ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Tony Romo is injured again, and Dak Prescott is no longer the fourth-round draft pick expected to spend a couple of years soaking up NFL knowledge from the bench.
The rookie quarterback from Mississippi State is starting the opener — the first to do so for Dallas in 15 years — and the Cowboys aren't counting the days until Romo returns from a broken bone in his back.
The shock of going 0-7 after the first of Romo's two broken left collarbones last season and finishing 4-12 a year after winning the NFC East was enough to change their mindset. It doesn't hurt that Prescott was one of the league's biggest surprises in the preseason.
"No one's naive," executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. "When you lose your starting quarterback for some time, and it's obviously going to be some time, that certainly wasn't in our plans. But Dak's emergence makes you feel better about having that happen to you. There is a lot of optimism for Dak."
The biggest question for Dallas heading into Sunday's opener against the New York Giants is how long Romo will be out. If the Cowboys don't put the 36-year-old on injured reserve and leave open the option for him to return, they presumably believe he can be ready faster than eight weeks into the season.
Meantime, Dallas is expecting Prescott to deliver wins after he threw for five touchdowns without an interception and ran for two scores in three exhibition games. He's the first quarterback drafted by the Cowboys since 2009 and just the second since Quincy Carter went in the second round and started right away in 2001.
"You look around," Prescott said. "You look at the stars for the Pro Bowls on some of these lockers that I will be out there on the field with. The pressure is not on me. I have guys who can make plays and make my job easier."
Prescott speaks of an offensive line featuring three first-round picks since 2011, and all three were Pro Bowlers the past two seasons (LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin).
Dez Bryant, the 2014 All-Pro receiver who broke his right foot in the 2015 opener and was never the same last season, caught two touchdowns from Prescott in the preseason. Tight end Jason Witten has been to 10 Pro Bowls.
And then there's fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, the fourth overall pick out of Ohio State. The running back faces expectations that seem to grow daily, even though he missed most of training camp and took just 14 snaps in one preseason game — the same game in which Romo got hurt at Seattle.
"I like where we are with the other parts of the offense, obviously the protections, the running game, all of that," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "Some of the other things we can do that we don't have to depend on that experience are there and alive in this team."
Things to consider with the Cowboys once again stuck in a .500 rut that enters its 20th season, with a 152-152 record in the regular season since the start of 1997:
DEFENSIVE QUESTIONS: Three projected starters will open the season on suspensions for substance-abuse violations: DEs Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence (four games each) and LB Rolando McClain (10 games). The Cowboys finished last in the NFL in takeaways and turnover margin last year and didn't change the roster much. They need veteran LB Sean Lee to show the playmaking ability from early in his career.
AMONG THE NEWCOMERS: DE Benson Mayowa and DT Cedric Thornton signed with Dallas in free agency, while the draft produced another end-tackle tandem in Maliek Collins of Nebraska (third round) and Charles Tapper from Oklahoma (fourth). All missed time in training camp with injuries but should be able to contribute early in the season.
SEASONED SECONDARY: The most experienced part of the defense is the secondary with CBs Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and S Barry Church. But they need to back up that experience with big plays. Scandrick returns after missing last season with a knee injury. Carr hasn't had an interception in more than two years, and Claiborne has just three picks in four seasons since Dallas moved up eight spots to get him in the top 10 of the 2012 draft.
THE LAST WORD: Tight end Jason Witten, going into his 14th season, was the creator of the "same old story" line from a few years ago when the Cowboys kept missing the playoffs with losses that dropped them to 8-8 on the final day of the season. And now he's without Romo again. They came into the league together in 2003. "You can't flinch in these situations," he said. "Doesn't mean that you don't live in the reality of where it is."
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