Aaron Rodgers was sitting at his locker during Green Bay Packers training camp when the conversation turned to the progression of young quarterbacks.
It was early August, a few weeks before a broken bone in Tony Romo’s back thrust rookie Dak Prescott into action for the Dallas Cowboys, who visit Green Bay on Sunday. But Rodgers’ words are worth revisiting now that Prescott’s strong start seems to have the Cowboys hedging ever so slightly on their commitment to Romo, as the veteran gets closer to making his return.
“You’ve got a lot on your plate, a lot of expectations, and the ball’s in your hands every single play,” Rodgers, the two-time NFL MVP, told USA TODAY Sports that day. “You’ve got to be consistent. Defenses will scheme for you in the offseason when you’ve had good years. They’ll see what other teams are doing that worked and didn’t work and try and repeat the stuff that worked against you.
“You’ve got to take on the onslaught of the pressure that usually happens to young quarterbacks from a defensive standpoint, bringing extra pressure, five or six rushers, and then when they figure out what works best against you — whether that’s two-man with a spy or one-high zone or one-high man or whatever it might be — you have to prove you can continue to make plays.”
No doubt, Prescott has handled things superbly, looking poised and decisive in completing 69% of his passes for 1,239 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions — his 155 throws without a pick are the most ever by a rookie to start his career. He's also added another three TDs rushing during the Cowboys’ 4-1 start.
But the process is only beginning for Prescott, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and others who have impressed immediately.
Opposing coordinators have just five NFL game tapes on Prescott, the fourth-round draft pick from Mississippi State. Job No. 1 when facing the Cowboys is stopping fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott and Dallas' potent running game, which creates favorable matchups through the air. At some point, somebody will find ways to make Prescott’s life more difficult, and it’ll be up to him to adjust and respond to adversity.
That makes it more striking that in conversations this week with NFL executives, scouts and coaches — all speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons — a strong consensus emerged that the Cowboys should stick with Prescott regardless of Romo’s status, unless the rookie plays himself out of the lineup. Some said this shouldn’t even be a question, given the risk of dividing the locker room, disrupting Prescott’s trajectory and messing with chemistry on an offense that’s rolling. A high-ranking scout compared Prescott to a young Warren Moon.
One general manager said the hype has gotten ahead of reality with Prescott, 23, and he’d be shocked if Romo, 36, doesn’t return as the starter. However, that was based mainly on the resources tied up in Romo — just $8.5 million in salary this year but over $20.8 million in cap space — and a close relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who reiterated after last week’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals that Romo remains No. 1 on the depth chart.
In a subsequent radio interview, Jones seemed to soften that stance, saying Prescott’s play will allow the Cowboys to “play this thing out” while Romo gets back into game shape. They have a bye next week, then host Wentz and the Eagles on Oct. 30.
“I just have to pinch myself to think about it,” Jones told 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas. “We’ve got Dak Prescott, who’s playing at a level that is very capable of winning these games. We’ve got the future every time he walks out there.”
That’s a strong statement off five starts, especially considering how Prescott got here. The Cowboys tried to trade up for Paxton Lynch in the first round of the draft, got leapfrogged for Connor Cook in the fourth and examined veteran options after Romo's previous backup, veteran Kellen Moore, broke an ankle early in camp.
No matter what anyone says now, the Cowboys didn’t see Prescott’s instant success coming. That leads back to the question of when defenses will figure out why and how to exploit it — but that game never ends.
In essence, Jones and Co. have gotten an extended version of the glimpse the Packers got on Nov. 29, 2007, when Rodgers, then in his third season, relieved an injured Brett Favre against the Cowboys and threw for 201 yards and a touchdown, setting the stage for him to take over when Favre retired, unretired and was traded the following year. And Favre had been a lot more dependable than Romo, who has played in just four games since the start of last season and is due $14 million in 2017.
“Just like in my position or any young quarterback,” Rodgers said in that August interview, “if they can find somebody to do it for less, at or above your level, it’s an easy choice.”
Tom’s Top 10
(Last week’s ranking in parentheses)
1. (1) New England Patriots: With Tom Brady, they might be NFL’s most well-rounded team.
2. (3) Seattle Seahawks: Jimmy Graham’s looking like himself again. Major mismatch weapon.
3. (2) Denver Broncos: Paxton Lynch slung it before week of prep rattled his brain. Needs time.
4. (4) Pittsburgh Steelers: Sammie Coates’ 22.2-yard average leads all players with 10-plus catches.
5. (5) Minnesota Vikings: Shadowing elite WRs could earn CB Xavier Rhodes a big payday.
6. (7) Green Bay Packers: Top-ranked run D faces big test against Ezekiel Elliott and Cowboys.
7. (9) Atlanta Falcons: OC Kyle Shanahan’s star on the rise again as head coaching candidate.
8. (6) Philadelphia Eagles: Beware — Redskins WR DeSean Jackson has lit up former team before.
9. (NR) Dallas Cowboys: Stopping run, rushing passer remain issues for coordinator Rod Marinelli’s crew.
10. (10): Oakland Raiders: Good offense, a little good luck have covered up 32nd-ranked defense.
Dropped out: Cincinnati Bengals (8).
Note: Does not factor in the result of Thursday’s game.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero