Time for Cowboys to draft Tony Romo’s successor

Central Florida Knights quarterback Blake Bortles celebrates a second half touchdown against the Baylor Bears during the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium. Central Florida defeated Baylor 52-42.  

Mark J. Rebilas/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of Mosley’s 3-part series looking at the future of the Dallas Cowboys.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — I traveled to the Valley of the Sun to watch my alma mater play in its first BCS bowl game. But early in Wednesday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup, I became enamored with the play of University of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles.

While the world celebrated the life and times of Johnny Football, Bortles quietly pieced together an outstanding run at UCF. And on Wednesday, he completely dismantled a defense that helped Baylor win its first Big 12 title. Yes, he threw a couple interceptions in the first half, but Bortles never seemed fazed by those mistakes. He completed 20-of-31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. And he added 93 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

He consistently kept plays alive with his feet and then delivered passes with devastating accuracy. Bortles is shooting up draft boards as we speak, but that shouldn’t keep American’s (.500) Team from taking a run at him. It’s time for the Cowboys to draft Tony Romo’s successor. I’m not saying Romo’s career is over. But Troy Aikman can tell you a thing or two about trying to return from back injuries. The Cowboys have made an enormous financial investment in Romo, but that shouldn’t preclude them from thinking about the future.

This organization hasn’t even considered drafting a legitimate quarterback during the Romo era, unless you count a longshot project such as former fourth-round pick Stephen McGee. Maybe it’s too strong to say the Cowboys are scared of hurting Romo’s feelings, but it has felt that way of times. The Eagles drafted Kevin Kolb in the second round in 2008 even though Donovan McNabb was still performing at a high level. Kolb didn’t pan out as the starter, but he did eventually score the Eagles a first-round pick. And the Eagles didn’t hesitate to draft Nick Foles when Michael Vick was entrenched as the starter. Now, it looks like Foles has a stranglehold on the starting job moving forward.

Jerry Jones seems uncomfortable even broaching the subject of drafting Romo’s successor. He’s already shot down any talk of selecting a quarterback in the first round. Some have suggested that might be a smokescreen, but I think it’s an owner who doesn’t want to hedge his $50 million bet on Romo. This is a quarterback who has now had two surgeries on his back in the past seven months. I know having a cyst removed is completely different thing than a herniated disk, but that first surgery did force Romo to miss a lot of time last offseason.

I believe Romo is confident enough to not be disturbed about the Cowboys spending a premium pick on a quarterback. Unfortunately, Jerry’s only able to live in the moment. That’s a good trait if you have a roster on the verge of breaking through, but after three consecutive .500 seasons, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Dallas.

It might be tough to move up the draft board enough to land Bortles, but it’s something you have to consider. And it would be wrong to rule out going after Manziel. When you have a once-in-a-generation college quarterback from the state of Texas, why wouldn’t you keep your options open? Manziel’s off-the-field adventures will be dissected by scouts and draft gurus. But it’s hard to imagine him not being a top-five pick. Most of the country is just starting to hear about Bortles. He obviously has a cannon, but he’s also extremely athletic for his size.

The Cowboys would be foolish not to consider him. If you were willing to move from No. 14 to No. 6 to select cornerback Morris Claiborne, surely moving up a few spots to grab your future starting quarterback seems logical. It’s time for Jerry to put his loyalty to Romo aside and think about the future of this organization. The window appears to be closing for the trio of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten and Romo to make any noise in the playoffs. And I’m not sure if that’s window’s really been open since the 13-win team in ’07.  

Jerry believes he’s failed to take advantage of those players’ talent over the past decade, but at some point you have to think about cutting your losses. Whether Ware’s lack of production this season was a result of injuries is really irrelevant. At some point it doesn’t make any sense to pay a 31-year-old $16 million per year to go through long stretches of not impacting games.

The Green Bay Packers didn’t worry about Brett Favre’s feelings when they spent a first-round pick on Aaron Rodgers. The young quarterback had to sit behind Favre for a few seasons, but he’s now turned into one of the top three or four quarterbacks in the NFL. Jones has a lot of regret over not being able to capitalize on Romo’s immense talent. But there’s really no place for those types of feelings in the cutthroat world of the NFL. If Romo fully recovers from back surgery, he could remain a top-flight quarterback for another season or two. But as the Cowboys should’ve learned from the end of Aikman’s career, you need to be proactive at such an important position.

That’s why one of Jerry’s pals (Larry Lacewell) should be in his ear about drafting a quarterback. And that became even more apparent to me while watching Bortles carve up my alma mater Wednesday. In many ways, he seems like the safer choice to Manziel. He’s not as flashy, but he has the prototypical size and arm strength that could make him a top-10 pick. If putting your playoff hopes in the hands of Kyle Orton doesn’t cause Jones to think about addressing the quarterback situation, I’m not sure what will. That’s no knock on Orton because he has accepted his role as a career backup. But Romo is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

When I watched Bortles somehow spin away from two defenders and make a huge completion in the fourth quarter Wednesday, I thought of Romo. I wondered how much longer he’ll be able to make similar plays.

If we agree that he likely has two more seasons left under the best circumstances, then it’s time to draft a quarterback. And I’m not talking about a project.

Bortles appears to be ready for prime time.