ARLINGTON, Texas — Dak Prescott was not even 10 years old when he first predicted he would win the Heisman Trophy and play for the Cowboys, and Dallas fans are most fortunate he went 1-for-2 in their favor. In fact, had Prescott won the Heisman at Mississippi State, he might not have lasted long enough for the Cowboys to pick him in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft.
He’s a 24-year-old quarterback with a 34-year-old quarterback’s soul. Long before Prescott beat the New York Giants in Sunday night’s season opener, Cowboys legend Roger Staubach had marveled over Prescott’s poise and leadership skills, and former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis had compared Prescott to a young Tom Brady.
By completing 24 of 39 passes for 268 yards and a touchdown in the 19-3 victory over Eli Manning and the Giants, Prescott did nothing to temper that praise. His numbers were modest and he missed high on some early throws he should’ve completed, and that’s OK. His expert work against a potentially great defense on the hurry-up drive near the end of the first half — when he completed all four of his passes (he spiked a fifth to stop the clock) and ran 17 yards to set up the field goal that made it 16-0 — told a story outside the margins of the box score.
With Odell Beckham Jr. sidelined with his ankle injury, the pathetic Giants offense could’ve been out there for eight quarters and still fallen short of 16 points. Prescott did what he needed to do in the first 30 minutes to decide the game, which is precisely what franchise quarterbacks are supposed to do. And a franchise quarterback is always more valuable than a franchise running back, a point that begged to be made after a noisy and unsettling week featured the Cowboys’ bearded monument to high maintenance, Ezekiel Elliott.
The NFL had cleared Elliott to play against the Giants even before a federal judge on Friday slapped a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction on the league’s six-game suspension (scheduled to start in Week 2) for alleged domestic abuse, perhaps opening a path for the running back to play the entire season. Elliott then went out and had a ballgame against the Giants, gaining 104 yards on 24 carries, before his employer, Jerry Jones, stood outside the Dallas locker room and all but painted him as a model Cowboy.
Jones spoke glowingly of Elliott’s speed and power, praised his work ethic, playfully second-guessed his coach, Jason Garrett, for not calling his number more often and maintained that Elliott’s presence was the equivalent of a Knute Rockne pep talk for his team.
“I think every person that was part of the Cowboys was uplifted by the [judge’s] decision,” Jones said. “It was a good one. Although he was playing in this game no matter what, the idea that we could have him for an extended period of time was certainly inspirational.”
Elliott is a terrific football player, of that there is no doubt. But on a team that could fill a full section of AT&T Stadium with suspended players, Elliott stands out for his volatile, unpredictable behavior. He already has been involved in enough incidents at 22 years old to cover two NFL careers. If the Cowboys are to win championships in the coming years, they can’t have a star this unstable as the centerpiece.
This is where Prescott comes in. By all accounts, he has Tim Tebow’s character, without being burdened by Tim Tebow’s arm. Prescott carries himself in his news conferences like he carries himself on the field — with a selfless dignity that is likely more inspirational than Elliott’s availability in the backfield.
This is what the great Staubach told ESPN.com last year about Prescott, just as the rookie got rolling after the injury to Tony Romo: “You can tell the players respect the hell out of him and that he’s already a leader. He is amazing at making decisions when … there’s a difficult situation there and he needs to dump the ball off. He also can throw to lead a receiver. … I think we’ve got a wonderful quarterback for the future.”
The future is now. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, a seven-year veteran, threw four interceptions on Sunday in a shutout loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Prescott? He has thrown four interceptions in 17 regular-season starts, the fewest for a quarterback with at least 300 attempts since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970.
To watch him improve his career record to 14-3 by efficiently leading his team and outplaying a two-time Super Bowl MVP in Manning is to wonder how smart, time-tested scouts and executives actually could come up with 134 football players (including seven quarterbacks) they thought were better than him in last year’s draft. Prescott was slightly off against the Giants, but he didn’t throw an interception. He didn’t make the big mistake that was too often a part of doing business with Romo.
“I thought the stats don’t do it justice for how Dak played, and that’s a big step for him,” said Jason Witten, who caught Prescott’s touchdown pass and who surpassed Michael Irvin as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in receiving yards. “They give you a lot of different looks, they pressure you a lot of different ways, and he was constantly getting us in the right look.
“I think line one for the quarterback position is to take command and always lead us into the right looks and the right plays. He made a lot of plays when we needed him to throughout the game; I thought that was a really good game for him, the way he played. He was in control against a good defense and a good defensive coordinator [Steve Spagnuolo]. The points might not say it, but it’s so much bigger than that, and he understands it. He should take a lot of pride in tonight’s performance.”
But Prescott isn’t big on public displays of self-satisfaction. He conceded that he had “no excuse” for the throws he missed that could’ve led to more points on the board. “I put that on me,” he said. Prescott also called Elliott a “special back” and Witten a “special guy” whom he admires for his work on and off the field. But in the end, if these Cowboys are to win titles like Staubach’s Cowboys and Troy Aikman’s Cowboys did, the most special guy needs to be Prescott.
He just out-savvied Manning, a quarterback who was making his 200th consecutive career start. If you were ranking NFC East quarterbacks right now, Prescott would have to be at the top of that list, followed by Carson Wentz, Manning and Kirk Cousins. Prescott already has gone to a Pro Bowl. He has the arm, the pocket intelligence and the mobility to check off that Super Bowl column too.
On Sunday night, Elliott called his quarterback his best friend. Their stalls are positioned side-by-side in the left corner of the Dallas locker room.
“When we’re out there,” Elliott said, “it’s like nothing can stop us, and you know it’s just great having a guy like him to root me and kind of go through everything like this with me.”
They do make for a hell of a tandem. But over time, the more Dallas emphasizes Prescott’s stability over Elliott’s instability, the better off it will be.
Quarterbacks last a lot longer than running backs anyway.
After all the noise that Ezekiel Elliott created, it should be noted that the quieter man, Dak Prescott, will almost certainly be the last Cowboy standing.