If you're a head coach in the National Football League, one of the things you dread most at the beginning of the season is the prospect of spending any part of the coming months being asked about -- and having to consider -- a change at quarterback. It means, almost by definition, something has gone wrong with your master plan.
But halfway through the season, nearly four coaches are being faced with that very question. In only one case is it a pleasant conundrum. Let's take a look at the various situations, and I'll give my opinion on the best path forward for each:
Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott vs. Tony Romo
Al Davis didn't say it first, but he may have said it best: "I'd rather be right than consistent." I am reversing course on this QB situation.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Romo needed to go back in the lineup when healthy. The main reason? The evidence at the time was that, while Prescott had been competent, the Cowboys' ceiling was clearly higher with Romo. At the time of that column, Prescott had thrown just four touchdown passes in five games, and he was proving himself a preternaturally mature game manager. Given Romo's long track record of prolific production, Dallas had more offensive upside with No. 9 under center.
But things have changed. Over the past three weeks, Prescott has thrown eight TD passes. He's bumped up his yards per attempt from 7.99 in Games 1 through 5 to 8.40 in Games 6 through 9 (not an insignificant jump). He's led the Cowboys to a statement win (at Green Bay), a comeback win (against Philadelphia) and a blowout in a potential trap game (at Cleveland). I now believe that, at 7-1, the Cowboys are better off riding the hot hand than bringing Romo out of the bullpen.
It was a good sign that Dak could bounce back from the worst start of his rookie season (Week 8 vs. Philly, though Dallas did win) to then have his best start against the Browns this past week. He was an efficient 21-of-27 for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and continued to equally distribute the ball around the field.
Against the Eagles, Dak seemed to be forcing the ball to Dez Bryant, who was back in the lineup for the first time in a month. Prescott targeted Bryant twice as many times as any other receiver. But this past week, Prescott took what was available and spread the ball around. Jason Witten became the favored target as the Cowboys rolled to an easy road win.
If Dak can continue to take what the defense gives him and make the appropriate reads, there is no reason to think the Cowboys won't stick with him. In fact, the rhetoric coming out of the locker room is pointing to just that. Witten seems to be softening on the idea of needing his best friend back in the huddle with a series of diplomatic responses to incessant questions about the coming quarterback controversy.
It was something Witten said in his postgame interview with Deion Sanders on the NFL Network that caught my attention, about what the rookies like Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have brought to the Cowboys' locker room.
"They've created a lot of energy for me," Witten said. "I'm in my 14th year, and these guys, they do -- they bring energy to me, they make me feel young. It's great to be part of this group, and for our football team to be 7-1 at the halfway mark. Just can't say enough about those guys and the way they played."
While I still contend that the team's ceiling could be a little higher with Romo under center, that infectious energy and efficient play of Prescott may be just what the Cowboys needed. Realize that could change -- two bad games and you can count on Jason Garrett concluding that Romo is now truly "100% healthy." But right now, it's hard to take out a quarterback who has led the team to seven straight wins and the best record in the NFC.
Los Angeles Rams: Case Keenum vs. Jared Goff
This one is interesting. In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that a quarterback learns best when he is actually taking live game snaps, but there is some institutional history here that might give us a better understanding of Jeff Fisher's mentality.
In 1995, Fisher drafted Steve McNair with the third overall pick and brought him along slowly, with the QB starting just six games over the course of his first two seasons. He wasn't named starter until prior to his third season in the NFL. While McNair obviously turned into a heck of a player, it's not like he made the team markedly better in his first two years as a starter, going 8-8 both years (the club had gone 7-9 and 8-8 in McNair's first two seasons in the league).
But Fisher stayed the course and won the AFC championship in 1999. Conversely, when Fisher selected Vince Young with the third overall pick in 2006, he was named the full-time starter in just his fourth game in the NFL. While Young went on to a flashy first season -- earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors -- he lacked the foundation of McNair, and you know the rest: Fisher was fired following the 2010 season.
So you can understand Fisher's reasoning in wanting to bring along Goff slowly. But this isn't the mid-'90s, and in today's NFL, Fisher can't afford four years of .500 ball to develop his young quarterback. While I understand the reasoning, I also believe that the Rams could be losing games just as ugly with Goff under center as they are with Keenum -- and at least then they'd be accelerating the rookie's development. If they are so concerned that they might fracture the kid's confidence by starting him too early, then maybe he wasn't actually worth the No. 1 overall pick in the first place. Either way, you have to find out.
New York Jets: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Bryce Petty
The coach in me wants to see -- and potentially develop -- what I have in Bryce Petty in a game situation, but the competitor in me knows that Ryan Fitzpatrick gives me the best chance to win. And if I'm Todd Bowles, I can feel my seat getting a little warmer as each week passes, and I need to win games and win them now.
Even as awful as he has been at times been, Fitzpatrick's 13-interception brand of awful (and seven fumbles, though none lost) still gives me the best chance to win. But he's also shown the ability that helped the Jets to 10 wins last year -- and had it not been for a Miami kickoff return for a touchdown in the closing minutes last week, this team could be 4-5 and right in the thick of the AFC wild-card race.
So if I'm Todd Bowles, I stick with my best player at the position -- and while it might not seem obvious to the fans, that player is Ryan Fitzpatrick. (If his sprained knee is good to go, of course.) No doubt that Fitzpatrick is streaky. And while it can be a sour streaky, like it was in Weeks 3 and 4 (when he threw a combined nine interceptions), he also can catch fire, like he did in weeks 12 through 16 last year, when he threw 13 touchdowns to just one interception.
This is a team with talent on its roster, and if Fitzpatrick catches another one of those hot streaks, there is no reason to believe the Jets can't fight their way back into the wild-card race. But one thing is for certain: Going to Petty now would be akin to looking talented veterans like Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall and Muhammad Wilkerson right in the face and telling them to stick a fork in the season. And it's still too early to do that. Remember last year's Chiefs?
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles vs. Chad Henne
Are we really having this conversation?
I get it: Bortles has struggled this season after a somewhat-promising sophomore campaign in which he threw nearly twice as many touchdown passes (35) as interceptions (18).
But, what, you want me to bench him to send a message? Scare tactics are never a long-term solution and rarely work in the short term. You want me to bench him so he can fix his mechanics? Like he is going to completely rework his arm action in the middle of a season if given an extra week ... And most importantly, you want me to bench him in favor of Chad Henne? Journeyman Chad freaking Henne? In words often spoken on another sports media outlet ... Come on, man!
I was never as high as many folks on Bortles as a prospect, and those concerns have proved legitimate: His long and exaggerated delivery was clearly evident during the evaluation process. Thus far, he has shown flashes of brilliance ... while also making you want to rip your hair out due to awful decisions and poor execution.
But this is a quarterback who is already on his third offensive coordinator in less than three seasons and is playing with one of the youngest teams in the NFL. The Jaguars and the Raiders were the sexy teams to pick in the preseason as the potential breakouts, and that was probably unfair to this team (a conclusion no doubt strongly fueled by Bortles' strong fantasy football stats in 2015).
The fact that the Raiders have lived up to the hype doesn't help, but Jacksonville is a team that has a lot of consistency issues -- and while some of that falls on Bortles, there is plenty of blame to pass around. More to the point: If Gus Bradley is going to save his job this year, it's going to be with a Bortles resurgence, not Chad Henne.
Follow Brian Billick on Twitter @coachbillick.