If you're a head coach in the NFL, there are really only two kinds of quarterback controversies: good quarterback controversies (two guys who can start and win) and bad ones (two guys who can start, neither of whom can win). Typically, it's almost always the latter kind. But Jason Garrett and the Dallas Cowboys are about to have a good quarterback controversy.
When Tony Romo is finally cleared for active duty, Garrett will have a challenge he couldn't have envisioned two months ago: Does he stick with his preternaturally composed rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, who's led the team to a 4-1 start? Or does he bench Prescott and hand the reins back to the aged and recently fragile Romo?
My GameDay First partner, Shaun O'Hara, made a great analogy when we were discussing this question recently. He said, "When you are playing golf and you are 3-under par on the front nine, you aren't going to change your driver for the back nine." That may be true, but I don't play golf -- and if I did, my mentality would be that if I had a better driver, I could perhaps be 5-under par.
Don't get me wrong, Prescott has been a revelation. He's leading the league in third-down conversion rate (50 percent) and has yet to throw an interception. The Cowboys currently rank in the top 10 in points per game (25.8, eighth) and are the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL.
But before you make any specious Tom Brady/Drew Bledsoe comparisons, keep in mind the following: Romo is arguably the best active quarterback in the NFL to never make a Super Bowl. Though he has his legion of critics (they were the same ones who disliked Brett Favre), he is revered by his teammates. And he's the soul of this football team, the leader for the past decade. Last year, the Cowboys went 3-1 in the four games Romo was able to start. They went 1-11 in the games in which he didn't play. You could have made the case last season that no single player was more valuable to his team than Romo.
In fact, one of the reasons that the Cowboys seem so appreciative of their position this year is because they were so exposed in 2015. Prescott, despite being a rookie, has come in and done exactly what a team wants a backup quarterback to do (and what last year's Romo stand-ins clearly couldn't do): lead the team with authority; avoid making the sort of foolish mistakes that prevent your team from having a chance to compete in the starter's absence; and -- if the backup has it in him -- make some plays. Prescott has filled the bill perfectly.
But Prescott has thrown for just four touchdowns in five games. Though Romo is aging and brittle, he still shows the skills to be a superior NFL quarterback. In 2014, his last full season, he threw 34 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions. And that, to me, is the key: The Cowboys' ceiling in 2016 is higher with Romo than it is with Prescott.
The Cowboys could stick with Prescott and probably win the NFC East. But to get beyond that -- to outduel the Vikings or Seahawks in the playoffs -- they need to be something more than a strong running team with an above-average defense. They'll need the explosiveness that Romo, when healthy (and when possessing a full complement of weapons), gives them.
There's one other thing working in Romo's favor: timing. It's October. There's still more than half a football season left. Romo doesn't need to be forced back into the starting role before he is entirely ready. He has all of November and December to get back to his best and hit his stride come playoff time.
Now that Prescott has emerged as the likely future signal caller in Dallas, the Cowboys have a lot more options. They could choose to build for the future the same way the Seahawks did under Russell Wilson's rookie contract. Dallas certainly doesn't have the defensive star power that Seattle did, but paying your quarterback lower-round money for a few years allows you to devote resources elsewhere, and gives you flexibility under the cap that Dallas wouldn't have with Romo's large contract. That will make the next offseason a pivotal point in Romo's career. But that's then -- this is now.
In the present, for this season, Romo is the quarterback who gives the Cowboys the best chance to advance in January. To elevate Prescott upon Romo's return is to do some damage to the fabric of your team that is irreversible. While you can certainly be intrigued with riding the hot hand in Prescott, once you bench your veteran star quarterback, it's nearly impossible to go back to him later. How do you look him in the eye eight weeks from now and say, "Hey, Tony. You weren't good enough to get your job back, but now that our rookie hit his wall, we need you to take us to the playoffs?"
You don't. The smart play and the safe play is to give the reins back to Romo, knowing that if he's poor or injured or ineffective, you have an ace in the hole that you haven't had in quite a while in Dallas -- another quarterback you can rely on. It's a good problem to have.