The Dallas Cowboys are seeing a years-long plan come to fruition. They have won 13 games, tying the franchise record for most in a season (and clearly conceded the last game in favor of having as healthy a team as possible for the playoffs). Going back to a run-first offensive strategy has worked nearly to perfection with the addition of Ezekiel Elliott, despite the skepticism that greeted his selection with the fourth-overall pick. Their offensive line is the envy of most of the league. A mostly “no name” defense is coming into its own at just the right time. And they have locked up the home field in the year that AT&T Stadium has finally become a real advantage for them.
But all their best laid plans were nearly put to ruin by some very bad luck. And amazingly, one singular stroke of absolutely phenomenal good fortune put everything back to rights. That odds-beating, lottery-hitting thing is embodied in the player that has been the biggest single story of the NFL this year: Rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
You are all familiar with the way he came to wear the Star, but it bears repeating just how it nearly never happened. The Cowboys had placed a priority on finding a better backup option after the spectacular failure to find a workable alternative for an injured Tony Romo in 2015. They went with their preferred plan for acquiring major roster pieces, the draft. But Prescott was not the first choice. First they tried, and failed, to trade up for Paxton Lynch. Then they planned to take Connor Cook, but were jumped by the Oakland Raiders (who now will give Cook the reins in their first playoff game due to the injury to Derek Carr). Finally, with the 135th pick, they took Prescott almost as a consolation prize (although he had several strong supporters on the staff).
Then came the injuries in camp and preseason. First, Kellen Moore, who Prescott was supposed to compete with as the QB2, was lost to a freak broken leg in practice. Then what appeared to be true and all-too-familiar disaster struck as Romo went down with another back injury in his first preseason appearance. Despite a sizzling early start in preseason by Prescott, the staff still looked into trading for a veteran passer, but Josh McCown’s price was too high. The Cowboys were forced into taking a chance on Prescott. Rolling with a late-round rookie was one of the longest of long shots.
And the Cowboys hit the lottery. The big jackpot. Never has a rookie quarterback taken at any point in the draft come in and done what Prescott has as well as he has. Don’t just take my word for it, Rick Gosselin at the Dallas Morning News laid it out in his recent article on Dak.
I saw John Elway as a rookie. I saw Jim McMahon, Dan Marino, Troy Aikman, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson as rookies.
But what I saw from Dak Prescott this season is something I've never seen in the 43 years I've been reporting on the NFL. I saw the greatest rookie season by any quarterback in league history.
The numbers are nearly unbelievable. An eleven-game winning streak. The longest streak of passes without an interception to start a career. Only four picks thrown for the entire season. And on and on.
This would be incredible for a quarterback taken as the first-overall pick. For a player who was passed over repeatedly by every team (including the Cowboys) for four rounds of the draft, it is impossible. Something that would be seen as ridiculously fantastic fiction. Except it happened.
Good luck, indeed. Great luck. Maybe the best ever for any NFL team, certainly up there with any we have ever seen, at least on one year’s data.
If there is a logical reason for this to happen, it has to come down to intangibles. No one could see in advance just how rapidly Prescott could absorb the intricacies of the NFL game and develop the needed skills. There were hints in his high school and college careers, but no one can be faulted for not grasping just how successfully he could make the transition to the big show. Yes, he landed in arguably the best spot available for a rookie quarterback to thrive, but it is extremely doubtful that anyone could have done nearly as well. Jared Goff was seen by many analysts as the most NFL ready quarterback of the 2016 class, but his development was glacial compared to Dak’s (hindered, no doubt, by Jeff Fisher’s underwhelming skills at grooming and preparing players).
It is not just the incredible talent and preternatural poise that Prescott brings to the field. It is the whole fantastically unlikely sequence of events that brought us here. Had Dallas succeeded in plan A or plan B, Prescott would have landed somewhere else and likely been what everyone expected him to be for the Cowboys, a developmental quarterback, probably third on the depth chart at least to begin the season. Had Moore not gotten stepped on in practice, he might well have fought off Prescott as the backup as Scott Linehan’s favorite. And had Romo not taken a somewhat freakish hit - well, that is an alternative history that is still too painful to really think about, and might well have avoided one of the great tragic stories in football.
But now Prescott is both the present and the future for the Cowboys, and it looks as bright and shining as for any team in the league. It is something that might have developed in two or three years, but there is simply no way it should have happened this quickly, or this well. Yet here we are. In a couple of weekends, the next chapter will unfold. We have all been reminded that no rookie quarterback has ever led his team to the Super Bowl.
Well, no rookie quarterback has ever done what Prescott has already accomplished. Most veterans have never posted a season like he has.
There is an old saying that it is better to be lucky than good. This season, at least, Dallas has been both, in very large measure. The luck has certainly not run out yet for the Cowboys. Maybe, just maybe, it still has a month or so to go.