EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JANUARY 01: Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys and Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants greet each other after their game at MetLife Stadium on January 1, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
The first in a series looking at how the Cowboys compare to the rest of the NFL at each position. Up first, we look at one of the most high-profile positions in all of American sports.
Normally, when the quarterback position gets talked about in the NFL, the topic is one of two things: Either how good is the starter, or is there a quarterback controversy?
First, I want to state unequivocally that there is no controversy in Dallas. Tony Romo is the clear number one, for the plain and simple reason that he deserves it. If you look at some of the national writers, Romo is considered to be a "second five" quarterback. Ron Jaworski, in his series at ESPN, ranked him tenth in the league. Athlon Sports has him eighth. And USA Today ranked him as the fifth best quarterback, and the 23rd best player at any position.
All of which is really rather meaningless in a couple of senses. The only real rating that matters in the NFL is who gets to raise the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. National writers, meanwhile, have to follow all 32 teams, which makes it difficult for them to garner detailed knowledge about any one player or unit.
But from the perspective of someone who follows the Dallas Cowboys to a point just this side of obsession (maybe), the national consensus rings true. Romo is extremely skilled, and there are very few signal callers in the league that play better week in and week out. He has just about all the skills to be considered one of the elite, with over 4,000 yards in passing and a particularly impressive 31 touchdown passes against only 10 interceptions.
In a sense, he is playing at a championship level - but the rest of the team, as a whole, is not. If things can come together this year for the Cowboys, it could make Romo into an elite quarterback - which is to say, one who has some playoff success to go with his statistical resume. Until the team starts establishing a won-loss record, the "second five" is a very logical and supportable place for Tony to be ranked.
If you look at the position a little differently, and include the backup quarterback, Kyle Orton, then Dallas may have one of the best quarterback units in the NFL, possibly the best. Orton is an experienced starter who took the job in Dallas with the clear understanding he is the number two guy.
This seems to be part of a deliberate plan on his part to see if he can step up his own game working with and learning from another, somewhat more accomplished quarterback. In an interview available at DallasCowboys.com, he makes a point that he has never had an experienced quarterback to work with. Most of the players he was with were younger and less accomplished, and from the beginning of his career he was pretty much thrown into the fire, only to be yanked out sometimes to give someone else a shot.
If this is a true reflection of his attitude, a player who may be as good as a handful of projected starters in the league could grow and develop, and may become a bridge between Tony Romo's eventual retirement and a starter yet to be acquired. More likely, he is looking to make himself more attractive to go somewhere else after his three year contract is up, but in the meantime, Dallas has a backup that, in terms of mobility and age, is a definite upgrade over Jon Kitna. Kitna, who Orton replaced, was in the past couple of years considered to be one of the best backups in the league.
After you get past Orton, however, things get a bit grimmer. Stephen McGee is the incumbent third string quarterback, and has been for three years. The issue is that there is not enough evidence that he is progressing. The acquisition of Orton does indicate that the team has some reluctance to rely on McGee to step in for Romo if he is needed. As a result, he is fighting to keep his job this year.
His competition is nominally Rudy Carpenter, but Carpenter was hampered by some injury issues in the OTAs and minicamp, and did not get to do much to advance his own cause. In reality, both McGee and Carpenter are fighting the 53 man roster.
A prevalent theory floated by some observers, myself included, is that the team may elect to just keep two quarterbacks on the active roster, and find an "emergency" player to place on the practice squad. While this is just guesswork, it looks at this point that the both are nothing more than a fallback position should disaster occur, with little chance of future development. They may be auditioning to catch on somewhere else in the league, given that they are too far along in their respective careers to be practice squad players.
So Dallas has a top ten starting quarterback, outstanding depth at backup, and a very questionable situation at the third string position. If Tony Romo remains healthy, the team could have huge potential. If Kyle Orton is called upon for limited fill in duty, the team is in a great position to get through in good shape. If the unthinkable happens and Orton has to carry the team for much of the season, then it will likely be looking at a year no better than 2011.
And if both are are sidelined, the season pretty much ends - not that many other NFL teams could do much differently, the 2011 Houston Texans notwithstanding. But as a two man unit, the quarterbacks for the Dallas Cowboys are one of the strongest in the league.