Spagnola: Despite QB Priority, Cowboys Must Be Judicious With 4th Pick

IRVING, Texas– Just so we're clear here, let's make doubly sure we all understand how important the quarterback position really is.

         Never should this have been clearer than this season. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo misses 12 starts, second most in franchise history due to injury since Roger Staubach missed all 14 in 1972. The Cowboys go 1-11 without Romo starting.

         Mere coincidence? I think not.

         In case that's not evidence enough, let's provide more to support the fact that if you do not draft a franchise quarterback, and in most cases at least in the first two rounds, you probably are asking for prolonged frustration. The force, or at least the percentages, won't be with you.

         For example this year: Eight of the 12 playoff teams are quarterbacked by first-round draft choices. And as for this weekend's second round, six of the eight are quarterbacked by first-round draft choices, the exceptions being Tom Brady of New England, of course the well-known sixth-rounder, and Russell Wilson of Seattle, a third-rounder.

         Also this year, 21 of the 32 teams principally were guided by first-round draft choices, if we are allowed to count Blaine Gabbert taking over in San Francisco in the final eight games of the season. And when it comes to 2015 passer ratings, 15 of the top 23 are first-round picks. That would be pretty consistent with 2014, when it was 15 of the top 22.[embeddedad0]

         So yes, that the Dallas Cowboys played three-quarters of the season without Romo – by the way, the quarterback with the highest passer rating last year (113.2) – is pretty significant in the final judgment of 2015. That's a lot of games to play without your starting quarterback, not to mention one of the best in the league.

         True, the Cowboys are guilty as charged for not having that position stocked sufficiently to at least somewhat survive. Or are at least guilty for moving too, too, fast away from Brandon Weeden, who was doing exactly what he was being asked to do. And remember, he was without the services of Dez Bryant and then without versatile running back Lance Dunbar for his final six quarters as the starter.

         Oh, and by the way, the starting quarterbacks for eight of the 12 playoff teams started all 16 games, with Cincinnati's Andy Dalton missing only three starts and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger missing five, all because of injury. Houston's Brian Hoyer did miss seven starts, but four of those were performance related, and Denver's Peyton Manning missed seven as well, mostly for injury but partly because of the performance of backup quarterback Brock Osweiler, a second-round pick in 2012.

         No other team in the league this year lost their starting quarterback because of injury as many times as the Cowboys' 12 with Romo, certainly paying a high price for his absence.

         But as the team's COO Stephen Jones continues to say of now having that fourth pick in the upcoming draft after coming up 4-12, "We've earned it. We don't like it."

         Now they've got to do something with that draft choice, with hopes this doesn't occur again anytime soon, knowing this will be only the fifth time drafting in the top 10 since selecting Russell Maryland with the first pick in 1991. (The Cowboys did unknowingly in 2000 trade away what turned out to be the seventh pick in the 2001 draft when sending two first-rounders to Seattle for wide receiver Joey Galloway.)

         So not necessary, but whatcha think? Maybe a quarterback with that uncommonly high a pick?

One for the future, maybe even to back up now, since many will reason how much worse can a rookie quarterback do backing up Romo than the results posted this year by Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel, before throwing in the towel with Kellen Moore starting his first two games in his fourth NFL season?

         Even Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said this recently when asked if the Cowboys will use the fourth pick in the draft on a "now" player or for a "future" starter, basically inferring a position player who would start Day One or possibly a quarterback to groom for at least the next two to three seasons:

         "That's what's great about drafting this high. You can do both here, and should do both. The facts are you can take – and again, in no way am I saying we will draft a quarterback – but a top quarterback here at that level could maybe have done the job for us this year when we lost Romo for a period of time, and then our plan was to have Romo back in and be ready to take us to the playoffs. So that's helping now.

         "I would say that our backup quarterback situation, and I don't in any way want to rule out Moore, our backup quarterback situation is the best now move we can make."

         In his mind, sort of like killing two birds with one fourth-pick stone: A starting quarterback of the future good enough to play immediately, say, if Romo should suffer a seven-game injury in the second game of the season, you know. But if so, that guy had better be darn good, and mature.

         Because look, Romo is going to need all the reps he can get to be prepared for the 2016 season after missing so many games and practices this year. The offseason and training camp will be important, too, for him. So will at least two of those preseason games.

         That then doesn't leave many reps for grooming a rookie quarterback. One who won't have the benefit of a lick of NFL experience to compensate for his lack of practice snaps.

         But on the other hand, here is what Jerry Jones knows after 27 seasons in the NFL: The percentages are against finding a franchise quarterback in the draft if you aren't selecting a guy in the first round. Plain and simple. And he's probably counting on not having a top-10 pick again any time soon.

         Check out some of these stats when it comes to quarterbacks:

  • Fifty-three percent of the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round.
  • Of the 98 starting quarterbacks in the 49 Super Bowls, first-round picks have accounted for 50 of those appearances, so essentially half.
  • Of the 21 quarterbacks drafted with the first pick in the draft during the Super Bowl era, eight have accounted for 16 Super Bowl victories, Troy Aikman of course logging three, just one behind the leader, Terry Bradshaw with four.
  • The lowest drafted quarterback to win a Super Bowl is Tampa Bay's Brad Johnson, the 227th pick (ninth round) in 1992.
  • The latest round a Super Bowl-winning quarterback has been drafted is Green Bay's Bart Starr in the 17th round of 1956 (200th pick).
  • The only three quarterbacks drafted in the second round to win a Super Bowl are Kenny Stabler, Brett Favre and Drew Brees.

Now then, from 2000 through 2013 when we are looking for franchise quarterbacks – it's only fair to wait a tad for the quarterbacks in the past two drafts to develop – only Russell Wilson out of the 17 selected in the third round has arrived.

In the fourth round, it's the same. From 2000-2013, one out of 17 appears to have made it, that is if indeed Washington's Kirk Cousins proves to be the real deal after this season.

And get this, of the 91 quarterbacks drafted in rounds five through seven from 2000-13, only one has established himself as a franchise quarterback with the team drafting him, that being Brady, a sixth-rounder in 2000. Oh, if you happen to wonder which quarterbacks were drafted ahead of Brady that year, how about this: Chad Pennington (first round), Giovanni Carmazzi (third), Chris Redman (third), Tee Martin (fifth), Marc Bulger (sixth) and Spergon Wynn (sixth).

And if you are looking for undrafted free-agent quarterbacks during this time period, well, look no further than Romo as the most successful, hands down.

So, if you are playing the percentages, as I certainly did not this past Wednesday, donating my $20 to the Powerball fund, your odds of hitting with anything but a first-round draft choice on a franchise quarterback aren't all that good. In fact, poor. Romo's odds of making it were probably just a teeny-weeny better than my odds of winning $1.5 billion.

But here is the $20 million question yet to be answered for the upcoming draft: Are any of these quarterbacks worth the Cowboys' fourth overall pick? Are any of these guys a potential Aikman, the last time the team spent a first-round selection on a quarterback, and actually just the second quarterback they ever have selected with a first-round pick in their 56-year history. The only other one was Craig Morton in 1965, depending on if we should count spending a first-round pick in the 1989 supplemental draft on Steve Walsh, which actually turned out to be the first pick in the 1990 draft.

         Man, just how darn fortunate were the Cowboys in 1989, not only owning the first pick in the draft and in dire need of a quarterback, but also having a quarterback the caliber of Aikman worth taking that high, along with rolling the dice on Walsh, eventually trading him to New Orleans the next year for a bundle of picks.

So ask yourself, because the Cowboys must: Are any of these quarterbacks entering this 2016 draft worth betting your business on, your job? Because chances are this at least would be a five-year commitment if you do. And if you reach out of desperation, if you are wrong, suddenly it's 2020 and you're still looking for Romo's replacement. You don't get do-overs on these types of investments.

Last year's fourth pick, wide receiver Amari Cooper, was guaranteed $22.6 million over four years. There are no erasers in this salary cap age strong enough to scrub away a mistake this high. Especially if it's a quarterback. You have to live with it. Get it? This is not fantasy football.

Ask the Cleveland Browns, who spent the 22nd pick in 2014 on you know who and reportedly are ready to wash their hands of that handful. Which likely will mean with the second pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Cleveland Browns select quarterback …

There are no sure things in the draft, I get it. But when you're drafting this high, and you decide on a quarterback, brother, you had better be right.

Otherwise, well, here's the seven quarterbacks selected by the Browns over the last 16 drafts: what's his name, Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy, Brady Quinn, Charlie Fry, Luke McCown and, oh, Spergon Wynn, him again, three of those guys first-round picks. Serious ouch.

All I'm saying is be careful what you insist on, other than the Cowboys absolutely do not – repeat, do not – reach for need this high in the draft.

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