Dak Prescott will not lead the Cowboys to Super Bowl LI.
No matter how infatuated you’ve become with the hottest signal caller in the Lone Star State, at this point you must have more than some awareness of this fact: a rookie QB has never made, let alone won, a Super Bowl.
“But records were meant to be broken!” you say, adamant that this 23-year-old beacon of hope from Sulphur, Louisiana, can end the title-shot discrimination against first-year quarterbacks.
While it’s not my place to tell anyone how to dream, there’s no realistic chance that happens. Let’s play out a scenario.
Cut to Erin Andrews interviewing an exhausted, but elated Dak Prescott, following the no. 3-seeded Cowboys’ dominant Wild Card win over, I dunno, let’s say … Washington.
“Dak, what a performance in your first playoff game! Seven touchdowns on the field, and you also helped two missing children find their parents at halftime! How do you explain such a performance?”
“My teammates are great, my coaches are great, everyone but me is great. I am humble.”
“Wow, you are so humble! I hate to take you out of this moment, but let’s talk quickly about next week. You guys will now have to travel to Seattle on Saturday to try to keep this run going. Coming off the biggest win of your life, how do you turn around and prepare to face one of the best defenses of this generation, in an environment louder than anything you’ve ever experienced, with the national media spending all week telling you you’re great, and equipped with the knowledge that virtually any questionable call will go the Seahawks’ way?”
“Ummmm…” (Dak stares off into the distance, visibly nervous. The Fox camera doesn’t pick it up, but a little pee runs down his leg.)
For all the situations a player gets exposed to in his rookie year, none can prepare you for a playoff run, where every game grows in magnitude and every opponent is better than the last. The playoffs are a cruel beast to all newcomers, regardless of how many seasons of NFL experience they have. The last quarterback to win a Super Bowl in his first year in the postseason? Some little unknown backup out of Michigan named Tom Brady.
Before you go pointing out the similarities between Brady (who replaced Drew Bledsoe) and Prescott (who’s replacing Tony Romo), I’m going to stop you. The 2001 Patriots had a lot of things going for them that this year’s Cowboys haven’t shown. Most notably was an above-average defense: the Pats ranked 13th in defensive DVOA; Dallas currently ranks 25th. They also had that Bill Belichick guy coaching, which some would call a small upgrade over Jason Garrett.
Even with those advantages, New England still needed a ton of things to go right to lift the Lombardi Trophy with an inexperienced QB leading the way. Things like: the enforcement of the obscure Tuck Rule in the divisional round, a relief effort from then-backup Bledsoe in the AFC title game, and one of the most underrated defensive performances in Super Bowl history.
For a rookie to lead a sub-par defensive team through (potentially) three playoff games, while leaning on the run game provided by another rookie … yeah, I think there’s good reason to be skeptical about Prescott taking the Cowboys to Houston this year.
But just because Romo gives Dallas a better chance to win in Seattle in January, that doesn’t mean he should automatically go back to being the starter. While Romo gives the Cowboys better title odds for 2016, Prescott gives the 2017-2020 Cowboys hope.
The Case for Keeping Prescott a Starter
They say you can’t win in the NFL without a good starting quarterback, hence why teams are devoting an average $16.4 million in cap space to the position. So you know what’s a true asset? Having a great quarterback playing on a rookie salary, especially a mid-round pick, like Prescott or Russell Wilson before him.
The Super Bowl champion 2013 Seattle Seahawks devoted just 1.14-percent of their cap to the quarterback position. This massive competitive advantage allowed them the flexibility to upgrade their defense with players like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, and make trades for playmakers like Percy Harvin. It also meant a little more freedom to pay their own guys when free agency came around.
Since Wilson began commanding money commensurate to his skill level, we’ve seen the effect it’s had on the Seahawks’ roster. Their offensive line has weakened, and they’ve had to let defensive playmakers walk. They’re still a Super Bowl contender, but it certainly looks like their best days are behind them.
Dallas could have a two or three year window to capitalize on the value Prescott’s tiny contract provides; but that deal is only valuable if he’s actually a capable quarterback. Are you ready to make the call after a six-game audition against some not-great opponents? Sure, his numbers are outstanding – 1,486 yards, 68.7 completion percentage, seven touchdowns to just one interception – but if I’m Jerry Jones, I want to see how the kid responds after a bad game, how he handles a lockdown D like Minnesota, if he can sling it as well in a chilly December game as he can in a warm September one.
Rolling with Prescott for a little while longer allows the Cowboys to better evaluate what they have in him. And if he continues to do well, it has the added bonus of keeping the glass-boned Romo healthy behind him. Since there’s no real advantage to having a starting QB make so little if his backup has one of the 20 largest contracts in the league (some Cowboys fans may need to stop reading now), there’s no reason for Romo to be on the team next year.
Despite being 36 years old, as long as Romo is healthy, he’d be the hottest trade commodity in the NFL. (Can’t you see Mike Maccagnan offering his own kidneys to get the Jets a QB?) Not only would he likely fetch a nice return, but having next season’s $24.7 million cap hit off the books would help when free agency rolls around. With all their suspended players returning and that kind of money to play with, this unimpressive defense could climb the ranks quickly.
Finally, in this hypothetical, let’s imagine Prescott keeps it up and Dallas does get into the playoffs. That’s arguably the most important part of the season, getting him some playoff experience. For all non-Brady quarterbacks, it’s the most valuable asset. Sitting on the bench as Romo’s backup won’t help the kid understand what playoff football is. Did it help Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, or Brian Hoyer? There’s no replacement to calling the shots in that kind of environment.
The best thing for Dallas is to have Prescott lead them out of the tunnel in January, no matter what happens after that, even if Seattle kicks their butts by 30. Can you imagine the kind of focus Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and the rest of this team would enter the offseason with after a humbling like that? A young offensive core with big-game experience, an improved defense led by the return of DeMarcus Ware (I’m going all out in this hypothetical), why wouldn’t the 2017 Cowboys be a Super Bowl favorite?
In sticking with Prescott over Romo at quarterback this season, Dallas would bypass a much better chance at Super Bowl LI for the opportunity to potentially begin a dynasty next year.