Dak Prescott aside, Tony Romo must heal fully before returning

Four weeks have passed since we've seen Tony Romo on a football field. In the meantime, rookie Dak Prescott has played well enough for the Dallas Cowboys to prompt reminders -- from Jerry Jones to Prescott himself -- that this is still Romo's team.

I'm sure Romo, expected to be out at until at least midseason with a broken bone in his back, is itching to get out there and stake a claim to his job.

I know because I've been in his shoes.

I've suffered the exact same injury, and I understand the pressure to perform in a league where there's always someone ready to replace you. But because of my experience, I also know he absolutely should not return until his back is fully healed, no matter how good he feels.

I broke my back when I was with the Carolina Panthers in 2007 -- a year when the team went through four starting QBs (the others being Jake Delhomme, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore) due to injury. I was hurt against the Saints in Week 5. The day after the hit that caused the injury, I couldn't even move well enough to turn on the bathroom sink. Two weeks later, I was surviving through practice. Three weeks later, I was playing against the Colts in Week 8.

Even though I could practice and eventually play on Sundays, my back hindered my ability. I remember throwing a corner route to Steve Smith one day in practice, and I released the ball very early because I knew I didn't have the mobility or velocity needed to get the ball where I wanted, when I wanted. Even when I threw it, I really didn't even believe I could make the throw, but I fought through the pain and limitations, barely making it work. There were even times when I squatted, with my back straight up, when I was under center, because the pain was almost unbearable.

Honestly, I didn't feel great until about 8-to-10 weeks after my injury. But if I felt good enough, I wanted to be out there. I made what would turn out to be the last start of my career in Week 12 of that season, and I played sparingly in the five ensuing seasons -- one year in San Francisco and four with New York Giants (during two different stints). I think rushing back from that injury hurt my chances at earning another starting job, because I wasn't able to put anything good on film that season. Looking back, I wish I wouldn't have gone out there when I wasn't healthy enough to play. Maybe then, there would have been another opportunity for me to return to starter status.

Ex-NFL quarterback Doug Flutie -- who lost his starting job in San Diego to Drew Brees in the early 2000s -- told me once, "Don't ever come off the field. Don't ever let another quarterback go on the field for you." And it's true: There is only one quarterback on the field at a time, so if you give another player a chance, you never know what can happen. We've seen backups take the starting job from some of the biggest names in football. It's happened before, and it will happen again.

That's got to be a question in the back of Romo's mind. But possibly an even greater thing that's driving him to keep playing at 36 years old is the accomplishment that's eluded him -- a Super Bowl ring. If he had one, I think he might've called it quits after the preseason injury. But Romo hasn't had the postseason success (2-4 playoff record) that his regular-season success has warranted.

The Cowboys have built their franchise around Romo. They put together a dominant offensive line to keep him upright, and they have weapons on the outside -- it seems like they've practically ignored filling voids in the defense -- all in the hopes of giving him the opportunity to lead the team to the playoffs and even beyond.

As he watches Prescott from the sidelines week after week, the pressure to retake the reins and lead his team back to the postseason will weigh heavily. But knowing how much I was hindered by my own injury, Romo needs to stay patient and let his back heal. If he plays before he is ready, his postseason ambitions likely will end before they truly begin.

Follow David Carr on Twitter @DCarr8.

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