The Tony Romo backup debacle didn't teach Cowboys anything

NFL columnist

OXNARD, Calif. – In what is probably as close to a managerial mea culpa as anyone will get from Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner acknowledged less than a year ago that in retrospect of a capsizing season, he “tried to get cute” with his backup quarterbacks. At the time, Brandon Weeden had cratered and Matt Cassel was headed for a cliff, taking the Cowboys’ playoff hopes with him. But Jones’ acknowledgement within that collapse left a faint long-term hope: Surely the Cowboys had learned a lesson about life without Tony Romo.

Or not.

The regular season is a month away for the Cowboys and things are feeling repetitive. Backup QB Kellen Moore is likely out for the season with a broken leg, and Jones is talking up Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers, who were the presumptive third- and fourth-string quarterbacks a couple week ago. Relentless confidence seems to be getting the best of Jones again. And now he’s positioning the Cowboys to gamble behind Romo for another season.

Make no mistake, that’s what Dallas is doing if it stands pat with Prescott as the backup quarterback. It’s gambling on a player who was slated to have a redshirt season in 2016 and is unprepared to take a team over, even one as offensively talented as the Cowboys. That’s not a knock on Prescott as a long-term prospect. He could very well be Romo’s successor. But this is the here and now. And even the personnel men who liked Prescott’s skills prior to the draft said he needed a few years of development before being ready to start an NFL game. And now he’s one Romo hit from being handed a valuable year in a fleeting Super Bowl window.

If that doesn’t feel both familiar and nerve-wracking, then you weren’t watching last season closely enough.

Tony Romo played in only four games last season. (AP)
Tony Romo played in only four games last season. (AP)

Of course, Jones is going to woo the highest hopes of Cowboys fans when it comes to this situation. That’s what he does. He’s loyal to his guys. It’s in his DNA to believe in them, to root for them and pat them on the backside. It’s part of what makes Jerry Jones great as an owner. But it’s also part of what leads to last season’s meltdown. At some point, you have to protect yourself from your own penchant for optimism.

Jones should have done that with Weeden. Instead he dived into the prior beliefs of Mike Holmgren head-first. That’s how we got Jones telling the Cowboys’ flagship radio station that Weeden was “a thing of beauty on throwing a football,” and that “frankly, you won’t see a more gifted passer.” And when that didn’t work, Jones’ wandering quarterback eye turned to Cassel, a QB he championed as less conservative and basically better. And by June, Jones was gushing that Moore “has shown us he has inordinate instincts.” Now he’s talking about the marked improvement and instinctive play of Prescott and Showers.

If you sense an unyielding pattern of upside with Jones and his quarterbacks, you’re not alone.

Nobody should expect Jones to undercut the player who would be next man up after Romo. But there is another factor in play here, too. Jones has to support Prescott as a potential backup right now because his other options have become significantly less palatable. And the owner shoulders some responsibility in that.

When last season ended and the backup quarterback lesson was clear, addressing the No. 2 spot was a significant priority. But aside from investing a fourth-round compensatory pick (really a fifth-rounder, if you consider Prescott was the 135th overall selection), Dallas did little to address the problem. The Cowboys looked at trading up for Paxton Lynch in the draft and decided the price was too high. Then they selected a developmental player and stood pat with Moore, a veteran whose greatest credential is being aligned with Dallas offensive coordinator Scott Linehan (who also coached Moore with the Detroit Lions).

That says a lot about the backup failure this offseason. Even if Moore had remained healthy, Dallas would be entering the regular season with Romo and three inexperienced backups who have varying “project” qualities. And even after Moore went down and Dallas became interested in Nick Foles, some comments from Jones upon Foles’ release (“Foles isn’t an option. We wouldn’t get him any snaps.”) removed the Cowboys from the veteran’s list of preferred destinations.

Then we arrived at Josh McCown, whose price tag is believed to be no less than a fourth-round pick. Dallas is reluctant to part with anything of value (as in, nothing more than a sixth-rounder). Just to prove their point, the Cowboys made a call to the reps of free agent Josh Freeman.

Dak Prescott was picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. (AP)
Dak Prescott was picked in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. (AP)

This is what happens when a backup quarterback problem is remedied in August. A game of hard-to-get is played with the Cleveland Browns or a call is made to Josh Freeman of all people. Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers are talked up about how good they look. And there’s hope that someone gives up on a veteran in the last weeks of the preseason and a cheap price (or nothing) is paid.

Hey, it worked for Matt Cassel last season, right?

Hence the question about what lessons were learned last season. The reality is the position behind Romo should have been in much better shape when training camp started. But it wasn’t any better than last season, no matter what “inordinate instincts” Jones saw in Kellen Moore.

The Cowboys have gambled again. And if you don’t believe that, here’s the most interesting thing that came out of Romo’s mouth this week when talking about Prescott and Showers:

“There’s just so much to the game that you can’t possibly learn in a month [of camp] or the offseason,” Romo said. “Their job is to ask questions, watch tape, learn and get out there and throw the football. Work on their technique [and] fundamentals, work on their thought process … through osmosis, just learn being around it.”

So that’s where Dallas is at, gambling another year on the optimism in an unknown commodity. Should Romo’s shoulder get broken again through some linebacker-on-quarterback osmosis, the Cowboys are hoping a completely inexperienced player has soaked up enough knowledge to not pull a Weeden or Cassel.

As backup plans go, that’s a steep learning curve. And thus far, Dallas hasn’t kept up with past lessons.

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