The season hasn't even started yet and the Dallas Cowboys have already seen their starting quarterback get injured yet again. Jason Garrett announced on Saturday that Tony Romo had an MRI taken of his back after sustaining an injury on the third play of Dallas' third preseason game on Thursday night, and the MRI revealed a broken bone in Romo's back.
According to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora, Romo is expected to miss 6-10 weeks. Coach Jason Garrett, however, did not rule Romo out for the Cowboys' Week 1 game against the New York Giants.
The Cowboys discovered a fractured verterbae in Tony Romo's back. Expected to miss 6-10 weeks. Wow— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 27, 2016
So Dak Prescott looks to be the first rookie QB to get a regular season start. Romo out again— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 27, 2016
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has said he isn't ruling out Romo for Week 1 but I am hearing Romo likely to be out beyond that— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 27, 2016
This is, of course, not the first serious injury Romo has sustained to his back. He first had back surgery in April 2013, when he underwent a procedure to remove a cyst. The team described the surgery as minor at the time, but he wound up missing all of training camp and OTAs. Later that season, Romo exited a game against Washington with a back injury before returning and leading the team on a game-winning scoring drive. He was subsequently diagnosed with a season-ending herniated disc in his back. He had surgery in December of 2013.
During the 2014 season, he again sustained a back injury during a game against Washington. It was revealed that he had fractured two transverse processes in his back, an injury with which he played the rest of the season, which was arguably the best of his career. In 2015, Romo broke his collar bone for the second and third times in his career, and ultimately played in only four games.
The Cowboys have instituted a plan the last few seasons that involved giving Romo Wednesdays off during the week in order to maintain his health and limit the number of hits he takes. It worked to perfection in 2014 as they went 12-4, won the division, and had one of the league's most efficient offenses, but it has now failed to keep him healthy two years in a row.
While there is currently limited information available about Romo's future status (he's played through a broken back before; there's certainly a possibility he does so again), here are some things we do know:
1. It's the Dak Prescott show for however long Romo is out
The Cowboys entered training camp expecting Kellen Moore to be Romo's primary backup, but he broke his ankle early in camp and is expected to miss the entire season. The Cowboys reportedly chased Nick Foles and others to occupy the spot, but none of those plans came to fruition.
Luckily for them, fourth-round pick Dak Prescott has basically lit the world on fire during the preseason. Prescott had a perfect passer rating through the team's first two preseason contests, going 22-of-27 for 383 yards and four touchdowns through the air. He also added two more touchdowns on the ground. In the team's third preseason game, Prescott fared adequately against the Seahawks' first-team defense, finishing 17-of-23 for 116 yards and a score. His yards per attempt figure sunk way down, but he kept the ball away from the other team and led the Cowboys on two scoring drives.
The Cowboys have to feel good about what they've seen from Prescott so far, but even Jerry Jones would likely admit that they're not entirely comfortable with him as their starter just yet (assuming you got him off the record and with a glass of his beloved Johnny Walker Blue in his hand). The Cowboys drafted Prescott as a bit of a project and wanted him to learn the ropes behind Romo until he was ready to take over full-time. Now, it appears he may be pushed into the starting role right away, at least for a little while.
2. Romo's return likely after the Cowboys' bye week
No one knows that for sure. But, as La Canfora reports, it appears the Cowboys quarterback will return somewhere between six to 10 weeks. Romo has two weeks to heal before the season and the Cowboys have a bye week in Week 7.
Best estimate could be a return for Romo after the Cowboys bye week— Jason La Canfora (@JasonLaCanfora) August 27, 2016
3. The Cowboys are in the market for a backup
The only other quarterback the Cowboys have on the roster is second-year undrafted free agent Jameill Showers. Showers was a backup at Texas A&M for two seasons (behind Ryan Tannehill and then Johnny Manziel) before he transferred to UTEP. In two years as UTEP's starter (he missed five games), he threw for 3,121 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while also running for 507 yards and eight touchdowns. He spent most of the 2015 season on the practice squad, but was signed to the active roster in December. He was, however, declared inactive for the final two games.
4. Romo's long-term future is up in the air
Romo still has four years and just over $74 million remaining on the six-year, $108 million extension he signed a few years ago, per Spotrac. Because the Cowboys purposely structured the contract in a way such that they could convert some of his early base salaries into signing bonuses and artificially lower his cap hit during those seasons, the back half of his contract is now especially onerous.
It's not going to happen, but it would cost the Cowboys over $31.9 million in dead salary to cut Romo today. Even after this season, it would cost them $19.6 million in dead cap to cut their ties. (That does represent a savings of about $5.1 million from his 2017 cap hold, for what it's worth.) The first time it saves the Cowboys real money to move on from Romo is after the 2017 season, when they'd save about $16.3 million against the cap by cutting him, but would still be paying out $8.9 million in dead money to a quarterback no longer on the roster.
At this point, though, it is not even a given that he'll even be able to play that long. This is now the third serious back injury Romo has sustained in the last four years, two of which are BROKEN BONES IN HIS BACK. The man is as tough as they come and has played through something like this before, but at a certain point, it just becomes too much. Add in the three broken collar bones he has suffered, plus the cracked ribs and various injuries to his hand and thumb he's sustained over the years, and it's a minor miracle had had played 62 of the last 64 games before missing all but four in 2015.
Now 36 years old and with all those maladies affecting his body, the Cowboys simply can't count on Romo to be on the field at any point, and it may simply be too much of a health risk for him to get out there anyway. The Cowboys' last franchise quarterback, Troy Aikman, retired at the age of 34 after suffering numerous concussions and back injuries. It took them a while to unearth Romo, an undrafted free agent from Eastern Illinois who had been a backup (and Sean Payton pupil) for more than three full seasons before taking the starting job away from Drew Bledsoe. He's been their guy ever since, and they expected him to be for a few more years. But Romo is two years older than Aikman was then, and has an even more extensive list of ailments. He's still performed at a high level when healthy, but he has also now failed to make it through three of the last six games he's played.
It's possible he returns sometime this year. Hell, it's possible he plays all 16 games. (Again, this is a guy that has already played almost a full season with a broken back.) But it also seems entirely possible that we've seen the last of him in a Cowboys uniform.