So here's the thing: Rookie quarterbacks, by nature, are inconsistent. Except that Dak Prescott had been exactly the opposite of that through the Cowboys' first six games. He has looked every bit the grizzled veteran, the guy who was prepared for all eventualities both due to preparation and experience. Except that Prescott has little experience.
He has been so good, in fact, that fans and media have been entertaining the idea that he should keep the starting job even after Tony Romo is fully healthy. That storyline hit a pot hole Sunday night, when the Cowboys hosted the Eagles and Prescott looked like, well, a rookie playing on a huge stage who at times seemed caught up in the enormity of it all.
It was weird to watch because Prescott has been so composed this season. In fact, coming into the game he ranked No. 2 among all NFL quarterbacks in value per play, according to Football Outsiders, behind only Tom Brady. That's insane.
But he looked very much like an overmatched 23-year-old against a blitz-happy Eagles defense. There was the one 53-yard bomb to Dez Bryant in the first quarter, but other than that, his first-half stats were terrible. At the break, he was just 5 of 13 with an interception, and only Bryant and Ezekiel Elliott had caught passes. And that interception was one of the worst you'll see. Not only was it in the red zone, but Prescott threw it right to Jordan Hicks, who was lurking in zone coverage and watching Prescott the entire time.
But then, in the second half, something happened. A switch flipped, Prescott rediscovered the accuracy that had eluded him earlier, and he completed 14 of 26 passes to go along with two touchdowns. That included the tying drive late in the fourth quarter, and the winning drive minutes later in overtime.
Put another way: The kid is legit, and it's going to be hard to put him on the bench when Romo is finally ready to go.
Here are six other takeaways from the Cowboys' 29-23 overtime win over the Eagles on Sunday night.
1. Of course, there's a reasonable argument for starting Romo
The devil you know, as they say. But even more than that, Romo, when healthy, is one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. But you know how the rest of this sentence ends -- Romo can't stay healthy. He played in just four games last season after twice breaking his clavicle, and he broke a bone in his lower back in August. He's also 36 years old, and whenever he's medically cleared to play, he'll need time to get used to the speed of the game. That sounds like a cliché -- right up till the moment Romo takes a crushing sack or throws a game-deciding interception and then suddenly it seems like a perfectly reasonable concern.
And if Romo isn't coming back until, say, Week 10, that means it might be reasonable that he'll need a few weeks to get comfortable, and then, hopefully, return to his Pro Bowl form over the final three or four games. And that's the best-case scenario. But what if he comes out throwing picks and losing fumbles? And this is all after Prescott has helped the Cowboys to the top of the division.
This is all weighing on owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who originally declared that Romo would be the starter when healthy, but then hedged in recent weeks.
Jerry Jones says #Cowboys "will play this thing out" in regards to QB controversy with Prescott/ Romo.— Drew Davison (@drewdavison) October 11, 2016
Days before those remarks, CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported that there is "zero chance" Romo does not start when cleared.
It's a good problem to have, in theory, but if Jones rolls with Romo and the Cowboys' offense falls apart, he'll have to answer for it. For now, it's not a concern because Romo is still out and Prescott continues to play like one of the league's best quarterbacks.
2. Elliott and that Cowboys offensive line are special
Both make Prescott's life immeasurably easier, and that could also be the argument for why Romo will get the job when he returns -- he'll have the benefit of a dynamic running back and an offensive line that can manhandle just about anybody (though, credit where credit it is due, the Eagles' front seven did a good job of getting after Prescott all evening).
Remember when we were all having the "running backs are fungible and shouldn't be high first-round picks" conversations? It made a lot of sense -- because you could find comparable talent in later rounds at a fraction of the price -- and it still does. But as these running backs become more versatile, their value increases. Jamaal Charles and Le'Veon Bell are perfect examples; both were second-round picks who would now be first-rounders if they were draft-eligible.
It was Elliott's dynamism and versatility that prompted the Cowboys to draft him No. 4 overall this spring, which is insanely high for a running back. That said, he has rushed for 799 yards in seven games and he's averaging 5 yards per carry. So is his success more a function of his talents, or the Cowboys' offensive line?
That's the question, and one that's difficult to untangle. And it might not really matter. As long as the offense remains balanced, and Elliott can take the pressure off Prescott (or Romo, should it come to that), it's hard to make the case that the Cowboys were wrong to draft Elliott so high. Because as it stands, Dallas is 6-1 and two games up on Philly in the NFC East.
3. What about the other rookie quarterback?
We've talked about rookies coming back to Earth, and that certainly pertains to Carson Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft who was elevated to starter just a week before the season. He got off to such a white-hot start that no one outside of Dallas was really talking about Prescott. Then the Eagles lost two in a row before regaining their footing last week against the Vikings.
In Dallas, Wentz was ... well, efficient. And while efficiency isn't particularly sexy, there are worse qualities to have as an NFL quarterback. The problem for the Eagles' offense, at least on this night, is that there was little chance of moving the ball down the field in large chunks, something Prescott, Bryant and the Cowboys are very capable of doing.
Carson Wentz completed 74 pct. of his passes and averaged only 4.7 yards per attempt. Didn't think that was possible.— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) October 31, 2016
Still, like Prescott, Wentz is savvy beyond his years, and no play from Sunday night embodied that like this sack that inexplicably wasn't a fumble. It was late in the fourth quarter, deep in Eagles territory, and a turnover there seals the win for the Cowboys. Instead, Wentz gets blasted and somehow manages to tuck the ball under his arm while he's going down.
4. The Cowboys' special teams is a dumpster fire
It got lost in the exciting overtime win, but good Lord, if Dallas had lost, a large share of the blame could go to a special-teams unit that spent the evening making dumb decisions at virtually every opportunity.
A brief history: Lucky Whitehead fumbled on the opening kickoff (he recovered), there were too many men on the field during a punt return that resulted in an Eagles first down, holds and/or blocks in the back on subsequent returns, allowing a Josh Huff 53-yard kickoff return, another hold on a punt with 38 seconds to go in regulation that came after Wentz didn't fumble on the aforementioned sack.
But there was a bright spot: Punter Chris Jones taking matters into his own hands.
If ever there was a case for never punting, we think the Cowboys' woeful special teams is it.
5. Dez Bryant is back and still very, very good
Bryant missed the Cowboys' three previous games, but you wouldn't know it to watch him against the Eagles. He finished with four catches for 113 yards and a very important touchdown with just over three minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
That was Bryant's first touchdown since Week 3.
You know who else is still very, very good? Jason Witten. His first touchdown pass of the season came in overtime.