In these contentious times, when political rhetoric can turn brother against brother and total strangers can get into shouting matches about anything from global warming to Suicide Squad, at least there is one topic we can all agree upon: Dak Prescott looked amazing in his preseason debut for the Cowboys.
Well, amazing may be too strong of a word. He looked capable. Competent. Acceptable. Prescott was a Cowboys backup quarterback Superman—faster than a speeding Brandon Weeden, more powerful than a Kellen Moore throw into a stiff breeze (watch out; it's coming back) and able to leap over the low bar that Matt Cassel set in a single bound.
Prescott completed 10 of 12 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns against the Rams, and Cowboys fans responded as if they just discovered a pair of talented pass-rushers who can go six months without getting suspended. Jerry Jones himself called off the nationwide dragnet for a backup quarterback—no more Michael Vick speculation, no more late-night cold calls to Cleveland or New Orleans about various McCown brothers.
"I wouldn't consider a backup quarterback situation at all," Jones told Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram two days after Prescott's debut. "I wouldn't want to, by any way, deter the progress and the excitement that [Prescott] can bring to the building of the team and the future."
Did you hear that? Jones just mentioned the future, the Post-Romo Salary-Cap Apocalypse that he has been putting off forever, in a positive way. Jones has a clear case of Dak-Man Fever.
Soon, Jones will be spinning a revisionist history of Prescott, just like the yarn about how building the Cowboys offensive line was a grand long-range plan, not the result of ignoring their own draft board or a last-second family intervention to pick Zack Martin over Johnny Manziel.
Jones will explain that he personally targeted Prescott as Tony Romo's heir apparent while watching a Mississippi State-Arkansas game. It might even be the cornerstone of Jones' Hall of Fame induction speech next year. Just try to forget that Moore would have been out there instead of Prescott if he hadn't broken his leg two weeks ago.
Dakmania feels a little premature, and not just because any mania after an NFL preseason opener is premature. Prescott only threw 12 passes, after all, several of which were screens. The Cowboys were facing the Rams, who will need three or four years to settle in to their new Los Angeles home before anyone can expect them to be competitive. (The previous sentence was inserted at the insistence of Jeff Fisher's agent).
Romo is 36 and coming off the kind of medical procedures we associate with the restoration of a 1964 Mustang. Wouldn't the Cowboys be better off with a safe, veteran journeyman between Romo and the Dak Attack?
Let's take a look at how the journeymen and designated backups did while Prescott was earning the key to Dallas last week:
- Josh McCown, having already been officially declared a non-threat to Robert Griffin's starting job in Cleveland, completed one of four passes for five yards and a sack.
- Mark Sanchez produced solid numbers (10-of-13, with a pretty touchdown and an ugly interception), but he looked so thoroughly like Mark Sanchez that Denver is raving about Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
- Chase Daniel completed four passes for 15 yards, took four sacks for a loss of 19 and ate up second-stringer reps that forced Carson Wentz onto the field with the extras from the movie Invincible. But that's another column.
- Bruce Gradkowski played 10 official snaps for the Steelers and suffered a hamstring injury.
If the old career backups were unimpressive, the young ones were even worse. Ryan Nassib's three-plus-year internship under Eli Manning resulted in two interceptions and four sacks. Landry Jones started in place of Ben Roethlisberger and led three empty drives before finally completing one long touchdown pass against the Lions backups.
Yes, I cherry-picked the data a little. Matt Schaub (10-of-15, 179 yards) looked great in relief of Matt Ryan. If you think Schaub will do anything but throw interceptions against starting defenders who game-planned against him (he's going to roll out and throw to where Richard Sherman is sitting in a beach chair, folks), I have an Academy Award prop bet for Suicide Squad that you will love.
Matt Cassel looked pretty good for the Titans. But: a) the Chargers defense played like they were more interested in hosting a symposium about voidable contract years than stopping a simple handoff; and b) you didn't know Cassel was actually still on an NFL roster when this paragraph began.
Other veteran backups like Matt Moore and Shaun Hill took the field without injuring themselves or teammates. But no journeyman grabbed the reins and made fans think, "Heck, we could go 10-6 with this guy if anything bad happens to the starter," except possibly Sanchez, whose team could go 10-6 with a scarecrow behind center.
Veteran backups aren't supposed to wow the masses with preseason heroics, of course. They exist to be mentors and advisors in the meeting room, to be game-ready at a moment's notice, to quell emergencies and prevent coaching night terrors.
These are valuable skills. The question is just how valuable those skills are. Sanchez is slated to earn $4.5 million this year, McCown $4.375 million in base salary alone and Daniel (sigh) $5 million in salary and bonuses. That's a lot of money, plus practice resources and such, that can be saved if a 23-year old can provide everything a 30-year old offers for a lower salary and higher upside.
Prescott didn't show up at Cowboys camp from Directional Tech with his cleats slung over his shoulder. He played in 49 games in the SEC (starting 33 of those games), a level of competition about half as good and twice as relevant as the AFC South. He started three bowl games. He won the Senior Bowl MVP award, which typically does not go to the best NFL prospect, but the player poised and mature enough to excel after a week of practice with new coaches and teammates.
In other words, Prescott already has the skills of a backup quarterback: competitiveness, pressure management, big-game experience and solid work habits. If he needs mentorship, he can ask Romo questions. He'll make mistakes if forced to play real games, but the Cassel-Weeden-Moore gang made tons of mistakes last year and offered little hope of learning from them.
The Cowboys aren't the only team placing trust in a rookie backup. The Seahawks are grooming undrafted rookie Trevone Boykin behind Russell Wilson. Like Prescott, Boykin has tons of experience at a major program, though he didn't earn an A-plus for maturity the way Prescott did.
The Seahawks may be taking a significant risk with Boykin, but they learned a lesson when Wilson raced past Matt Flynn on the depth chart as a third-round pick four years ago. If that veteran backup doesn't offer anything special on the field, he might just be getting in the way.
The Patriots, it should be noted, don't fiddle around with old backups anymore, even with Tom Brady facing a four-game suspension. They employed Flynn for about eight weeks last year (he was gone before the preseason opener), but they have drafted, developed and eventually discarded and replaced youngsters since Cassel was a no-name rookie. When the Patriots did opt for veteran Brady insurance long ago, they hired Doug Flutie or Vinny Testaverde—former very good starters, not career backups.
A reporter asked Bill Belichick on Sunday if he would consider a Flutie- or Testaverde-esque signing during Brady's absence. "Those guys retired a decade ago," Belichick snapped, according to Pro Football Talk, squashing what sounded like a half-hearted effort to conjure a Peyton Manning-backs-up-Tom Brady narrative.
The market for dreary veteran backups will never completely dry up, nor should it. As long as a journeyman remains among the 96 best quarterbacks on earth, he should keep holding down a job holding a clipboard. On a case-by-case basis, hiring a mentor for a rookie or sounding board/golf buddy for a veteran can still be a wise investment.
But teams shouldn't hop on the Journeyman Express as a knee-jerk reaction. Great rookie prospects are rare, but good ones with lots of experience are relatively common. The Cowboys would be in deep trouble without Romo anyway (same for the Seahawks without Wilson or the Patriots without Brady for more than a month), so the backup might as well provide some undeterred excitement about the future.
The Cowboys finally figured it out, even if by accident.
But ignore all of this if Prescott throws an interception or two this weekend, and get ready for the McCown trade rumors instead.