The final score didn’t reflect it, but Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys won Sunday afternoon in Arlington, Texas.
Despite dropping a critical home game in the division to the New York Giants, the Cowboys found their quarterback of the present and the future, regardless of whether Tony Romo returns to the starting lineup sometime this year.
From the first snap to the last, Prescott looked every bit the part for one of the hardest jobs in sports: starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He did not flinch despite making his professional debut in one of the game’s most intense rivalries, inside the largest venue in the NFL (92,867 people filled AT&T Stadium), with legends Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach in the building and Romo, the franchise’s all-time leading passer, looking over his shoulder on the sidelines.
Prescott wasn’t perfect, and neither was the outcome. In Dallas’ 20-19 loss to the Giants, he completed less than 60 percent of his attempts (25-for-45), he didn’t have a touchdown pass, and he posted an unremarkable 5 yards per attempt ratio, amassing 227 yards the entire game.
But those numbers, especially the 25 completions, are more impressive considering wide receiver Dez Bryant’s stat line: 1 catch for 8 yards. Prescott did not look for Dallas’ best receiver on every play, like many expected. Even when he did, Prescott was savvy enough to notice the attention from the Giants secondary and look for his next option.
Prescott was patient in the pocket. He checked down when the big play wasn’t there. He did not have happy feet and bail out when he saw or felt pressure. At one point, early in the fourth quarter, he even bounced off a hit — seemingly unmoved — from the Giants 350-pound defensive tackle Damon Harrison.
When Prescott escaped the pocket and beyond, he displayed the type of shiftiness that Romo never has possessed, shiftiness that may very well have kept Romo from enduring the slew of injuries that have plagued his career. No matter how good, or even great, that Dallas offensive line is — and it is clearly the best in the NFL — every quarterback has to be able to avoid hits, something Romo hasn’t done.
Even in the most critical, career-defining task an NFL quarterback faces, the 2-minute drill, Prescott looked poised and calm with the clock dwindling down. With barely a minute on the clock, he moved Dallas from its own 20 to near midfield. Had it not been for Terrance Williams’ bonehead play — failing to even try to get out of bounds after catching a sideline throw with 5 seconds left — Dallas may have pulled off a miracle by way of a 60-something-yard game-winning field goal by Dan Bailey.
But perhaps the greatest skill the 23-year-old rookie from Mississippi State flashed was far less tangible: hope.
Last season, the Cowboys endured their worst year in nearly a quarter-century, going 4-12. And although their defense collected a paltry 11 turnovers, they had next to no running game, Bryant missed half the season and everything fell apart when Romo was injured in Week 2. The combination of replacement quarterbacks Kellen Moore, Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden won just one game during what amounted to Romo’s 12-game absence. Prescott may not yet be Romo, but he’s already proved to be more than Moore, Cassel and Weeden.
That’s not a terribly high bar for Prescott to clear — that trio had 4 more interceptions than touchdowns in 2015 — but it gives the Cowboys at the least the appearance of competence behind center. Couple that with a healthy Bryant, a potential superstar running back in Ezekiel Elliott, tight end Jason Witten and an improving defense, and Dallas certainly can go from worst to first in a hazy divisional race.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of “if” Prescott will supplant Romo, it’s a question of when. Maybe he already has; maybe he will sometime later this fall, maybe next offseason. Until that happens, Prescott has a wonderful mentor on and off the field in Romo, who can teach him how to handle the press, handle the job, handle the Giants front four, handle pressure from Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox, handle owner Jerry Jones, etc. But when he permanently assumes control of the Cowboys huddle and the Cowboys future, Prescott will be best served by learning another lesson from Romo.
Right now, teammates, fans and especially the press are falling all over themselves to praise Prescott for a tremendous preseason and an auspicious beginning to the regular season. To them, the future is beaming. But the final score of Sunday’s game should offer Prescott a moment of pause to recognize this plain truth, one that Tony Romo knows well.
At some point, the honeymoon will be over for Prescott, and no matter how many touchdown passes he throws, how many Pro Bowls he attends and how many celebrity girlfriends he has, a Dallas Cowboys quarterback is ultimately measured by only one achievement: a Super Bowl title.