WASHINGTON — More than a quarter of the way through the 2016 NFL season, I’m already eating crow on a number of my preseason predictions. This week, two in particular stand out.
In my defense, both pertain to teams that suffered the often crippling loss of their projected starting quarterback. The Minnesota Vikings lost Teddy Bridgewater to a freak knee injury that cost him his season before it even began, and sent the Vikes scrambling to find a replacement capable of keeping them on track for Super Bowl contention. Also, the Dallas Cowboys saw Tony Romo go down (again) with a back injury that threatened to significantly shorten (if not completely end) his season and toss them into another lost season headlined by awful quarterbacking.
Surprisingly, I was wrong on both fronts. (Surprising that it’s played out the way it has, not that I was wrong … that’s pretty standard.) So each deserves its own special attention.
As mentioned in this week’s NFL recap, these Vikings have already generated at least one comparison to last year’s Denver Broncos. Minnesota is the last undefeated team in 2016, and Sunday became just the second team in NFL history to go 5-0 without throwing an interception. Plus, the Vikings aren’t just winning — they’re dominating. They’ve won eight straight regular season games with a plus-16 turnover ratio and by a margin of victory of 14.5 points per game.
This is remarkable because Minnesota has lost the best running back in football (Adrian Peterson), their starting QB (Bridgewater), and two starting offensive tackles (Matt Kalil and Andre Smith) for the season. Their replacements aren’t just filling in admirably, they’re playing pretty damn well.
The trade for Sam Bradford looked like a desperation move at first, but it’s turned into the absolute right call (although I still think 1st and 4th round picks is too steep for a guy with a track record long on injury and short on actual accomplishments). Bradford’s 109.7 QB rating ranks only behind Matt Ryan’s among QBs to start at least four games, and his fast and efficient application of Norv Turner’s offense is nothing short of amazing.
But this team is driven by defense. Coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have directed a defense that rivals Denver’s. The Vikings lead the league in scoring defense (12.3 points per game allowed), takeaways (12), and sacks (19) — and they’ve done it against quality competition, holding the last two MVPs (Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton) to a combined 24 points in consecutive weeks.
Time will tell if this success is sustainable. Without Peterson, the Vikings offense ranks dead last in the NFL in rushing yards (353 in five games) and yards per carry (2.5). As the victories pile up, so do the injuries (eight players are already on injured reserve). However, the Broncos’ blueprint for success in today’s NFL leads me to believe these Purple People Eaters are the best bet to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LI.
Big decision looming in Big D
Speaking of NFC contenders, nobody thought title would apply to Dallas once Tony Romo went down in Week 3 of the preseason, and their underwhelming backup Kellen Moore was lost for the season shortly thereafter. The Cowboys entered 2016 sporting a woeful 10-23 record without Tony Romo in the decade since he became the starter, so a 4th-round rookie had little chance of reversing that trend.
Dak Prescott is actually off to an amazing start to his NFL career — so much so, he’s drawing comparisons to Tom Brady. Prescott’s 155 pass attempts without an interception are the 2nd most to start a career in NFL history behind Brady’s 162 in 2000-01. Prescott is also the first Cowboys QB in 33 years to rush for 3 TDs in a season, and his first five career starts compare favorably with Romo’s.
As much as I hate to admit it, this has to be a very exciting time to be a Dallas fan. Prescott looks like the next big draft steal, and fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott is off to an even hotter start, that has his name alongside some very elite Cowboys of old.
Prescott’s exploits, while notable on their own merit, are generating further attention now that Romo is nearly healthy enough to return, and Cowboys’ management (namely Jerry Jones) says there’s no chance this isn’t Romo’s team once he gets a clean bill of health.
This would be a massive error in judgment by Jones. Romo is the past, and Prescott is both the present and the future. Nostalgia isn’t a good reason to start Romo, especially when you consider he got the job in 2006 under the same circumstances Prescott has. Prescott’s 101.5 QB rating bests Romo’s career 97.1 rating and dwarfs the 79.4 rating in Romo’s 4-game 2015 cameo.
Speaking of which, Romo hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012 and has played only four regular-season games since the start of last season. At this point, he’s a 36-year-old with a broken body that hasn’t played well since his career year in 2014. The best thing for Dallas — and Romo’s post-career health — would be to have old #9 serve as Prescott’s very capable backup and mentor.
But this is Jerry Jones we’re talking about. He’ll find a way to screw up his very sweet deal. He always does.
Don’t screw up your week by missing out on the updated NFL Week 5 Recap.