Dak Prescott’s rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys already has been remarkable. He was handed the team’s starting quarterback job when Tony Romo got hurt and never gave it back, taking the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC playoffs while establishing himself as a league MVP candidate and a potential franchise centerpiece for the next decade or so.
With three more victories, his season would be transformed from wondrous to unprecedented.
No rookie quarterback ever has secured a Super Bowl triumph for his team. In fact, no rookie quarterback ever has started a Super Bowl. But Prescott is probably as well positioned as any rookie quarterback to make it happen, with the Cowboys rested, basically healthy and looking imposing entering the NFC semifinal that they will host Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
“There’s a terrific offensive line,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins. “There’s a Pro Bowl running back. There’s a Pro Bowl receiver. You’ve got a very good, move-the-chains tight end. You’ve got a lot of things going for you in this case.”
But Prescott and the Cowboys making it to Houston for the Super Bowl cannot be regarded as a certainty, given the history of rookie quarterbacks in the postseason. The game is different in the playoffs, with the intensity revved up and any tiny deficiency magnified. Opposing defenses will do their best to take advantage of Prescott’s relative inexperience.
Former NFL quarterback Tim Hasselbeck said postseason opponents will attempt to replicate the approach taken by the New York Giants, the only team to beat the Cowboys during the regular season until a meaningless, final-weekend defeat at Philadelphia, by trying to confuse Prescott and keep the Dallas offense off balance with varied and well-disguised defensive looks.
“Do I think the Cowboys can win the Super Bowl with Dak Prescott? Yes,” said Hasselbeck, now an NFL analyst with ESPN. “But it’s also true that the sophistication of the passing game now typically does not lend itself to succeeding with a young quarterback. Peyton Manning was not great last year. But he was still Peyton Manning. And if it was third and six and the blitz was coming, he was going to get you into the right play and the right protection.
“There have been moments when Prescott has been very impressive and has not looked anything like a rookie quarterback. But look at that second Giants game. There were times when [Giants defensive coordinator Steve] Spagnuolo gave him looks that made him look like a rookie. Could you see a Green Bay or a New England or whoever giving him a hard time like that? Yeah, I could see that. I’m sure the model of what people will try is what the Giants did in that second game.”
Prescott becomes the 21st rookie since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to start a playoff game.
“Typically you don’t go to a team as a quarterback and play in your rookie year if it’s a good team,” Hasselbeck said. “If you’re drafting a quarterback in the first round, chances are your prior season wasn’t great. And the position is very hard.”
Prescott reached this point via a confluence of unusual circumstances. He was a fourth-round draft choice who moved up from third to second on the depth chart when Kellen Moore suffered a broken ankle in training camp. He then became the starter when Romo suffered a compression fracture of a vertebra in his back during a preseason game. But Prescott most certainly earned it from there, finishing as the league’s third-rated passer during the regular season behind only Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New England’s Tom Brady.
He had plenty of help, though, and that is the well-established formula for achieving success with a rookie quarterback. Tailback Ezekiel Elliott, a fellow Dallas rookie, was the NFL’s rushing leader, running behind the Cowboys’ powerful offensive line. Prescott’s receiving corps includes veteran standouts such as wideout Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten, but also less heralded but productive wide receivers Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
The Dallas defense is not overpowering but respectable, aided by the Cowboys’ ability to control games with Elliott and their running game. The Cowboys ranked 14th in the NFL in total defense, based on yards allowed, but fifth in scoring defense. They led the league in rushing defense.
When the New York Jets reached the AFC title game with rookie Mark Sanchez (now the Cowboys’ third-stringer) at quarterback following the 2009 season, they ranked first in the league in rushing offense and first in total defense. When the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC championship game with rookie Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback after the 2004 season in which they had a 15-1 record, they ranked second in the league in rushing offense and first in total defense.
“There’s so few that get that opportunity,” Casserly said. “Most rookies don’t start on good teams, and then you actually have to play well yourself. You have to have a team that can run the ball, like Roethlisberger did. You have to have a great running back.”
Sanchez and Roethlisberger are among the six rookie quarterbacks whose teams reached conference championship games. The others are Pat Haden with the Los Angeles Rams in 1976, Dieter Brock with the Rams in ’85, Shaun King with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1999, and Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008.
The Cowboys hope to do even better with Prescott.
According to Hasselbeck, Prescott’s ability to run with the football could dissuade Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and any future opponents from going overboard with their unorthodox tactics.
“Some of the zone-read stuff could offset that,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s very dangerous as a runner, too. That could discourage you sometimes from trying to do too much in terms of confusing him and blitzing him. They’re not afraid to use zone-read on, say, third and six. You might not want to be in some exotic defense.”
And when in doubt, Prescott and the Cowboys have a very good fall-back option: hand the ball to Elliott.
“You won’t find anyone more impressed than me with what Prescott has done,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s been great. But the run game in Dallas, that’s the key. Their offensive line is very, very good and it creates opportunities for Elliott. But it doesn’t have to be blocked perfectly for Elliott. People say run the football, win the turnover battle and you’ll win. It’s cliché. But it’s so true in Dallas. Their run game is the most impressive thing they’ve done this season.”
Staff writer Neil Greenberg contributed to this report.