Mort & Schefter's Week 5 notebook: Tony Romo's new challenge

— -- Topics this week include the Cowboys' looming quarterback decision, a former head coach who could get another shot this offseason, the terrible defenses in the NFC South, and more.

Dak Prescott or Tony Romo?

Romo has remained publicly silent as he has watched rookie Dak Prescott perform to a level that few people, if any, saw coming. The good news for Romo: If he comes back healthy and is able to sustain the physical hits, Prescott most likely will deliver a Cowboys team that is still in contention. The bad news: If Prescott has no significant slips during the rest of the month, Romo has a standard to match. Now it's not just about health, but about maintaining the level Prescott is playing at.

"We're a few games away from Tony coming back, but Dak has not thrown an interception," said Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame Cowboys receiver. "Tony is a great quarterback, but we all know that he has thrown that interception during his career where people just don't forget. This kid hasn't thrown any. It will be hell around here in Dallas if Tony comes back and throws an interception that costs [the Cowboys] a game."

Romo, therefore, has a psychological hurdle to clear as well.

"I think Tony can handle it -- and I know he's happy for Dak and the team -- but you better believe it's messing with his head," Irvin said. "I went through it with Troy [Aikman] when he was hurt and Steve Beuerlein came in and ran off six or seven wins. I kept reminding people we were Troy's team when a lot of people in the building and the public wondered whether we should just stick with Beuerlein for the playoffs. I saw it wearing on Troy. We're only human. Tony's only human."

Irvin's reference to Aikman is from the 1991 season, which was Aikman's third season. He hurt his back in a vital Week 13 game against the Redskins and left with a 14-7 lead. Beuerlein padded it to 21-7, and the Cowboys held on for a 24-21 win, giving the Redskins one of only two losses in a Super Bowl-winning season. Beuerlein won the last four starts of that regular season, and coach Jimmy Johnson gave him the start in the NFC wild-card playoff game, a 17-13 road win over the Bears. The next week, Aikman was back behind center, and the Cowboys were crushed 38-6 by the Lions in Detroit, a playoff elimination.

"That stuff bothered Troy, but there was no doubt going forward he was still the guy for the franchise," Irvin said. "In this case, between Tony and Dak, most people know that Dak is the future for the franchise. And if Dak has to go to the bench when Tony is ready, it's not going to affect Dak. He has won over this team, and he is just a mentally tough, even-keeled young man who is going to be ready and stay ready for whatever is thrown his way."

--  Chris Mortensen

Short stay in Philly for Jim Schwartz?

If the Eagles maintain their winning ways, Schwartz will be among the NFL assistants who will surface as a head-coaching candidate for 2017. Eagles linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who was with Schwartz for four years in Detroit, said, "I think he deserves it."

The Eagles' defense has allowed just 27 points in three games. Everyone could rationalize the success of the first two weeks coming against the Browns and Bears, but then Schwartz's defense stymied the explosive Steelers in a 34-3 victory in Week 3. His work as the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator in 2014 also was highly commended, but Rex Ryan came in as coach and Schwartz enjoyed a year's hiatus before the Eagles called.

This is where first-year Eagles coach Doug Pederson also deserves credit, just as he should receive credit for Wentz's unforeseen early success in the wake of the circumstances of Sam Bradford being traded to the Vikings before the season started.

Pederson had no real prior relationship with Schwartz. He had other candidates on his list for defensive coordinator. When organizational discussions turned to the dynamics of what Pederson was facing in his first season, however, Schwartz became an intriguing candidate. Pederson wanted to be the offensive play-caller in his first season, in addition to being the head coach. He needed someone with experience and a track record on the defensive side. The two coaches met, and the fit was there.

Whether it's just a one-year fit remains to be seen. Some who know Schwartz don't believe he will take just any job if it presents itself. He could be entertained by the right college opportunity.

For now, it's on to Detroit for Schwartz. Again.

--  Chris Mortensen

Kyle Shanahan has Falcons' offense rolling

One quarter of the way into this season, the Falcons are averaging 80 yards per game more than anyone else. It helps playing in the NFC South (more on that below), but Atlanta has been ringing up video-game numbers, improving its record and bolstering Shanahan's resume for future openings.

One reason the Falcons' offense has improved is personnel. Atlanta added former Browns center  Alex Mack, who has solidified the offensive line, strengthening it from the inside out. Plus, there have been reinforcements added at wide receiver, with  Mohamed SanuAldrick Robinson and  Taylor Gabriel replacing Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson. There is more talent, more depth and, consequently, more production.

Behind the strength of its offense, Atlanta has risen in the NFC South, though it did the same early last season before fading. This year's team appears better positioned than last year's, but Shanahan knows well the challenge that lays ahead.

This week the Falcons return to Denver, where Shanahan's offense will take on the Broncos coach he has known since he was a little boy, Gary Kubiak. Shanahan learned at the feet of Kubiak, who learned from Shanahan's father, Mike, the former Broncos coach. When Kubiak was hired as Houston's head coach, he brought along the younger Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.

Kubiak this week called Kyle Shanahan "exceptional. ... as sharp a guy as I've ever worked with."

It is Shanahan's No. 1-ranked offense vs. one of the NFL's top-ranked defenses. It also is the first of back-to-back challenges for Atlanta. Following Sunday's game in Denver, the Falcons will stay out West and travel to Seattle, where they will spend the full week practicing for a game against the Seahawks, who will be coming off their bye week. And if Shanahan can figure out a way to beat Denver's and Seattle's defenses, his profile is going to rise even higher.

--  Adam Schefter

How MLB could become model for NFL

Just last week, Cubs general manager Theo Epstein signed a record five-year, $50 million extension that easily would have set a new mark in football. No NFL general manager is making anywhere close to that number, no matter how many Super Bowls he has won.

GM salaries in football usually are kept secret, and exact figures are almost never publicly known, but Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome and Green Bay's Ted Thompson -- each of whom has helped his franchise to a Super Bowl win -- are thought to be making close to $4 million per season, not close to Epstein's new deal.

Seattle GM John Schneider was a season away from becoming the winter's hottest free agent before he re-upped with the Seahawks in July on a deal that will pay him well north of $3.5 million per year. Denver GM John Elway is thought to have two years remaining on his contract, and he could become the NFL executive who breaks the glass ceiling on GM salaries.

At a time when franchises are worth more than ever, when TV revenues are higher than ever, none of the salaries for NFL's GMs or front-office positions have gone up in proportion to what owners now are making. It is one of the least-discussed and least-noticed aspects of football.

Yet in the NFL, pressure on GMs has risen at a much steadier pace than salaries have. Somewhere along the past decade, they have come under the same fire that head coaches have. At the end of the season, there are questions on social-media platforms and on sports talk radio about whether certain GMs should survive. It always was that way with coaches; recently, GMs joined them.

NFL GMs are under more pressure than ever before. Yet their pay is not all that different.

It used to be that way in baseball, too, until Epstein built a champion in Boston and then took his talents to Chicago to try to do the same. Not only has he constructed a winning baseball franchise, but he has become the model for NFL GMs to chase.

-- Adam Schefter

Not much D in NFC South

NFC South and defense do not belong in the same sentence, unless the sentence is about the NFC South having four of the NFL's five worst defenses.

A quarter of the way through the season, as the league heads into Week 5, the Saints are ranked 32nd in the league, allowing 32.5 points per game.

The Buccaneers are 31st, allowing 32 points per game. The Falcons are 29th, allowing 31 points per game. The Panthers are 28th, allowing 29.5 points per game.

Part of the issue is that all four teams have franchise-type quarterbacks, capable of big and explosive plays. But that cannot explain how so many bad defenses are all clustered together.

There are more challenges ahead, starting Sunday. The Saints have a bye weekend to try to make some defensive repairs, while the Falcons travel to Denver to play the Broncos, and the Panthers host the Buccaneers on Monday night.

Teams are hoping for improvements, even if they are slight. But make no mistake, the NFC South has become heaven for fantasy football players and just the opposite for defensive coordinators in the division.

-- Adam Schefter

Emptying out the notebook

  • Just as the NFC South has some unusual distinctions, so, too, does the AFC South. It's the only division in which each of its teams has allowed more points than it has scored. The Texans have scored 69 and allowed 73; the Jaguars have scored 84 and allowed 111; the Titans have scored 62 and allowed 84; and the Colts have scored 108 and allowed 125.
  • We see it every season, and we are seeing it again now: Turnovers define seasons. Need any more proof of this? On the way to its NFC Championship, Carolina's turnover ratio was +20; this year, with the Panthers in last place, it is minus-3. Last season, on the way to the draft's fourth overall pick, the Cowboys' turnover ratio was minus-22. This season, with Dallas at 3-1, it is +3.
  • Weather constantly seems to be an issue for the Buccaneers. If they play early, they encounter extreme heat; if they play late, they run the risk of lightning, which has interrupted and halted their past two home games. In fact, Tampa Bay now has more lightning delays at home this season, two, than they do wins at home, zero. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they have only one more late game, so they're hoping for no more lightning delays -- but more home wins.
  • Even with Frank Gore, Indianapolis now has gone 54 straight games without a 100-yard rusher. If this keeps up, the Colts will threaten the record of 67 straight games without a 100-yard rusher, which the Bengals set from 1992-97, before Corey Dillon came along.
  • The Eagles will get at least another game from right tackle Lane Johnson, their former first-round pick, while his appeal of a pending 10-game suspension for violating the PED policy is decided. Johnson has expressed anger toward the supplemental company of the product he ingested and even toward the NFL Players Association. As one team executive pointed out, however, Johnson's case is now being decided by a neutral arbitrator under the new drug policy that was finalized on Sept. 12, 2014. What does not help him is the lesson he should have learned when he served a four-game PED suspension at the start of the 2014 season -- no matter what, a player is responsible for what he ingests into his body. He's not a first-time offender of this ignorance, even if one is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.
  • When C.J. Spiller was signed by the Seahawks last week, they were certain he would be an immediate contributor. Sure enough, he caught a touchdown pass against the Jets. Even when Thomas Rawls returns to join Christine Michael in the backfield, the Seahawks are convinced Spiller has a role on the team the rest of the season and gives the offense a lift as a third-down back and maybe a little more than that.
  • Update on Dolphins tight end Jordan Cameron's visit last week to Pittsburgh-based concussion specialist Dr. Micky Collins: Sources say Dr. Collins believes Cameron eventually will be cleared to resume playing; the length of that wait, however, is uncertain. Thus, the team and Cameron are in deliberation mode after he suffered his fourth concussion.
  • --  Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen