LLANO, Texas – So much unlike last year, 2016 is a good one to be living in the television domain of the Dallas Cowboys. I get to see all their games, and they’re having a most appealing season, the two splashiest rookies in the NFL romping up and down the fields.
The ’Boys are 7-1, and I don’t know how the betting public sees them as a 2 ½-point underdog this Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are 4-4. Apparently there’s still a sense of disbelief about a team that can be so reliant on first-year pros.
America doesn’t want to bet on Dak Prescott in a quarterback duel with Ben Roethlisberger, winner of two Super Bowls. And as a gambling nation we don’t want to put money on Zeke Elliott running the ball instead of LeVeon Bell, who has averaged 79 yards rushing in 40 NFL starts.
It may take the Cowboys more time to establish their worth. Rookies make mistakes, and although Prescott and Elliott have made very few, they’re only halfway through the season.
There’s an element of doubt in the Cowboys’ organization, starting from the owner, Jerry Jones, who continues to long for Tony Romo, who he felt deserved to be the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2014.
Lest we forget, Romo that year completed 69.9% of his passes, averaged 8.5 yards per throw, had 34 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. Without going stat-crazy here, suffice to say that Prescott’s numbers, though exceptional for a rookie, do not compare to Romo in his last healthy year.
So there’s an argument to be made that the quarterback who gives Dallas the best chance at a championship is Romo. He’s much slower maturing than Prescott but has the benefit of 14 years of professional experience.
Of course, there’s reason to doubt Romo, 36 and claiming to be recovered from back surgery, will be as good as he was at 34.
So the Metroplex is in a quandary. There are basically two competing views:
- Romo should not lose his job because of injury.
- Fourteen years is long enough to put the Cowboys in a Super Bowl, or at least in the conference title game.
It doesn’t matter what side you or I or any other Cowboys fan is on, but it does matter what their players are saying and thinking. Very rarely has an NFL team reached the postseason with divided on-field command.
In this era of social media, the slightest disagreement in a locker room inevitably gets distributed outside it.
With the Cowboys, we already see the beginning of a fissure as we watch and listen to Dez Bryant, their self-infatuated star receiver. He’s been the one Cowboys player constantly informing the media of Romo’s rehab progress.
Dez made no secret of preferring Romo as his quarterback. After all, they’ve worked together for six years. They know how to interpret each other’s motions and glances while the play is underway.
Bryant has no such connection with Prescott, who knows all the team’s receivers equally (meaning, hardly at all) and has publicly promised to treat them equally. “I throw to whoever’s open,” he says.
Often this means Cole Beasley, the team’s leading receiver. He’s caught 82 percent of passes thrown his way. He has 499 yards, and almost half of them – 219—have come after the catch. On his average play he turns a 5-yard swing pass into a 9-yard gain.
Prescott is happy with that sort of unspectacular but steady inside-out game. This is entirely different from the gunslinger style of Romo and his pal Dez, always looking for something deep.
Prescott is sensitive to Bryant’s ubersensitivity. When he returned from a knee injury to start against Philadelphia, Bryant was targeted 14 times.
But when only four were caught, Prescott steered elsewhere in Sunday’s 35-10 rout of the forever forlorn Cleveland Browns.
Fox studio analyst Charles Tillman, the former Pro Bowl cornerback, observed that when Bryant was out for four games, “they had sync, they had rhythm.”
But that’s easy to Deztroy.
Bryant wants the ball, and when he doesn’t get it, he sulks and quits on his pass routes. If he’s not the primary receiver, he has no interest in completing his assignment. Which means a safety can switch off Bryant and onto another Dallas receiver.
Dez was targeted only four times Sunday, and he caught just one. And he came under fire from Fox commentators citing his “dogging it going down the field.”
Unfortunately, we can expect more of this. The Cowboys have enough talent – and perhaps even enough coaching – to reach the Super Bowl. But whether they have the chemistry — and the psychology – are the most troubling questions.