The moment the Dallas Cowboys officially declared Dak Prescott their starting quarterback over Tony Romo, you knew this moment was coming.
Prescott wasn’t going to go an entire rookie season without adversity. And when he struggled, you knew the calls for Romo would begin. They did after Prescott threw two interceptions and just 165 passing yards on 37 attempts in a 10-7 loss to the New York Giants.
The Cowboys made it clear they aren’t thinking about turning to Romo. Nor should they. It would be an incredible overreaction to one understandable loss after an 11-game winning streak. It would be a sign of panic to bench Prescott (though it’s also fair to point out that Romo still entered Week 14 with the third-best passer rating in NFL history; this isn’t a lightweight backup quarterback we’re talking about).
But Prescott’s quiet games against Minnesota and the Giants are a reminder that the Cowboys can never be entirely comfortable going into the playoffs with a rookie quarterback.
Prescott has been very efficient this season, though the MVP talk has been strange. He’s not even the most valuable rookie in his own backfield. He has played well. However, there will come a point when the Cowboys find themselves in a tight playoff game – like the games against the Vikings or Giants, come to think of it – and Prescott will have to make plays in the most important and pressure-filled game of his life. Maybe he can do it, but the history isn’t good.
No rookie quarterback has ever led his team to a Super Bowl. There have been 100 conference championship games in the Super Bowl era and only four have featured a rookie starting quarterback (Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Shaun King and Ben Roethlisberger). The teams starting a rookie in those games are 0-4, obviously. According to an NFL.com story in 2011, and adding the rookies who have started a playoff game since, teams starting rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs since the 1970 merger are 8-14. That’s eight playoff wins in 46 seasons.
That’s the worry. No matter how good Prescott has been, he’s still a rookie. Defensive coordinators will have a full regular season of film to study on him. The pressure will increase. The record of rookie quarterbacks in the playoffs is not a fluke. There’s a good reason behind it.
Prescott could have a smooth postseason and lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl win, and we never hear another thing about a quarterback controversy the rest of the season. There’s a first time for everything, and Prescott has a better supporting cast on offense than perhaps any rookie quarterback in NFL history. The Cowboys were good enough with Prescott to start 11-1, and they’re good enough with him to win a title. They can’t turn back after this loss. But if Prescott wins a ring as a starter this season, he’ll be the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to do it. That history will be in the back of the Cowboys’ minds at every step this postseason.
Here are the power rankings following Week 14 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-13, Last week: 32)
Hue Jackson should start game-planning for that Week 16 home game against the San Diego Chargers right now. That’s not a great chance for a win, but it’s Cleveland’s best remaining opportunity. Nobody remembers 1-15 teams, but 0-16 will live forever.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-12, LW: 31)
On one hand, that loss to the Jets was insanely ugly. They blew a huge lead against a Jets team that looked like it had given up. It was so bad that the drum beat for Chip Kelly getting fired started getting louder afterward. But really, the 49ers are going to appreciate that loss when the draft order is set.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-11, LW: 30)
The Florida Times-Union predicted Allen Robinson would be featured on Sunday, specifically saying it was an easy call that he would get 13 targets. That prediction came as a result of Robinson meeting with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterback Blake Bortles to discuss what’s wrong with the passing game. Robinson had one catch for 17 yards on Sunday. This offense is broken beyond repair.
29. New York Jets (4-9, LW: 29)
At halftime, the Jets were down 17-3 to an awful 49ers team. It might be fair to wonder if a huge second-half comeback and overtime win, fueled by Bilal Powell in place of an injured Matt Forte, saved Todd Bowles’ job.
28. Chicago Bears (3-10, LW: 28)
Just like the Jets, it would have been fun to get a win at Detroit, but a loss was much better for them long term. A win might have knocked them down a few spots in the first round. So the Bears should feel good about competing hard and secretly feel good with losing that one.
27. Los Angeles Rams (4-9, LW: 27)
Jeff Fisher became the first coach fired this season, and it had to be done. It also opens up many opportunities for the Rams to find the right coach for No. 1 pick Jared Goff. Their entire focus during the search should be, what would benefit Goff most? It’s an attractive job and should draw many good candidates.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (5-8, LW: 24)
This is why good offensive tackles are so important. The Eagles have a revolving door at right tackle after Lane Johnson’s suspension. Ryan Kerrigan barely slowed down breezing past Matt Tobin, the Eagles’ fourth option at right tackle, on his way to a strip-sack of Carson Wentz with the game on the line. That probably doesn’t happen if Johnson was in the lineup.
25. San Diego Chargers (5-8, LW: 21)
Melvin Gordon seemed to avoid a serious injury, and coach Mike McCoy said he’s week-to-week. That’s great news because it would have been rough for him to end a growth season with a major injury.
24. Carolina Panthers (5-8, LW: 26)
A lot of attention got paid to dumping Josh Norman in the offseason and Cam Newton’s regression, but where did the Panthers’ running game go? Even in a win on Sunday, they had just 126 yards on 38 attempts for 3.3 yards per carry. The Panthers didn’t put any resources into the line or tailback and it’s showing. That should be a huge priority in the offseason for a run-based team.
23. Cincinnati Bengals (5-7-1, LW: 25)
If the Bengals are considering a change, I’m not sure winning at Cleveland saved Marvin Lewis’ job. But had the Bengals lost, that would have been practically impossible to survive.
22. Arizona Cardinals (5-7-1, LW: 23)
I get that Carson Palmer isn’t the only problem on the Cardinals. The offensive line hasn’t been great and the receivers have been unreliable outside of Larry Fitzgerald. But Palmer isn’t part of the solution either. Can the Cardinals bank on Palmer turning it back around next season at age 37?
21. New Orleans Saints (5-8, LW: 22)
I guess this is what a Drew Brees slump looks like. He has no touchdowns and six interceptions the last two weeks. That’s the first time he has failed to throw a touchdown in back-to-back weeks for the since Weeks 3 and 4 of the 2009 season, according to NOLA.com. He has a tough matchup Sunday against the Cardinals, but it’s hard to believe Brees will have three bad games in a row.
20. Indianapolis Colts (6-7, LW: 19)
The Colts put starting guard Jack Mewhort and starting safety Clayton Geathers on injured reserve. It was already a rough road for the Colts to make the playoffs, and it won’t get any easier with injuries mounting.
19. Houston Texans (7-6, LW: 20)
The Texans still aren’t good, but the division is there for the taking. They have Jacksonville and Cincinnati at home the next two weeks, while the Titans have a tough game at the Chiefs in Week 15. So there’s a good chance Houston will have a shot to clinch in Week 16. Even if that doesn’t happen, they’ll have a Week 17 game at Tennessee and have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Titans and the Colts. It would be a big upset if they don’t win the South.
18. Buffalo Bills (6-7, LW: 14)
There’s probably a good chance Rex Ryan will get fired, but I’m not sure what good it does. They haven’t been great but does anyone think they’d be a 10-win team with a replacement coach? Of their seven losses, six have been at Baltimore, at Miami, vs. New England, at Seattle, at Oakland and vs. Pittsburgh. You fire Ryan, you’re starting all over. Again.
17. Tennessee Titans (7-6, LW: 18)
It’ll be an interesting offseason. There are pieces in place to build around. But the Titans have significant needs, most notably at receiver and in the defense, particularly in the secondary. Still, it seems like this team is improving fast. One other reason to be excited: The Titans have the Rams’ first-round pick, due to the Jared Goff trade.
16. Minnesota Vikings (7-6, LW: 17)
The Vikings have a home game against the Colts in Week 15 and another home game against the Bears in Week 17. They should be a clear favorite in both. If they can win that Week 16 game at Green Bay, 10-6 would likely get them in the playoffs.
15. Miami Dolphins (8-5, LW: 15)
Now it seems like Ryan Tannehill might be back at this season. Can Matt Moore do enough to keep the Dolphins afloat until Tannehill returns? Moore has had his moments, it has just been a long time since he has had a chance. They’ll be an interesting team down the stretch.
14. Baltimore Ravens (7-6, LW: 12)
Monday night’s loss at New England wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a bad loss and even with a sixth defeat the Ravens are still looking at a likely AFC North title showdown in Week 16 at Pittsburgh. What the loss means is the Ravens still have to take care of business in winnable games Week 15 (vs. Philadelphia) and Week 17 (at Cincinnati) as well as beat the Steelers on Christmas Day. If the Ravens win out, they’d take the division title because they’d also clinch the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.
13. Green Bay Packers (7-6, LW: 16)
That win over the Seahawks was a statement game. It doesn’t retroactively mean they weren’t that bad when they were 4-6. It means they’ve come alive late in the season. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more buzz about Aaron Rodgers for MVP. It’s coming.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5, LW: 13)
Jameis Winston had a passing or rushing touchdown in each of his first 55 college and pro games. That streak ended on Sunday, and the Bucs still beat the Saints. The defense is growing by leaps and bounds. Next challenge: at Dallas.
11. Washington Redskins (7-5-1, LW: 11)
I don’t know that there’s been a better deep-ball receiver in NFL history than DeSean Jackson. Maybe Bob Hayes. But if we’re even putting Jackson in the same sentence as Hayes as a deep threat, that says all you need to know about Jackson.
10. Denver Broncos (8-5, LW: 6)
The C.J. Anderson injury was a much bigger deal than anyone realized at the time. It has robbed the Broncos of their running game, and while the passing game isn’t bad, it’s not good enough to carry an offense.
9. New York Giants (9-4, LW: 10)
Odell Beckham is turning the simple slant route into an art form. Cornerbacks can’t keep up and safeties are in a terrible spot. The next time you see a safety get smoked on a Beckham slant route and wonder why they didn’t take a better angle, remember Beckham running a slant-and-go and making Miami’s fantastic safety Reshad Jones look awful last year on an 84-yard touchdown. Good luck defending it.
8. Detroit Lions (9-4, LW: 7)
The weirdest “good” team I’ve seen in a long time. They have nine wins and only one has been decisive. They trailed the 3-10 Bears at home before rallying in the fourth quarter, which was like when they trailed the 2-11 Jaguars at home before rallying in the fourth quarter. Yet at some point you can’t play the whole “They could be 2-11!” card for a team that is currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC. They’re having a fine season and the record is good, but I wouldn’t pick them on a neutral field to beat anyone in the top seven. They’re an impossible team to rank.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5, LW: 9)
I’d worry a little bit if Le’Veon Bell can maintain this type of workload. But the Steelers haven’t given themselves a ton of margin for error either. They need to keep winning, but can they make the playoffs and do so with Bell having enough left for a playoff push too?
6. Atlanta Falcons (8-5, LW: 8)
Vic Beasley is turning into a force. He has 13.5 sacks this season after getting three against the Rams. He has four multi-sack games this season. Beasley gives the Falcons a true star to build a defense around.
5. Seattle Seahawks (8-4-1, LW: 5)
The weird part about the Seahawks being so inconsistent this season is they have been the model of consistency in the Russell Wilson era. Sunday’s loss was their first by more than 10 points since 2011, according to ESPN. That’s an NFL-record 85 games without a loss of more than 10. The Seahawks are hard to predict this season.
4. Oakland Raiders (10-3, LW: 3)
Why didn’t the Raiders run the ball more last week at Kansas City? They handed it off 28 times for 132 yards, which is good. Derek Carr threw 41 times in the freezing cold with a bad finger for 117 yards. I don’t blame Carr. It was clear early on he was having trouble throwing in those conditions. It just wasn’t a good game plan.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3, LW: 4)
Between Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs have two dangerous playmakers in the passing game. Jeremy Maclin, once he’s all the way back from a groin injury, is pretty good at moving the chains. The Chiefs are becoming as balanced a team as we have in this crazy NFL season.
2. New England Patriots (11-2, LW: 2)
I’d assume 406 yards and three touchdowns in a huge win against a tough Ravens defense would give Tom Brady a huge lead in the MVP race. But it’s hard to know if voters will hold his bogus suspension at the beginning of the season against him.
1. Dallas Cowboys (11-2, LW: 1)
There’s no reason to panic, or drop them a spot yet. Sure there are flaws, but every team has them. The Cowboys kicked off Sunday night’s game, on the road and in the cold, with three fewer losses than anyone else in the NFC. There probably wasn’t a ton of urgency and it wasn’t a huge shock they lost.
Podcast: Is it time for the Cowboys to worry?
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