans, who are ready to dump Romo for a rookie quarterback who has shined in about four or five quarters of preseason football, seemingly forgetting what Romo has done in his career in Dallas. I’m not here to take anything away from what Dak Prescott has done in the preseason. Let’s get the record straight: Prescott has been everything Cowboys’ fans could have hoped for and more thus far. But quite frankly, I’m here to pump the brakes on “The Dak Era.” This is Romo’s team when he recovers, no matter what Prescott does with his golden opportunity.
Romo has been the starter since taking over for Drew Bledsoe in a 2006 game against the New York Giants, and he’ll remain as such until he’s incapable of playing at a high level. Some will argue that time is now considering Romo has been unable to stay on the field since his 2014 MVP-caliber season. He fractured his clavicle in week two last year, then re-fractured the same bone on Thanksgiving Day against a brutal Carolina Panthers’ defense.
For Romo, the injuries keep piling up and time keeps winding down. But I’m not ready to turn off the clock, and neither is he. Romo plans to return at a high level despite his age and nagging back injuries that have plagued him throughout the latter half of his career. It’s the fourth back injury that he’s suffered since the spring of 2013, but it’s unrelated to any of his prior back injuries.
Just two seasons ago, Romo led the league in both completion percentage (69.9) and yards per attempt (8.5). He threw 34 touchdowns and only nine interceptions on his way to a 12-3 starting record, and fell just short of the NFC Championship Game (Dez caught it). Romo and the Cowboys were remarkable that season, and their 2016 game plan was surely to duplicate that success by replicating that style of play.
With Romo out, Prescott will now force the Cowboys’ offense into a different approach, one that best fits the rookies raw skills. Prescott is most comfortable out of the shotgun formation, and he adds a read-option dimension to the offense because of his dual-threat skills. The best case scenario for the Cowboys is Prescott winning three or more games before their week 7 bye, allowing Romo to return in week 8 with hopes of finishing the season strong against a fairly friendly schedule. It’s certainly possible, and Cowboys’ fans should definitely have more hope than they’ve had in the last three seasons, when Dallas has gone 1-13 in Romo’s absence.
But make no mistake about it. Romo will still be the starter when he returns. Take this comment from the legendary Jason Witten for some perspective in the Cowboys’ locker room:
Witten may not be the one making decisions, but those who be know that developing Prescott will be a project that requires longer than five meaningless quarters of football. The Cowboys will likely have a much better feel for Prescott and the future of this team at the quarterback position after the first half of the season. But when Romo is ready to return, it’s inconceivable to think they will sit him instead of allowing Prescott to learn more behind Romo and wait for his inevitable chance to be the full-time starter.
So please pump the brakes on “The Dak Era.”
We will certainly catch a glimpse of it this season, but it’s not yet time to move on from Tony Romo in Dallas.