When you’re in the middle of a bad season as a sports fan, it feels like it will last forever. The good thing about it, though, is that it actually doesn’t—and when next year comes, the failures of seasons past fade pretty quickly from your memory. So though Cowboys and Texans fans may never praise the names of Matt Cassell, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden, or Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet, T.J. Yates, and, er, Brandon Weeden again, the dudes who led each team to heartbreak in 2015 can be quickly erased now that none of them are taking meaningful snaps.
They can be erased, anyway, if the guys currently taking those snaps are doing anything worth talking about. The Texans paid big bucks to the unproven Brock Osweiler, the former Denver Broncos quarterback who lost his starting job to the empty shell that was once Peyton Manning last season; the Cowboys are investing all of their hopes and dreams in a pre-season wonder of a rookie named Dak Prescott, who stepped in to fill Tony Romo’s shoes on day one after Romo’s most recent broken back. And though the Texans are now 1-0, and the Cowboys are 0-1, those numbers lack a great deal of context when assessing the performance of Osweiler and Prescott. So how did the two quarterbacks do in their respective debuts with their Texas teams?
Osweiler led the Texans to victory on Sunday, but mostly he helped provide a showcase for the debut of rookie wide receiver Will Fuller V, who averaged more than 20 yards per catch on five receptions, one of which went for a touchdown. He overthrew Fuller almost as often as he connected with him, though, and his numbers were fairly Hoyer-riffic, for the most part.
Osweiler threw 35 passes and completed 23 of them, with two touchdowns and an interception on the team’s first drive. His 89.1 passer rating was actually lower than Hoyer’s overall rating for 2015, and his most notable trait on the field may have been the fact that he’s a six-foot-eight-inch giant who pass rushers struggled to bring down even when his sketchy pocket awareness meant that they were able to get their hands on him.
Still, that’s the sort of thing that tends to get better, not worse as a player gets more comfortable. If Osweiler learns what he can expect from the Texans’ offensive line, where Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins will be on the field, and how to take advantage of the fact that Lamar Miller runs like he’s on roller skates, he could be a marked improvement over the Hoyer/Mallett/Yates/Weeden/Fitzpatrick/Keenum/Shaub/Rosenfels/Carr axis of heartbreak that has defined quarterback play for the Houston Texans since the team’s inception. The fact that he’s coming out the gate roughly as good as most of his predecessors beats throwing up your hands and hoping that they just try direct-snapping the ball to J.J. Watt in the playoffs again.
So, the Cowboys lost 20-19 yesterday, which means that the obvious question is: Would they have won that game with Tony Romo? It’s easy to ask that question with rose-colored glasses on, since Romo’s broken vertebrae means that we can focus on the miraculous comebacks he led over the course of his career, rather than the game-sealing interceptions he was prone to throwing. For his part, Prescott threw no interceptions and no touchdowns, and completed 55 percent of his passes. That’s not enough to win many games, but it’s also lower variance than you get with Tony Romo most of the time.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though. The missing part of the story on Prescott includes: drops from his receivers and check-downs on third down that gave the Cowboys no chance to convert. That’s fairly common for a rookie quarterback, as “don’t make any huge mistakes” is a fairly sound operating philosophy in a game that’s close enough throughout that you can lean heavily on a running back like Alfred Morris to try to win.
When it comes to “huge mistakes,” meanwhile, the final story of the game lands on Terrance Williams, who whiffed on a mental error after Prescott put the Cowboys in a position to win on a final, timeout-free drive that started with just a minute to play. The Cowboys took over for the Giants down one point, and after throwing the ball behind Jason Witten, Prescott found Lance Dunbar for a catch-and-run that brought the ball out past the thirty-five. He hit Cole Beasley over the middle a few plays later to bring the Cowboys near mid-field, then found Williams with seconds remaining on the clock. Rather than turn right and get out of bounds, however, Williams turned left, got tackled in the field of play, and time expired. Prescott may not have done enough on the drive for the Cowboys to win—had Williams gotten out of bounds, Dan Bailey would have been looking at a 60-plus yard field goal—but he put the team in a position where they could have gotten lucky. It wasn’t in the cards, though, and Prescott’s first performance with a star on his helmet goes down as an incomplete.