"No. No. No. No," Jones said, when asked if Dak Prescott's ineffectiveness could factor into a change. "No, it does not."
Alright. But about that ineffectiveness. The New York Giants, in their 10-7 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday night, revealed a more tentative, less confident, far less efficient quarterback than we have seen in Dallas this season. Prescott completed just 17 of 37 passes for 165 yards. He was sacked three times and intercepted twice. The Cowboys converted just 1 of 15 third-down opportunities -- alarming, because it followed a victory over the Vikings in which the Cowboys converted just 1 of 9 third downs. This was also Prescott's first game in which he threw multiple interceptions, and the team hit its season low in points and yards (260).
It all led to a curious play call with 7:40 remaining and the Cowboys facing third-and-11. The Giants had already taken the lead, but Eli Manning had been intercepted. That was the game in miniature -- the Giants were winning despite their own feeble offense, and the Cowboys were in this game because of a defense that looked better than it had all season. But on this play, the Cowboys showed that their confidence in their rookie quarterback is not limitless. On third-and-11, the Cowboys ran a toss left to Ezekiel Elliott that the Giants swarmed for a 6-yard loss. Elliott is an MVP candidate, but that call was the ultimate play-it-safe-and-hope-the-defense-holds decision.
Still, Jones insisted that his confidence level in Prescott is high.
"Outstanding," Jones said. "He's got 13 NFL ballgames at a high level under his belt, and what's he got, four interceptions now? Four? So, four interceptions. I feel good about our quarterback, and I like where we are at the quarterback position. We should have asked and wanted him to make the drive that might have won this thing for us tonight. I don't want to make excuses. Most of what happened to us tonight was a well-coached New York Giants defense."
There is little question, though, that while the Cowboys are 11-2 and will still almost certainly secure the NFC East and likely the top seed in the playoffs, there is now enough tape on Prescott for teams to more effectively game plan against him. Prescott looked confused throughout the game, and the Giants -- without Jason Pierre-Paul -- got consistent pressure on him and covered his receivers well. The competition gets no easier with the suddenly-hot Tampa Bay Buccaneersup next for the Cowboys. If Prescott flails again, with the playoffs rapidly approaching, the murmurs about putting a healthy Romo in will grow louder, even if Jones insisted Sunday night that it would only be Prescott's unavailability that will lead to a switch.
"I think we've seen Dak have bad series and seen him have what I'd call challenging series, and we've seen him come back and right the ship," Jones said. "Certainly, we have no expectation that we won't come back. I'd rather have had the chance to get better with us winning it, but we're not going to take where we are right now and let this do anything but improve us.
"I've seen teams and coaches criticized for not having a big enough portfolio when they get to the playoffs because teams have the book on them when they're in the playoffs. I expect teams to make adjustments and make it tougher for us on some of the things we might have done with more ease earlier in the year. We were inconsistent tonight. I'm giving the Giants credit for creating that inconsistency. We've got to learn how to get some drives going and sustain some drives."
The Cowboys have one of the most enviable quarterback situations in the NFL, with a preternaturally poised rookie and a decorated, veteran backup available if disaster strikes. The question is, what will qualify as disaster for this team, which had been speeding into the playoffs and now seems to be crawling? We hear a lot about windows for championship in the NFL, but the truth is that there is no window, there is only one season at a time. Jones and the Cowboys know that better than most -- they have suffered excruciating playoff losses, and missed the playoffs entirely, despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Romo. When does the desire to pull every possible level to win another Super Bowl put Jones' hand on the lever for Romo if Prescott does not rebound?
For now, Jones is fine with praising his defense, boosting his young offensive playmakers and hoping that offensive coordinator Scott Linehan can adjust to the changes opponents have obviously made as they've had a chance to dissect Prescott. He said he was certain that the enthusiasm and confidence of his young players would not be diminished by this performance.
"Are they good losers? No," Jones said. "They just understand 12-1 is hard to get. I don't think this is going to be a huge hurdle for this team to get over."
Maybe not. As Prescott was getting dressed, a teammate made a joke, and then noted to Prescott that at least he had smiled.
"I needed that," Prescott said.
The Cowboys can still afford the easy smiles right now. But as Jones held court in a corridor just inside the locker room, Romo slipped out behind him, a reminder that in Jones' moment of need, Romo is still very much in reach.