When Alex Tanney hit Tim Benford on a perfect third-down slant with the Cowboys protecting a 3-point lead and about two minutes to play in Saturday’s preseason matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals, he looked composed, competent, and in his element. In short, he looked like a real NFL quarterback.
Tanney, the undrafted free agent with uncanny accuracy, has made rookie mistakes this preseason, but he doesn’t seem to respond to them like a rookie. Effective NFL quarterback play begins and ends between the ears; so far, Tanney does not appear to be overwhelmed by the speed or complexity of the pro game. He just looks like he has some things to learn, and that he’s fully capable of learning them in time.
This team won’t carry three quarterbacks, so could Tanney back up Tony Romo this year? He’s looked pretty good running with the twos and threes – how much better would he look throwing to Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten? True, he’s been competing against twos and threes, but his developmental trajectory during camp suggests in time he can hold his own against the ones. It’s not a huge stretch – the kid seems to improve every week.
Orton was never intended to be Romo’s successor; he was signed as an insurance policy against a possible Romo injury. When Jon Kitna retired, the team gave up on developing Stephen McGee –another legacy of the wasted Wade Phillips era – and signed Orton to fill Kitna’s shoes: He doesn’t have the game to supplant Romo, but he has enough game to (we hope) keep the team competitive in a pinch.
Orton threw 10 passes last year as a Cowboy. That’s the kind of production you hope to see from your backup QB. Perhaps the risk of Tanney netting more than 10 pass attempts this year is worthwhile, because Tanney has something Orton doesn’t – upside. As a backup, Tanney could hold a clipboard for the next few years, develop into a suitable backup under Romo’s tutelage, and prepare to one day compete for the starting job.
Could Tanney step in and manage a regular season game if he had to? He appears mobile enough to offset the offensive line deficiencies. Kept on a tight leash, with a simple game plan, there’s no reason to think the talent around him couldn’t compete and win, so long as he doesn’t turn the ball over.
Other teams with talented rosters have won recently with rookie starters. I’m not comparing Tanney to Russell Wilson, though perhaps I am comparing the 2013 Cowboys to the 2012 Seahawks. With the help of a great defense and a ton of turnovers, NFL coaches can effectively game plan around a talented rookie’s deficiencies – and the D looks to be back in Dallas this year.
The allure of this hypothetical is if Tanney could back up Romo this season, what do you suppose the Jets might cough up for Kyle Orton?