The Prescott-Romo debate is over before it began
In the end there was no controversy.
Before it even had time to gather pace, the great Cowboys quarterback debate of 2016 is over.
There will no week-to-week auditioning. No locker room dividing leaks. No endless stream of opinion columns. No fan-base in-fighting. Nothing.
Jerry Jones has had his say, the final say. He named Dak Prescott the starter on Monday, with Tony Romo set to back him up following his return from a pre-season back injury.
“We’re going to let the decision make itself” Jones said following the Cowboys win in Pittsburgh. “Dak has got a hot hand, and we’re going to go with it.” But Prescott is more than just a hot hand, he’s the future. Jones knows it and coach Jason Garrett knows it. That’s why they’re willing to sit their long time lieutenant Romo, a guy who has literally given his body for them.
It’s a seismic decision. But it’s the right one.
Prescott has dazzled in ten weeks as a starter, with help from the best offensive line in football and the best running back in the sport. But take nothing away from the rookie. It’s a cliché, but he’s played like a veteran; deciphering complex coverages, playing with poise and making plays inside and outside of the pocket.
Yes, Romo can do more than Prescott pre-snap. He has the ability and freedom to get to any play he wants in the playbook before the snap. And with that devastating rushing attack the RPO options are endless. But his body has simply given in, and he can’t be relied upon to be the same player post-snap or to even be healthy. If healthy, Romo remains a better player. But that if is too large with the Cowboys in the midst of a championship run.
Prescott on the other hand has been as a reliable as they come, helping orchestrate the number two offense in the league by DVOA, and sitting third in the league among quarterbacks in football outsiders DYAR metric.
It starts from the neck up, where his ability to move and manipulate safeties with his eyes is as impressive as any rookie in recent years.
Watch here on his deep touchdown throw to Dez Bryant in Pittsburgh on Sunday. As the Steelers blitz up the middle, he holds the middle of the field safety; knowing the Steelers are playing with a single-high safety and his best receiver (Bryant) is in single-coverage.
He holds the safety as long as possible, forcing him to stay in the middle of the field and not shade help over the Bryant. As the pressure comes, he is able to side step, keeping his eyes down the field and never panicking. He then resets his feet and is able to throw an absolute dime to Bryant for the score.
Back in Week 6 he decimated the Packers safeties by forcing them to flow one way with his eyes, then attacking the voided space.
The Packers have been plagued all year with poor eye discipline. Prescott made them pay by identifying favorable matchups before the snap and forcing cover defenders to clamp down on underneath throws before being hit over the top.
Here, the Packers are running cover-2 man; two deep safeties and man-to-man coverage on the outside.
Prescott is going to work quickly to the two receivers in man-coverage, holding both deep safeties, and anticipating one of his receivers will win. Brice Butler at the top of the screen.
At the snap, he flashes his eyes to the left side of the field. As he moves back towards the middle, Packers deep safety Kentrell Brice drives down, vacating his coverage. (though it’s unclear if he bit on something or if it was so form of late rotation to attempt to trick a young quarterback).
That frees up the back corner of the end zone for Prescott to throw a beautiful deep ball to Brice Butler for the score. Another down the field dime that has as much to do with his eyes and field awareness as his arm talent.
The pro-style concepts and pre-snap reads are nothing new for Prescott. Back at Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen expanded the Bulldogs’ playbook. He built-in more pro-style concepts and rhythm based dropbacks in Prescott’s final year, moving away from the pure spread elements the pair ran early in Prescott’s career.
What’s new to Prescott is the surrounding talent. In college it was the Dak show. Now, he’s a cog in one of the league’s most prolific and multiple offenses.
As a whole the Cowboys rank second in the league in total offensive DVOA, 3rd in pass offense DVOA, and 4th in rush offense DVOA. With the much discussed running game as a platform for everything they do. They’re led by the league’s best offensive line, the team’s true MVP. And with Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield they’ve churned out a league high 161 rush yards per game.
That not only slows down the pass-rush, buying Prescott time. But it helps open up a powerful play-action game. The Cowboys are currently 4th in play-action percentage (23%) and 5th in effectiveness, averaging 10.0 yards per play-action play.
With that line, many quarterbacks would be successful. Romo showed that in 2014. But it’s not as simple as saying it’s “plug-and-play”. Prescott has helped elevate the offense. Most notably through his movement and poise, using subtle movements inside the pocket; buying a little extra time (sticking and sliding to avoid a rushers) or creating a simpler throwing window.
Let’s go back to the Bryant touchdown throw along the left hand sideline in Pittsburgh. Ryan Shazier came free as a blitzing linebacker (running back Lance Dunbar got a good enough piece of him as a chipping back). Watch how subtly Prescott is able to navigate his body, sliding and sticking, and climbing into his throw. It’s one of the best plays from a quarterback this season.
Prescott’s athleticism has its biggest impact in the red zone. His ability to move and extend plays adds multiple dimensions. The first is the addition of some option football. If the threat of Elliott and the offensive line isn’t enough, having the quarterback as a rushing threat turns the game into a series of 1-on-1 matchups. The defense needs to get a hat on a hate, and the Cowboys have the best hats in the league.
In what was his worst game throwing from inside the pocket, Prescott made the Eagles pay with his legs in Week 7.
Down in the red zone the Cowboys pulled out some option football; running a lead-option with Prescott reading the defensive end and Jason Witten pulling around as a lead blocker.
At the snap, Prescott read defensive end Conor Barwin.
If he stays home Prescott hands off to Elliott, and one defensive lineman is removed from the play. If Barwin crashed down (like he did), Prescott pulls the ball and picks up the lead block, cruising into the end zone.
Then there’s his ability to make plays with his legs that are outside of the structure of the offense; scrambling and extending plays.
His overtime throw to Jason Witten from the Philadelphia game is perhaps the best example of that this year. Initially he was flushed from the pocket. But he was able to keep the play alive, moving to his right before spinning back to his left, finding a wide-open Witten in the end zone for the game-sealing touchdown.
Prescott has been a predominantly “on time” player this year; conserving himself largely within the teams structure. But in the red zone his ability to extend and break that structure is a dangerous tool for the offense.
Back in his prime, Romo was among the best quarterbacks in the league at scrambling to extend plays. But now when he’s flushed from the pocket the whole organization just holds its breath.
And yet, when Romo was healthy and working with this offensive line and a league-leading rushing attack (though one that wasn’t quite as explosive as this one), he played at an MVP level. That player still exists, and if Prescott goes down then the Cowboys will have the best backup in the league. But given his injury track record it would have been unnecessarily disruptive to throw him back into the lineup and have the potential of him going down again.
Now it’s Dak’s time. After ten weeks of playing at such a high level, he made it an easy decision.