Who Starts: Tony Romo or Dak Prescott?

The Dallas Cowboys have a luxury that few teams get to have: Two capable, winning starting QBs.

Tony Romo has had an injury plagued career, with significant numbers of games missed in 2010, 2015 and this season. He’s not completed a full slate of 16 games since 2012, is NFL-geriatric at 36, and is halfway through a six year extension for 119 million dollars.

Romo, who suffered a back injury in a preseason game against Seattle, has absolute mastery of Jason Garrett’s offense, and when he’s healthy, he’s one of the top five quarterbacks in the league. Romo might be medically cleared to start in week 8 after this week’s bye. The type of back injury he suffered has a 10 to 12 week recovery time.

Starting in Romo’s place has been rookie phenomenon Dak Prescott, drafted in the fourth round out of Mississippi state. Prescott has benefited from two years of a roster rebuild that’s finally paid off. Dallas’s offensive line is the best in the league, and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott has proven to be the real deal.

Prescott’s game isn’t Romo’s. It’s clear that Prescott relies on lateral mobility (Romo is somewhat immobile in the pocket), and Prescott lives off of the play-action pass. Prescott is a good intermediate range thrower, and while he’s got the arm talent for throws to the deep third of the field, he’s not quite as accurate on those shots as Romo is. That will eventually come with time and practice with his receivers.

Dallas Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan has tailored the Dallas offense to Prescott’s strengths. Prescott isn’t asked to do as much as Romo, and he’s getting more plays installed into the base package every week or so. At some point, defensive coordinators will have enough footage of Prescott to know his tendencies and see his limitations, and Prescott will fall to earth.

Romo is a more complete quarterback when he’s healthy. The odds say that Romo will get starts over Prescott over the course of the season. Dallas will face disciplined defenses that know how to deal with a play action passer, and Prescott still holds the ball too long looking for more separation from his receivers. These are things that will come with practice and time, but they’re weaknesses waiting for exploitation.

It’s not a question of “will Romo start”. It’s a question of when. The initial discussion of Romo’s injury had Dallas’ front office call him their unequivocal starter, they’ve backed away from those statements recently. Given the quality of Prescott’s play, they’re telling Romo to be patient with his healing and conditioning goals, which is a tacit way of saying “We’ll wait until someone figures out Prescott’s game and exploits them before putting you back in.”

Strategically, this makes sense. I anticipate that sometime before the last third of the season, Romo will return as the full time starter in Dallas, especially when Dallas is playing for playoff seeding. He absolutely will be their playoff QB, this season.

However much Romo plays at the end of the season, this may be his swan song in Dallas. That six year contract he signed in 2013 has run out of guaranteed money, beyond the prorated signing bonus. Romo will be 37 before the end of the season, and isn’t just perceived to be an injury risk, he is one. Meanwhile, Prescott is on a four-year rookie contract, and will cost less than Dallas’ kicker next season. Much the same way that Seattle was rode Russell Wilson’s rookie contract to the Super Bowl, paying Prescott for three years lets Dallas load up on talent in other position groups (and pay that offensive line when their contracts come due.)