We all know by now that Tony Romo suffered a lower back fracture in Thursday night’s game against the Seattle Seahawks. We also know that he won’t be the Cowboys starting quarterback to begin the 2016 season.
What remains unknown is exactly how long Romo will be out. I’ve heard a timetable of 4-6 weeks but also one of 6-10 weeks. At this point, nobody is saying that Romo’s done for the season.
Give that it’s still two weeks until Dallas’ first regular season game, that means Romo could come back far sooner into the year than perhaps was originally being discussed. Even the Cowboys third game is still on the table, though that would be the most optimistic projection.
Let’s take a look at how Romo’s status, and the wide range of possibilities, will impact the Cowboys’ roster decisions as the NFL cut-down deadlines are just days away.
QB Depth Chart
After his first two brilliant preseason games, Dak Prescott seemed to have closed the discussion about the backup quarterback. Now Prescott will be Dallas’ starter during Romo’s recovery, bringing the rest of the depth chart back into question.
My projection had been that Dallas would keep just Romo and Prescott on the roster and put Jameil Showers back on the practice squad. They had their backup and developmental player in a single roster spot with Prescott. However, now they will have to reassess.
There are two ways to look at Showers and having him be Dak’s backup. On the one hand, you might want a veteran now. If Prescott gets injured or struggles against regular season competition, an experienced quarterback might be preferable to another young project player.
Showers hasn’t looked great in the preseason, but he’s also had the misfortune of playing with the least talent around him. What would he look like behind first-team offensive linemen and throwing to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten?
Another factor to consider is playing styles. Prescott and Showers are both mobile, athletic players. If the offense gets used to Prescott’s style and plays are developed to take advantage of his running, could that give Showers more value? He might be able to bring a continuity factor as a backup that an older, slower pocket passer could not.
There is still the possibility that Tony Romo could be put on injured reserve with the option of being re-activated in the middle of the season. However, that would remove the option of an early return.
Let’s say things go beautifully and Romo can play after four weeks from the injury. That means he could come back for the Cowboys’ Week 3 game. This is highly idealistic, but do you really want to take it off the table?
More than likely, Romo will be carried on the 53-man roster and left inactive while he heals up. That preserves the team’s options and maximizes flexibility in handling the position throughout the season.
If you look at my last 53-man roster projection then you’ll see where I had Dallas going long at a few positions. One of those roster spots will be gone now with the changes at quarterback.
Where will the spot come from? Here are the most likely options:
- Running Back – How badly do you really need Lance Dunbar? Given his own history, how much do you even trust him to stay healthy? Dallas could elect to cut Dunbar along with Darren McFadden and just keep Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, and Darius Jackson. They also could decide to risk Jackson on the practice squad if they’d rather hang on to one of the veterans.
- Tight End – I had Dallas keeping five tight ends on the last roster projection. One of those was Rico Gathers, who made the team only as a developmental player to protect him from the practice squad. Dallas may now have to take that risk. Alternatively, they could be forced to make a decision between Geoff Swaim and Austin Traylor if they don’t want to leave Gathers vulnerable.
- Fullback – They may not keep a FB at all, instead using a tight end when they need someone to run block out of the backfield. They will likely be trying out Swaim and Traylor in that role during practice to see if that becomes an option.
- Linebacker – I had the Cowboys keeping seven but they could just go with six; three starters and three backups. This is especially possible if Keith Smith, now at fullback after being converted from linebacker, is still around for emergency depth. Believe it or not, I think it could be Justin Durant who loses out in this scenario. Turning 31 next month, Durant has been showing his age so far since returning to Dallas and may not be the player they’d hoped for.
It’s hard to say which of these is the most likely. Only the Cowboys know how much they value the individual players who would be impacted.
No matter where it comes from, though, it appears somebody is going to lose their job thanks to Romo’s injury.
Even for guys who were going to make the team in any scenario, their roles and playing time could be impacted. This was discussed in detail by fellow staff writer RJ Ochoa earlier today, who showed how Brice Butler’s value may have just increased in a Dak Prescott-led offense.
A move from Romo to Prescott also puts even more emphasis on the Cowboys running game and the importance of the offensive line. It could have just taken Ronald Leary off the trade block; does Dallas really want to risk not having him now?
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The immediate response to Tony Romo’s injury was probably more extreme than the reality of the consequences. He may not be out as long as we first thought, though you do have to wonder what sort of player he’ll be upon return.
It’s important to remember that Romo’s been here before. He played all of 2014 with two small back fractures and still led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record, division title, and playoff win. We may be overrating how much this changes our season.
One thing is clear; we have Dak Prescott now and way more hope as a result. If Dak’s preseason play is any indication of what he’ll do in September, then the big question may not be about when Romo comes back or how he’ll play when he does.
At that point, we may be asking if Romo will ever get his job back at all.