Playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys brings special pressure, a mixture of burden and adoration not found elsewhere across the sporting spectrum. It can propel an unknown athlete into American darlinghood, or it can make the star on the side of the helmet a bull’s eye. The last two men who occupied the position for more than a couple of seasons, Tony Romo and Troy Aikman, now hold the top analyst jobs at CBS and Fox, respectively. When the NFL Players Association released their rankings of jersey sales Thursday, the No. 4 of the Cowboys’ signal caller ranked No. 1.

Dak Prescott has managed to hold the position into his second year without the thinnest whisper of controversy, even as he replaced a franchise legend, lost a heartbreaking playoff debut and continues to play in front of a running back clouded by an ongoing legal drama over a suspension for domestic violence. Prescott has been presented constant opportunity to invite disruption or unwanted headlines. He never has. Prescott is charismatic without being provocative, even-tempered without being bland. It is hard to notice the absence of something, but the absence of turmoil around Prescott, given his circumstances, may be his greatest accomplishment.

On Sunday, the Washington Redskins will get their first look at Prescott in Year 2, which means they have yet to see the latest version. He is a better player now than last season, and the development helps explain how he’s avoided turbulence. Prescott seized and solidified Dallas’s quarterback position through relentless work, his ability to consume instruction and process it. His aversion to controversy comes naturally, an outgrowth of his focus on improvement.

“In high school, he was okay,” said Dan Mullen, Prescott’s coach at Mississippi State. “As a senior, he was the best player in college football. He has just a tremendous work ethic and a tremendous attitude to push himself every single day to improve and be the best he can be. You see that in the NFL, and throughout his time in college.”

The Cowboys are 3-3, still finding their footing after their charmed season a year ago. But Prescott, by both his own evaluation and the accounts of teammates and coaches, is better. Prescott has thrown 14 touchdown passes, double his total through six games as a rookie. He was a quick study, but he possesses a tighter grasp on Dallas’s offense.

“Having a season under his belt as the starting quarterback, I think, gave him the opportunity to learn in so many different ways and improve every aspect of his game,” Dallas Coach Jason Garrett said. “He has more command of what we’re trying to do and maybe what defenses are trying to do against us. He is one of those guys who takes advantage of the experiences he has and he grows in every way. We’re certainly lucky to have him as our quarterback.”

Last year, after Romo’s preseason back injury, another injury to original backup Kellen Moore and ineffectiveness by Mark Sanchez in Week 1 pressed Prescott into the starting job, Prescott surprised the Cowboys with how much he could consume and execute.

“He seemed to be able to handle anything we gave him,” Garrett said. “We wanted to be deliberate last year in making sure that he had experience running the things that we were going to ask him to run in the game. Over the course of the season, we continued to grow offensively.”

This week, Prescott raised an eyebrow as a reporter attempted to ask him about the “limitations” he had last season within Dallas’s offense.

“I didn’t think there was a limitation to begin with,” Prescott said.

The questioner tried to clarify he meant limitations coaches imposed on him, not limitations in his performance.

“Nah,” Prescott said. “There wasn’t.”

“I’m definitely more comfortable,” Prescott said. “That just comes from a year of experience, a year of seeing defenses, studying film, a year with these guys. It just comes from getting those reps.”

Prescott has established himself as an NFL star, but his entry into the league warrants retelling. The Cowboys, recognizing the need to plan for a future without Romo, attempted to trade into the first round to pluck Paxton Lynch, only for the Broncos to outflank them and grab him with a pick acquired from the Seattle Seahawks.

Owner Jerry Jones, dejected, settled on waiting to take a quarterback later in the draft, with the hope of developing him. Missing out on Lynch, now out of the Broncos’ starting quarterback picture even as Trevor Siemian stumbles, was Dallas’s first stroke of luck. The second was having their coaching staff present at the Senior Bowl.

Cowboys coaches witnessed Prescott bring together a team of strangers within a week. More to the point, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan saw his intelligence as a passer, which allowed him to look past the “spread quarterback” label attached to him at Mississippi State. Linehan told Jerry Jones and other Cowboys executives, “He’s got it.” His recommendation persuaded Dallas to take a flier on him in the fourth round. Within eight months, he had replaced Romo and won 13 games.

“It’s really hard to scout this,” Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said. “Every college coach, if they’ve got a good quarterback, they’re going to say all the right things, or he probably wouldn’t be leading the team, or he probably wouldn’t be getting drafted. But you’re really never able to get your hands around what his leadership skills are — the ‘it’ factor, the nervous system — until you have him. I think from the minute he walked in the door, he started gaining on it. He became immediately the leader of the rookies. The next thing you know, he was gaining respect from our offensive line group, from [Jason] Witten, from Dez [Bryant]. Who knows what he was going to be as a football player? But he certainly was a unique individual in terms of his leadership skills.”

In his second season, Prescott continues to lead the Cowboys. If his past is a guide, Prescott has only started to improve.

“He has embraced this whole process every step of the way,” Garrett said. “His preparation is outstanding, just the way he plays and the way he leads our football team. He has certainly grown over the time he has been our starter as he continues to work to get better every day.”

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