-- It is Aug. 25 -- just 90 seconds into a preseason game in Seattle -- and Tony Romo has lost his job.
He doesn't know this, of course. No one does. The crunching hit by Cliff Avril that cracked Romo's back and forced him out of that game looked bad, but neither Romo nor the Dallas Cowboys thought it would cost him time. He asked back in, and the next day, the stories out of Dallas all said he'd avoided a scare. The story of the night was the preseason debut of first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott, who had 48 yards on seven carries after missing a bunch of practices with a hamstring injury. A few people noted how good fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott looked in relief of Romo.
"I was ready to go," Prescott said, simply, after hitting 17 of 23 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown that night. While no one expected it to matter right away, that readiness did not go unnoticed.
"That's all he had to show, for me," one Cowboys official said nearly two months later, with the phenomenon in full flower. "He had to go into that game, without any warmup, against the best defense in the league, that was playing its starters, and he was just -- like it was nothing. He was ready. Whatever we needed him to do, he was ready for it."
That was said in retrospect, though. In the days that followed this particular preseason game, Cowboys coaches talked of Prescott as a project. One said Romo's injury would offer a rare chance for a rookie to get first-team reps. They believed the system in which Prescott played at Mississippi State would translate well in the pros, and they were starting to convince themselves they might be able to get by with him as Romo's primary backup, though Kellen Moore was still in the picture and the plan for Prescott was education, not expectation.
"Just getting him that exposure right now is huge," one Cowboys coach said in that final week of August, before they knew the severity of Romo's back injury. "It gives you a good feeling about what's to come."
There was a bad feeling in the organization -- that Romo was hurt again, and that the story of Romo from this point forward would be the need to always worry that the next hit could get him hurt again. They weren't talking about life after Romo in late August, but they were thinking about it. And Prescott was already nibbling at the corner of that picture.
It is Sept. 19, and for the very first time, owner Jerry Jones gets the question.
It's the morning after Dallas' first win, a 27-23 escape from Washington, a game the Cowboys entered as the underdog. Prescott was close to perfect, with an 88.2 QBR and a passer rating of 103.8, and people inside and outside of Dallas were getting surprisingly excited. "This is Dak's team now" was uttered into many radio microphones, and the phrase scrolled across a lot of TV screens. At this time, the Cowboys still think it's a cute idea and nothing more.
"I think Dak said it best," Jones told local radio hosts. "It's Tony's team. Tony has the experience and he has just the ability to make us a better team, so that's the only way you look at it right now."
And later: "Boy, I don't even want to go there, really, because it's a great place to be, to have someone of Tony Romo's stature that could be playing for several years, and then have Dak Prescott as well for the future. It just feels good."
It is Oct. 13, and Prescott is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
He is nonplussed. Asked by a gaggle of reporters what it feels like, Prescott says, "It's always exciting," and points out that he has been on the cover before.
That's when you realize none of this is too big for him. Prescott played high-level college football, has done more than his fair share of interviews and is well versed in football narrative. He's aware, at this point, that the talk outside the building is about a looming quarterback controversy between him and Romo, who is inching closer to a return. Prescott doesn't care.
"My job is to win, so I'm going to continue to try and do that," he says. "If you guys want to make it bigger than that, go ahead."
At this time, the Cowboys' locker room is a fun place. Backup quarterback Mark Sanchez takes his turn playing "laundry basketball" with teammates, competing to shoot balls into laundry hampers a few yards away from each other in the part of the locker room where Prescott and Elliott are fielding questions. Elliott talks of what it's like to room with Prescott on the road. Prescott brags about a collection of peacock bow ties.
In a far corner, star receiver Dez Bryant, still working his way back from an injury that has cost the team nothing in the standings, is smiling and talking about team chemistry.
"It's fun to go to meetings," Bryant said. "Think about that. Meetings are never fun. They're not supposed to be fun. But with this group we have here, it's all fun. The feeling in here right now, I can't describe it. It's like nothing we've ever had here."
What's clear is that this is not a locker room divided. Romo is still present. He's a helper for Prescott and is still maintaining the same relationships in the room and in the front office that he has had for years. The strong belief is that, if something happened to force Romo back into action, he would play well behind this monster offensive line, and the team chemistry would be unaffected as long as losing didn't set in.
At this time, in mid-October, there are whispers by people in the know about where Romo's support lies. They say Jones, coach Jason Garrett and tight end Jason Witten are among the strongest voices in giving the job back to Romo when he's healthy. But the weeks that follow will convince even the strongest Romo loyalists that it's better to keep things the way they are until something changes.
In the halls of the Cowboys' gleaming new training facility in Frisco, Texas, no one will talk about the quarterback. They're under orders. The best you can do is off-the-record, walkaway stuff from people who are afraid to be seen talking to you. Even those are on-message.
"What good does it do us to talk about this right now?" one decision-maker asked. "We don't know what's going to happen. This is the NFL. [Prescott] could have an injury and then Mark Sanchez is playing in the second half Sunday. We're just going to keep it even and see where it goes."
It is Nov. 6, and Romo wants back in, but you're not going to hear him say it.
Romo is on the road with the team, watching Prescott take apart the winless Browns in a matchup that more or less amounts to an extra bye week. Romo's practice work has ramped up, and teammates say he looks fantastic throwing the ball. There is little doubt he could play, if they needed him to. But they don't.
Cowboys sources say there's no doubt Romo would like his job back, but that he's being the good soldier. They say his relationships with Jones and Garrett are strong enough that he's "all-in" on the decision and won't rock the boat. And just in case, Jones' postgame comments Sunday night put Romo in a position where to complain, either publicly or behind the scenes, would instantly label him the bad guy.
"Tony is on board to ride this thing out as well," Jones said. "Let me be real clear on that. There is no equivocation. He is totally committed to doing the very best thing to win the game."
Those same sources also point out that Romo is smart enough to know 19 of the NFL's 32 teams have had more than one quarterback throw a pass this season, and 11 teams have had more than one QB start a game. The odds are decent that something will happen to land Romo in a game before this season is over. And if not, there's a chance that means they all get to win the Super Bowl together. Backups get rings, too, after all.
It is Nov. 15, and now it's official.
Romo's back is healed and he's ready to return. Only problem is, the kid hasn't let up. Prescott has the Cowboys at 8-1 and in first place in the NFC East. Romo will trade in his game-day sweatsuit for a uniform and pads this week at home against Baltimore, but he will not start. Practice is likely to be different for him this week, too. Weeks ago, he was tough to find, throwing on a back field with equipment staff, tucked into a corner near where Jones' helicopter lands at the team's spanking-new practice facility. This week, he should be out there taking Sanchez's snaps, sliding in with Alfred Morris and the backup offensive line after Prescott, Elliott and the starters have their turn.
The Cowboys haven't ruled out the possibility of Romo starting for them at some point this season, because why should they? Prescott could get hurt. He could struggle, as rookies do, especially as the length of the NFL season starts to affect them. Right now, given his track record, Romo is obviously the best backup quarterback in football, and the Cowboys feel as though they have an embarrassment of riches at the game's most important position.
"We've got a great luxury, a wonderful problem to have," Jones said after the team's Week 9 victory in Cleveland. "We've got some real talent at the quarterback position. I think Tony Romo is one of the best quarterbacks to play this game, and I get very excited when I look at Dak and his future. I just don't have a problem with this situation."
As Jones talked, the Cowboys' locker room was in full bubble. Bryant had caught one measly pass for 19 yards in the 35-10 victory in Cleveland and couldn't care less. He laughed with reporters as they discussed how wide open the three receivers were who caught Prescott's touchdown passes, and at how unstoppable Elliott continued to look.
Romo sat not far away, dressing quietly but with his own big smile. He has remained silent throughout. He'll make small talk but clearly doesn't want to do interviews for fear of being a distraction. No one with the Cowboys wants anything to distract from what's going on right now.
After Prescott and Elliott authored a stunning comeback victory in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Jones said Romo would be Prescott's backup upon his return to the active roster. "We're going to let the decision make itself," Jones said. To this point, the decision has been made: Prescott is playing too well for the team to make any changes.
But that decision is likely to continue to "make itself." Don't expect the Cowboys to make any formal announcements about Prescott being the starter for the rest of the season, or for next season, because why should they?
It is Feb. 6, 2017, and the Cowboys have a decision to make.
It's too murky at this point to know what has befallen them in the interim. A Super Bowl run? A late-season fizzle? A season done in by an ultimately overmatched defense? Regardless, the Cowboys enter the offseason with the same beautiful quandary they carried with them throughout their season. They're confident in Prescott as their quarterback of the future, but also confident that Romo is still one of the best in the game.
There are calls to trade Romo. Assuming he's healthy, QB-starved teams would offer high picks for him, even though he's about to turn 37 and, at this point, is clearly a major injury risk. By trading him (or releasing him), they would save $5.1 million on their 2017 salary cap. Prescott is scheduled to cost a mere $635,848 against the 2017 cap, and not much more in 2018 or 2019.
But even if they trade or release Romo, the Cowboys will still carry a $19.6 million cap charge for him in 2017 -- the result of an unwieldy contract made even more challenging by continual restructures. So it's not as if they'll be able to just throw around money like a team that's committing only 0.4 percent of its cap to the most important position. If the Cowboys think Romo can still play at a high level, there's a case for keeping him, given how much he'll cost them regardless.
The important thing to know about the Cowboys' quarterback situation -- short-term and long-term --?is that it's a good thing. If Romo is the backup, they have the best overall quarterback situation in the entire league. If Prescott struggles and Romo takes over again, Prescott isn't the type to crawl into a shell and pout. He knows he has shown he can play in the league, and if his career doesn't turn out to be an unbroken arc of success, he's smart and circumspect enough to know that's more normal than not. What have we seen from Prescott to indicate he wouldn't bounce back if he got benched, Romo got hurt, and he had to go back in and play?
And if Prescott doesn't struggle, and the Cowboys decide to move on from Romo after this season, financial consequences be damned, the relationship between him and the team is solid enough that it won't be an ugly parting. If he can figure out a way to keep himself healthy -- a big "if" at this point -- Romo has every reason to believe he can help someone win in 2017. That could be any number of teams, including the Cowboys.
On its own, Prescott's ascendance illustrates the moral of the Cowboys' quarterback situation: You never know what's going to happen. Having Romo healthy and Prescott playing well makes Dallas that much better prepared.