An unheralded rookie quarterback, drafted much later than the vast majority of franchise signal-callers, who was never expected to start early in his career, suddenly takes over as the starter after an impressive preseason. He goes on to have one of the best rookie seasons ever with a QB rating in the triple digits, a sparkling yards per attempt (Y/A) near 8.0, over 3,000 yards passing and 30 total touchdowns despite playing in a ball-control offense, all while limiting turnovers. The rookie earns a Pro Bowl nod while racking up double-digit regular season wins, and a surprising playoff berth that shocked many in the NFL world where conventional wisdom writes off the possibility of such impressively consistent performances from a rookie at the most important, and most difficult position in the sport.
But they hadn’t seen anything yet.
In the divisional round he has perhaps the best playoff performance ever for a rookie quarterback. He leads a furious comeback, throwing for over 300 yards, and bringing his team all the way back after they were down by three scores. On the other sideline is a veteran quarterback having one of the best seasons of his career, he gets the ball back with under a minute remaining and leads a magnificent drive that wins the game on a long field goal with just seconds on the clock. It’s a heartbreaking loss for the rookie who came from nowhere, shocked the world with his historic play during the regular season, and then delivered one of the greatest playoff performances for a rookie at his position of all-time.
That rookie was Russell Wilson, and the game that so stunningly mimics what we saw on Sunday came against the Atlanta Falcons during the 2012-13 playoffs. The next year Wilson would have another fantastic year that ended in a Super Bowl victory.
The parallels between Wilson and Dak Prescott are so obvious that they are shocking, from where they were drafted, to their style of play, to their rookie seasons, which are almost statistically identical, to how those rookie seasons ended.
After the news that Tony Romo would be out for a significant period of time I wrote an article saying that it would be unfair to expect Prescott to be Wilson as a rookie. Most of the premise was that Wilson was not asked to do too much, he was sheltered by a very good defense and given time to grow into the role of quarterback while the team didn’t ask too much of him at the beginning. Other teams that had success with rookie quarterbacks such as the 2004 Steelers followed a similar formula. The Cowboys had no such luxury of a defense that could buy a young quarterback time to grow, it was the offense who was supposed to shield the defense, not the other way around.
Yes, the offensive line is dominant. Yes, Ezekiel Elliott has the look of a generational talent at running back, but to ask a rookie quarterback to lead an offense that is supposed to help protect an average defense?
It’s lunacy, but Prescott did just that and more.
Regular season wins don’t mean much around these parts given the franchise’s rich history and the failures over the last decade, but this playoff performance is different.
The regular season is one thing, but in the playoffs this is a rookie that played quite possibly a top five quarterback of all-time at the absolute apex of his game to a stand still. To as much of a draw as you will ever see in an NFL playoff game.
A rookie in his first ever playoff game who threw three touchdowns, more than any other rookie ever.
I’ll repeat that; a rookie threw more touchdowns than any rookie ever had in a playoff game, and played a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer, playing as well as he ever has, to basically a draw.
The last time I saw Rodgers play like this was their Super Bowl run in 2010. That year they beat the number-one seed Falcons in the divisional round 48-21 with Rodgers going 30/36 for 360 yards and three touchdowns. That day Matt Ryan, who was in his third year in the league, went 20/29 for 186 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The same Matt Ryan who is the favorite to win the 2016 NFL MVP.
The future is as bright now as it could possibly ever be. The quarterback position looks squared away for 10-15 years, there are three First-Team All-Pro offensive linemen just entering their prime, two of which are already locked in to long-term contracts, and the third will be soon in Zack Martin’s case. The transcendent rookie running back is locked in for three more years, with a team option for a fourth year. The wide receiver who reminded everyone that he is still elite is in his prime and also locked in for three years. The security blanket slot receiver is locked in for two years, and he too is in his prime.
There are a few areas that could need addressing of course; namely right tackle, an heir to Jason Witten at tight end, and perhaps a replacement for Terrance Williams if he isn’t re-signed (I think he should be, if the price is right of course). But in the grand scheme of the NFL those are relatively minor issues considering the rest of the offensive talent.
The real job to be done of course is on the other side of the ball. The defense has a few decent pieces and is passable enough against about 75% of teams, and in the regular season, but the front office must be aggressive over the next year or two in upgrading the pass rush because more is needed in the playoffs against the Rodgers, Brady’s, and Roethlisberger’s of the world.
Sure, if things go our way the offense can probably carry an average defense into the playoffs, maybe even to the Super Bowl with a break or two. They weren’t far away from doing it this year.
But why settle for good enough?
Presumably Tony Romo’s contract will be off the books at some point this offseason and Prescott won’t be in line for a new contract until about this time in 2020. The time to go after it is now.
I’m not advocating handing out a $15 million per year contract to a defensive end, but the front office cannot be satisfied with “good enough” on defense. They can’t be satisfied with the Benson Mayowa’s of the world, players who are fine depth/rotational pieces but are not who you want starting on a Super Bowl contender.
No more spending second-round picks on unreliable moonshots. The offense is built, it’s time to build a defense and give Prescott a luxury that Romo never had; a complete team.
Russell Wilson has been one of the best and brightest young stars at the quarterback position over the last five years. Somehow the Cowboys have lucked into finding a quarterback who is on the same career trajectory, while at the same time having an elite, ready-made offensive supporting cast that is in place for years to come.
Now is the time for the front office to capitalize on that good fortune and finish building this roster into what could, and should, be a monster.