One win. That's all the Dallas Cowboys could muster in 2015 in 12 games without starting quarterback Tony Romo.
Here they go again. Rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott gets the call Sunday in the regular-season opener for the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium against the New York Giants.
Prescott had a special preseason: 137.8 passer rating, 78 percent completions, five TD passes, no interceptions and a team-leading two rushing touchdowns. Perhaps this season the Cowboys have more than a hope behind Romo.
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Romo is on the shelf, but while projections of 6-10 weeks have been tossed around, head coach Jason Garrett only this week allowed Romo would miss Week 1. Some projections are 10-12 weeks because of the compression fracture in his back, the third major injury to his spinal area, not including a procedure to remove a cyst from a vertebrae.
“You try to come up with some kind of a timeline for when the player is going to be available,” Garrett said Wednesday. “In Tony's case, the IR term is for eight weeks and we feel like, given what the injury is and the progress he's made, we feel at this point we want to do that. We don't want to eliminate him from eight weeks of our schedule. He's making progress. We take his situation day by day and week by week and we're optimistic he can return.”
He will not play Sunday, when the Giants face the Cowboys for the first time in 12 seasons without Tom Coughlin on the sideline. He was dismissed and replaced by Ben McAdoo, who was promoted from offensive coordinator. The Giants also kept defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and signed quarterback Eli Manning, 33 years old but coming off a 35-TD season, to a contract extension to showcase a degree of chemistry and cohesion amid the upheaval at the top.
Manning tutored Prescott at the summer Manning Passing Academy and said he expects huge things from the rookie. He said Prescott has a “bright future” ahead.
Manning has fared well against the Cowboys in recent meetings and Dallas was 27th in the NFL in pass defense last season. Improving that number without a proven pass rush is a concern. Defensive ends Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are serving NFL suspensions.
McAdoo said he is “comfortable” with the Giants' offensive line despite woes in the preseason. The Giants also decided to stick with kicker Josh Brown, who was suspended one game for a violation of the NFL conduct policy related to domestic violence. Randy Bullock will handle kicking duties Week 1 with Brown out.
New York spent early and often in free agency, breaking recent form as general manager Jerry Reese sensed heat from the top to flip the Giants' fortunes on the field. Defensive end Olivier Vernon cashed in to the tune of $52.5 million and cornerback Janoris Jenkins is being paid like a No. 1 cornerback just for matchups like Sunday.
These teams are hungry for success after finishing 4-12 last season and splitting two games — each won at home –decided by a total of eight points. The Cowboys were last in the NFL in 2016 in turnover margin at minus-22. Garrett believes the solution for the slippery fingers is reverting to the power-running game that produced 2014 Offensive Rookie of the Year DeMarco Murray.
A cast change pushes rookie first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott into that role behind one of the more complete offensive line groups in the league. At 220 pounds, Elliott runs with power that surprised some opponents this preseason — including members of the Seattle Seahawks' vaunted Legion of Boom secondary – but his open-field speed surprised some of his own teammates. The Cowboys haven't started a rookie running back since 1993 (Derrick Lassic), and not even Emmitt Smith or Tony Dorsett were handed the saddle at this stage of their career.
“I know his commitment every day has been really, really good and he's learned quickly what we're asking him to do,” Garrett said. “Again, his focus, and our focus, is on the Giants.”
Elliott has been in headlines for a visit to a pot shop in Seattle and a domestic violence investigation in Columbus. But the Cowboys need him to be reliable, and are planning on just that Sunday.
If Dallas gets Elliott rolling, it means Prescott should have wide windows in the defense to find wide receiver Dez Bryant, who is back at 100 percent after a foot injury last season.