At some point the Dallas Cowboys were going to lose a football game. The offense would invariably slow down and Dak Prescott would inevitably look like a rookie quarterback. They weren't going to run the table, and Prescott wasn't going to look like an MVP candidate every week.
It was bound to happen, eventually. And eventually is now.
Things had been going a little too smoothly in Jerryland for a little too long, and fortunes tend to shift in an instant in the NFL. I'm not sure that any of us fully understood what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was trying to convey the other day, when, asked about the prospect of Tony Romo replacing Prescott, he uttered: "You'll know it when you see it." But I do know that he didn't say - "Prescott is our starter now and for the entire season." Or, "Dak is my guy as long as he can stand on two feet."
Jones is a gifted orator, a spin doctor supreme, and a master marketing man. And he's intentionally left that Prescott/Romo door ajar at several points this season. After watching his offense stuck in neutral two straights weeks and with the playoffs fast approaching, we're about to find out just how patient the owner truly is.
Since a dizzying offensive display on Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys offense has sputtered and Prescott has slumped. It wasn't just Sunday night in the Meadowlands. The Cowboys are suddenly no longer the hottest team in the NFL, the 11-win joy ride is over, and in the postseason it's more likely that they'll be facing defenses of the caliber of the Vikings and Giants than the likes of the Eagles and Redskins. That's the reality of playoff football. And, after enduring all of his postseason futility since the glory days of the dynasty that Jimmy Johnson built in Texas, no one knows this more profoundly than Jones.
Make no mistake, this weekend's game with the surging Buccaneers is huge. It's huge for Prescott and it's huge for Romo. One more week of empirical evidence, against another thriving defense, might be just enough data for Jones to determine if his offense is merely experiencing a hiccup, or if it's a more drastic reset, a market correction that may portend bad things come January.
Is Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas' other explosive rookie, hitting the wall a bit himself, after getting a monster workload this season? Is the equation shifting a bit with this unit to where the quarterback may now need to be flat-out winning games rather than simply not losing them? And would Romo -- the heady, gritty and trusted veteran, and one of Jones's all-time favorite players -- be better equipped to provide that pre-playoff spark?
If Prescott plays like he did for the first 12 weeks of the season, it's a moot point. But if he looks as green, and, at times, overwhelmed, as he did Sunday night, then you're beyond naïve not to think the Cowboys have a true quarterback dilemma on their hands. It's not merely about clinching a division title, it's about being best positioned to win three games in a row into February. Let's not forget that Jones isn't paying Romo $18M a year (and $127M for his career since joining Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2003) to hold a clipboard while his franchise plays what are shaping up to be its biggest games since Jones last embraced the Lombardi Trophy.
I asked several personnel men I trust, including a few GMs, what they would do in this situation. Two said they would have to consider Romo. Two said that it's too late to go down that road now. One seemed internally divided as to what he would do in this position. Some pointed to the fairly recent precedent of making a late-season quarterback change such as Peyton Manning replacing Brock Osweiler in Denver in Week 17 last year. Don't forget Rex Grossman taking over for Kyle Orton in Chicago in 2005 when Orton hit the rookie wall. And while many would be quick to point out that Prescott looks much more like a bona fide top NFL QB than Orton or Osweiler ever had, I'd point out that Romo also looks like a much more attractive option that 2015 version of Manning or Grossman ever have.
"Dallas has played two pretty good defensive fronts the last couple of weeks who can defend on the back end," said one exec who has watched Dallas closely. "It's not easy being the big dog and teams are now gunning for them and fighting to get in the playoffs, while the Cowboys already clinched, and it's normal to have a letdown from young players in that position. (Coach) Jason Garrett has his work cut out now. You're going to face good defenses in the playoffs and it's on the coaching staff now."
Another exec who would lean to Romo put it simply like this: "A week from now, who gives you the best chance to win a football game -- Romo or Prescott? Who expands your offense when he steps under center?"
And an executive who believes it's not nearly broken enough to change quarterbacks at 11-2 offered this: "Dak has won 11 games for you. You're living in the past if you make the change. Romo hasn't played at this speed for two years. Live and die by the sword."
Ultimately, however, it matters little what other decisions makers would do in this situation. The only thing that matters is what Jerry Jones will do.
When Jones went public with the notion that it was Prescott's job for the foreseeable future even with Romo, it ostensibly shifted this from being a week-to-week conversation and gave the rookie some breathing room. The unspoken sentiment was that he could have a bad week, maybe two, without concern. But if you thought this owner, at this stage of his career, would be willing to sit through, oh, a month or so of shaky offensive football and not go to the stud in his bullpen, you haven't been paying much attention to how things are done in Big D.
The Cowboys have scored three total touchdowns in the last two games, and one came when the Vikings botched a return to hand them the ball at the Vikings' 8-yard line. Elliott is still plenty productive, but he's been under his season average in yards per carry each of the past four weeks.
He has an NFL-leading 287 carries, a staggering 33 more than any other back in the NFL, and, barring injury, will cross the 300-carry threshold this Sunday. And Elliott's 315 touches are second only to David Johnson. The offensive line has looked a little less impervious than usual the past few weeks, even against a Giants defense without Jason Pierre-Paul, their top pass-rushing threat.
Dez Bryant has been quiet and tepid often, averaging four catches for 62 yards over his last four games. Jason Witten has just 12 catches for 96 yards, total, in that four-game span. Cole Beasley, the slot receiver who has truly been the fulcrum of the Prescott-led passing attack, leads the team in catches and receiving yards and continues to move the chains. But there is reason to at least wonder if this offense can maintain its frantic pace that allowed a less-robust defense to shine despite some of its deficiencies.
Prescott, meantime, is 29-for-55 for 304 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a quarterback rating of 66.0, the last two weeks. He's failed to reach 200 yards passing in three straight games. By comparison, Romo has never done it twice in his 14-year career. Prescott has been sacked six times in that span and has also fumbled three times, losing two of them. Romo, lest we forget, is 13-3 in his last 16 starts, completing 327 of 467 passes (70 percent!) for 3,915 yards (8.4 per attempt) with 35 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a rating of 109.6. And he lost his job, anyway.
Where things have really bogged down lately for Dallas is on third down. The Cowboys have put the ball directly in the rookie's hands 29 times on third down the past two weeks -- either a drop back or a run for Prescott -- and they have converted just twice. That's 2 out of 29 (.069 percent). One was a 14-yard scramble on third-and-13 against Minnesota and the other was a 10-yard pass to Bryant in the dying minutes Sunday night that the Pro Bowl receiver promptly fumbled to cement an ugly, 10-7, defeat. That's it.
If you can't win third down, then you can't win football games, unless you are picking up oodles of chunk yards on early downs, perhaps, and that's not this team. For the season, the Cowboys rank 28th in completions over 20 yards. Only the 49ers quarterbacks have attempted fewer passes that travel 20 yards or more through the air this season -- a combined 33 -- than Prescott's 35.
Against the Giants, Dallas routinely threw well behind the sticks on third down, completing balls but not picking up first downs. Prescott was 5-for-11 for 36 yards on third down, with two interceptions. Against the Vikings he was 3-for-5 for 21 yards on third down. So, over the past two weeks on third down, that's 8-for-16 for 57 yards (3.6 yards per attempt), with zero TDs and two INTs and a quarterback rating of 19.0.
Maybe it's a blip.
Maybe it's a signal of what is to come.
We'll find out either way. What we already know is that coordinators are constantly making adjustments and trying new wrinkles each week as the volume of film on Prescott and this model of the Cowboys' offense expands. The chess match is ongoing and at some point you get forced to do more of what you'd prefer not to do as they take away much of what you do best. There is an ebb and flow.
We most certainly know that Prescott looks like one of the finer quarterbacks-in-the-making we've seen in quite some time, and his potential is boundless. He is mature beyond his years and a natural leader and the Cowboys may have found something truly special in the fourth round that will yield huge benefits for years to come.
But this time of year, especially, is about the here and now, and a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback is just a tap on the shoulder away. We know this offense can hum along with Romo (15-4 in his last 19 games), we've seen it time and again, and, with the playoffs less than a month away and Romo not having started a regular season game in over a year, if you were going to make a quarterback change, it would be best to do so by Week 16 to give Romo a little time to settle back in.
Some opine that Romo gets hurt too much and is an injury risk. At this point, so what? He plays and goes down again and you go back to the kid. Prescott's already proved he doesn't shake or scare easy, and he's already secured his teammates' trust. So buckle up, make sure your spurs are attached to your Cowboy boots and take heed of what Jones says by this time next week. It's gut-check time in Dallas and Jerry Jones is calling the shots.