Should the Cowboys Start Dak Prescott When Tony Romo Returns?

Prescott has led the Cowboys to a 5-1 record to start the year. Should he remain the starter?

There are a lot of things that go into planning a wedding, and some are pretty unexpected. You can easily plan colors and deejays and vows, but my fiancée and I have spent a decent amount of time discussing whether or not she would take my last name.

I’ve expressed to her that I don’t believe she should feel obligated to change her last name to “Redemann.” It’s longer than hers now and will always be mispronounced. She’s told me she truly wants to take it, but she’s also mentioned that it is odd thinking about the fact that the signature she’s always used -- the identity she’s always had -- will shift completely in less than a year.

Less than a year ago, I don’t think any of us would have believed the entire identity of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense would be where it is today.

This team has long been led by veteran quarterback Tony Romo, and -- despite his reputation -- it would have been nearly unfathomable a year or two ago to think he could lose his starting job. But the Dallas Cowboys we’ve known for so long are not those before us today, as rookie quarterback Dak Prescott has stepped up and led them to a 5-1 record in Romo’s stead.

When Romo returns from his injury should he inherit his old job back, or is Prescott the new face of the Cowboys?

Outrageous Acts

There are a number of factors for the Dallas Cowboys to consider in this decision, but the refreshing thing about being outside of a football team and the scrutiny those decision-makers get is that we can wave that all away for a while and look at the facts.

Initially, Romo was expected to be ready for a return in Week 8, but ESPN beat writer Todd Archer thinks that Week 9 against the Cleveland Browns is a likelier return date. Let’s assume that he comes back perfectly healthy in this game, with no extraneous rust. Are you starting your phenom rookie or your four-time Pro Bowl veteran?

The table below compares Dak Prescott’s first six games of his career with Tony Romo’s six most recent games. Since Romo was injured in the middle of a game twice during the 2015 season, too, we’ll even negate those and look just at games finished.

How do they stack up in per-game production?

Last 6 Games Year Pass Att. PassYD Comp % PassTD INT Rush Att. RuYD RuTD
Dak Prescott 2016 30.33 247.67 68.68% 1.17 0.17 3.33 11.17 0.50
Tony Romo 2014-2015 30.67 261.67 74.46% 2.83 0.83 2.17 4.33 0.00

Coincidentally, Prescott and Romo have thrown a nearly identical amount of passes per game over their most recent six appearances each. This gives us a great baseline for comparing their production in the context of similar offensive volume, despite different seasons and team construction.

You’ll notice that Romo outpaced Prescott in yardage production moderately (by around 15 yards passing per game) and completed a higher rate of his attempts. In addition, Romo more than doubled Prescott’s passing touchdown production over this timeframe.

Where Prescott wins is in the interception battle. He also provides an element of a rushing threat for his offense, a dimension that Romo just doesn’t have: he’s averaged 11.17 yards per game and 0.50 touchdowns per game on the ground.

In sum terms of production, these two are not far off at all. The big differences are that Prescott’s skill set offers more versatility while Romo’s offers more concentrated impact and that we have to go back to 2014 to find these games for Romo while Prescott is putting up these numbers right now.

Moving Beyond Words

We at numberFire like to consider more than just the surface-level production, however. We dig contextual value a lot more than raw data, which is why I’m curious how Prescott and Romo compare in terms of Net Expected Points (NEP).

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to standard box score information, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Through the lens of NEP, we will compare the per-play performances of Prescott this year against Romo over the past two years. In that span of time, Romo certainly played in more games and had more volume of work, so that’s why we want to examine the value added in terms of NEP per play and Success Rate (the percent of plays in either passing or rushing where the player added positive NEP).

What do we find?

Year Name Drop Backs Pass NEP/P Pass Success Rate Rush Att Rush NEP/P Rush Success Rate
2016 Dak Prescott 191 0.32 55.50% 21 0.59 64.29%
2014-15 Tony Romo 592 0.23 54.39% 15 0.16 53.33%

When it comes down to it, Passing NEP values Prescott’s consistency much more than Romo’s upside. Because he’s thrown only one interception over the course of these first six games, the fact that he hasn’t added a bunch of touchdown passes hasn’t hurt Prescott’s numbers nearly as much as it might seem.

Romo is nearly as consistent in terms of Passing Success Rate, but Prescott is simply keeping the Cowboys’ passing motor going without needing to win games for them by himself. His presence lets the offense work the way it has been designed to: on the ground, featuring running back Ezekiel Elliott behind an All-Pro offensive line.

In addition, we see Prescott’s contributions on the ground put into even starker relief here. He adds nearly four times the value that Romo does every time he brings down the ball and takes it himself.

Whether it’s consistency or impact, in a value-added sense, Prescott is the starting quarterback that Dallas needs.

Revolution From Within

While a six-game sample is by no means enough to canonize (or is that Canton-ize?) St. Dak of Dallas, it’s clear that he fits the direction of the Dallas Cowboys right now better than Tony Romo does.

The Cowboys were our 11th-best team by nERD coming into Week 6 and just beat our 6th-best team (the Green Bay Packers) on the road. They were 66.1 percent likely to make the playoffs coming into this week. All of that is with Prescott at the helm.

Before we even get into questions of Romo’s fragility and if his injuries have hindered his play, the numbers clearly indicate that Prescott is thriving as the hub of this offensive unit.

In a world where gaudy fantasy numbers draw our eye and big names from yesteryear are security blankets, one may think that Tony Romo will simply regain his starting title if and when he returns. The only problem with that? Dak Prescott has already made his name as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys, and he’s here to stay.