Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott spent most of his youth dreaming of playing for the Texas Longhorns. He said it was a form of “rebellion” while growing up in a family of rabid LSU Tiger fans. But as you may have guessed, former Horns coach Mack Brown and his staff never took a look at the kid from Haughton, Louisiana, who’d become the greatest player in Mississippi State history.
“They had their classes picked out a year or two in advance,” Prescott said last Wednesday.
Filling in for an injured Tony Romo (see Texas Monthly’s September cover, and consider the timing), Prescott has taken the NFL by storm. He’s yet to throw an interception in his first 131 attempts, a record for NFL rookies. On Sunday, Prescott overcame an early 14-0 deficit to lead his team to a 24-17 win. He did this while missing three injured starters on offense, including star wide receiver Dez Bryant. The performance caused Troy Aikman to say late in the Fox broadcast, “Dak Prescott throwing a little more fuel on the fire whether or not he’s going to lose his job when Romo comes back healthy.”
The Cowboys imploded without Romo last season. Now, it’s hard to imagine Romo displacing Prescott as the starting quarterback. And Prescott stood at his locker and explained why he didn’t think the loss of an injured Dez Bryant might doom the Cowboys.
“I don’t pay attention to who I’m throwing to,” Prescott said. “It doesn’t really affect this offense.”
He meant no disrespect to Bryant, one of the most dynamic players in the league. Prescott and Bryant have formed a strong bond in their short time together. In the first preseason game of his career, Prescott shredded the Los Angeles Rams at the Coliseum. Afterward, Bryant talked about how much respect Prescott had in the locker room. Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, who met with Prescott at least four times leading up to the draft, recalled something that happened between Prescott and Bryant early in training camp.
“Dak was the third-string quarterback at the time, and he was throwing to some of the young guys after practice,” Wilson said. “He decided that he wanted Dez to stay after practice, too. He just went up to him and said he wanted him to stay out there post-practice. He’s not scared of anything. He simply wanted to get better.”
Last week I watched as players interacted with Prescott in the team’s luxurious new locker room in Frisco. They still like to tease him about being surrounded by reporters.
“It’s crazy how calm he is,” said guard Ron Leary, who’s back in the starting lineup after an injury to La’el Collins. “He’s always like that, and I’m not used to rookies being like that.”
That’s one of the reasons Prescott is a god in Starkville, Mississippi. LSU came calling on Prescott after his senior season in high school, but he stuck with his commitment to Mississippi State. He redshirted his freshman year and then lost his mother to cancer during his sophomore season, in 2013. Prescott also injured his shoulder that season. But during the Egg Bowl against arch-rival Ole Miss, Prescott talked himself into the game. He led the Bulldogs on a late scoring drive and they won in overtime.
“The legend of Dak was born that day,” said Mississippi State assistant athletic director Bill Martin. “He’s the toughest I’ve ever seen. He grew up in a trailer with a single mom. And then he turned into our Peyton Manning. He was a mayor-like figure. We’d never had that kind of figure, and he handled it gracefully.”
Martin believes the “external stuff” that comes with playing quarterback for the Cowboys will be the least of Prescott’s worries. Martin says he never once turned down a request the P.R. staff made and seemed to relish the opportunity to give back to the community.
In Dallas, Prescott continues to say all the right things about how this is Romo’s team. But the way he carries himself and the way his teammates respond to him suggests otherwise. Jerry Jones insists that Romo will take over once he’s healthy, but others in the organization don’t seem as sure. There’s a growing sense Prescott’s impressive play could cause a “big dilemma,” as one member of the organization described it to me before Sunday’s game in San Francisco. My sense is that Prescott’s teammates would be unhappy if he’s removed from the starting lineup with, say, a 6-2 record.
The Cowboys attempted to trade up for Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round and they later wanted to move up to take Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Wilson and assistant director of player personnel Will McClay loved Prescott, but they believed he would be a project based on him playing in a spread offense in college. Now, Prescott and Eagles rookie Carson Wentz, the fourth overall pick, are lighting up the league.
The Cowboys coached Wentz at the Senior Bowl and developed a great respect for him. Prescott was on the other team. He had only had 15 minutes for his official interview with the Cowboys that week.
“He commanded the room immediately,” Wilson said. “He was by far the most impressive guy. Some guys wanted to talk too much. He was definitely the most mature player we talked to.”
Prescott was arrested for driving under the influence two months before the draft, which may have contributed to him falling to the fourth round. He was later acquitted. Wilson said the Cowboys asked Prescott a lot of questions about the arrest and were satisfied that it wasn’t a true reflection of his character.
I was a Cowboys beat writer for the Dallas Morning News when Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe six games into the 2006 season. He immediately injected the team with energy and led them to the playoffs in Bill Parcells’ final season as head coach. Parcells kept warning us that “things wouldn’t go smoothly” for Romo. And the Hall of Famer had some interesting things to say about Prescott and Wentz this past week.
“Although it is apparent that they are acclimating well, to deem them successful at this point is a bit premature,” Parcells told USA Today. “It’s like a perfect storm. Good coaching. Help from the supporting cast. Opportunity.”
This feels like more than a “perfect storm” to me right now. It looks like Prescott isn’t overwhelmed by the moment. He took advantage of a questionable roughing the passer call Sunday to extend a drive and then led his team on two quick touchdown drives.
From what I can tell, he has no intention to relinquish the starting job to Romo. And I think that’s why his teammates have responded to him. Gone are the days of pining away for an injured Romo. This could be awkward for Jones and the coaches, but it’s not a bad problem for an organization to have. Wilson only had one request.
“Please don’t jinx him,” said the coach, referring to Romo’s recent Texas Monthly cover.