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Curse-breaker? Dak Prescott is the Dallas Cowboys' best hope
Jerry's World is a bizarre place. This Cowboys team is not perfect. But Dak Prescott has always been the leader this franchise needs. Here's why, with insight from an ex-teammate who knows him best.
The more you learn about life in Jerry’s World, the more it’s no shock the richest sports franchise in the world has not won a championship in nearly three decades.
Count the red flags.
Draft meetings have been funky for years with scouts trying to put a name in Jerry Jones’ ear… away from everybody else. This owner is easily persuaded and, of course, he’s also the GM. A dangerous mix.
Parties are wild. Rest assured, he’s got that “Michael Irvin blood” in him still. That’s how one longtime Cowboy described Jones. “Irvin could party until 3 or 4 in the morning and he’s up at 5, 6 balling. And he’d go the whole day. That’s Jerry.” This same player also described the Cowboys as a “morally corrupt” organization. One built on friendships. Agree with the Joneses? “You’re in.” Disagree? “You will find your ass out.” Doesn’t matter if you’re a coach, a scout, a former player. “It’s almost mafia-like,” he continued. “They hang together. They run together. There’s a lot of people within that organization that do some crazy shit together. It’s a little backwards.”
All the what-if’s over these 27 years are nothing short of mind-blowing. Dallas was oh-so-close to drafting Randy Moss… yet chose Greg Ellis. Bill Parcells took a chainsaw to how everything was run internally — he was only concerned with winning. Soon, Parcells was out. A few years later, Dallas sabotaged Dez Bryant’s career. Knowing how and when to dole out contract extensions has never been Jones’ forte.
Yet, all it often takes is a stroke of good luck to change everything.
Dak Prescott was the consolation prize to Jones’ consolation prize in the 2016 NFL Draft. The owner failed to land Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch and sounded inconsolable. “When I look back on my life, I overpaid for my big successes every time,” Jones said then. “And I probably should have overpaid here.” He then tried and failed to trade up for Michigan State’s Connor Cook in the fourth round. Prescott, at 135th overall, was the pick. Jason Garrett was one key factor selling Jones on the Mississippi State quarterback. Prescott was launched into a starting role that rookie season… went 13-3… continued to improve… eventually got paid… and now? Finally, it may be time.
The Cowboys are two wins away from playing for that coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy again. Two. In a wild-card blowout of Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Prescott resembled the force of nature capable of breaking all spells inside Jerry’s World.
He’s always been the protagonist — the knight in shining armor — in the great tale that is the Dallas Cowboys.
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Monday night felt like a turning point.
Considering the stakes, this was the best game of Prescott’s career: 25 of 33 for 305 yards with four touchdowns (143.3 passer rating) and another rushing touchdown. Now, comes the ultimate test: the San Francisco 49ers. Not only is this the other half of one of this sport’s all-time rivalries, the 49ers eliminated Dallas in the playoffs only one year ago. And they’ve only gotten better. DeMeco Ryans is the best defensive coordinator in the sport, wielding the odds-on defensive player of the year (Nick Bosa) and arguably the sport’s best linebacker (Fred Warner) and best safety (Talanoa Hufanga).
If the Niners win, the sky will fall again in Big D. Everyone will fill the Monday AM airwaves with talk of Sean Payton. Prescott, as the QB, will be blistered. That’s how it works. Jones has always abided by the philosophy that any press is good press, a culture that’s created a ridiculous amount of pressure on everyone in the building.
But slay this dragon? Pull the upset? The Super Bowl is in sight and Dak Prescott can forever change the perception of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s always been exactly what the organization needs — as a player, as a person. The trauma of losing his mother to cancer in college, followed by the shock of a brother’s suicide as a pro and, on Oct. 11, 2020, one grisly leg injury of his own all hardened Prescott beyond belief. Most people around a starting quarterback will say nice things about that quarterback — no coach, no teammate, no acquaintance wants to be ostracized. But with Prescott, since Day 1, it’s always been next level. When I first got to know Prescott for this Bleacher Report profile, the praise was more of an onslaught of superlatives. I’ve never experienced anything like it with a high-profile player.
This sincerely is a person who’d excel as the CEO of any business in any field.
He can rise above the muck to make Dallas a champion.
Jones may look back at the $126 million guaranteed he gave Prescott as one of his greatest investments.
When it comes to understanding these Cowboys, former wideout Brice Butler is as honest as it gets. Butler played in Dallas from ’15 through the start of ’18. It was always weird for him to see Jones butt into Garrett’s team speeches. Players hated when the owner did this.
The lingering presence of Jones has always added an undue element of stress to day-to-day life as a Cowboy.
“I would say the biggest thing that’s hard about Dallas,” Butler says, “is the fact that you have an owner who basically has his hand in every little bit and piece of the team in a first-person sense. His sons. His daughter. The grandchildren. All of them are running the organization. So, he’s there. It adds pressure to you every day when you see Jerry at practice once or twice a week. Jerry walking through the locker room before the game. Jerry holding interviews in the locker room postgame. It’s not that he’s a bad guy. It’s not that he’s saying certain things to people. He’s nothing but positive. But you see him all the time. It’s like, ‘Dang, he’s the owner.’ If you have an owner there all the time, even if he thinks it's not adding pressure on you, it’s adding pressure on you.”
That wasn’t the case at his other two stops, in Oakland (Mark Davis) and Miami (Stephen Ross). But Jones learned from the bombastic Al Davis and winning three Super Bowls so quickly after buying the franchise no doubt gave Jones a warped blueprint.
Meddling hasn’t exactly panned out since the team’s last title in 1995.
Then, he fell into Prescott.
Understandably, Prescott was mostly a quiet leader that first season. Back when his team was one Aaron Rodgers’ miracle throw away from hosting the NFC Championship. Tony Romo retired. Kellen Moore became his offensive coordinator. Prescott started becoming more vocal.
“And it’s still building,” says Butler, who remains close to the quarterback. “It’s getting grander and grander. Once Kellen took over, I know he assumed a lot more vocal leadership. A lot more cerebral leadership — behind closed doors, walking in on strategies. He’s turned out great. I hope he continues doing what he’s doing and keeps all of the outside noise outside. Being a player for the Dallas Cowboys isn’t easy. Let alone the starting quarterback. There’s a lot of scrutiny. They haven’t won in ‘X’ amount of years. We’re always talked about — every day. We’re like the Lakers. Even if we’re 4-12 or 12-4, we have a five-minute segment on every TV show. Which doesn’t make it easy. But I think he’s done a great job not worrying about it.”
Everyone from high school coaches to college teammates to college professors gush.
Said his psychology professor, Dr. Tom Carskadon: “I know it sounds like this guy is too good to be true. … I’ve seen media-manufactured heroes, and it’s kind of sad sometimes because they don't stand up to it. But Dak's the real deal.” Blown away by how much Prescott improved in his class, Carskadon created a new award. Out of the 40,000+ students he taught, the Mississippi State quarterback was his only “Scholar of the Year.” On our podcast, Michael Gehlkin of The Dallas Morning News explained how Prescott puts this psychology background to use as leader. He makes a point to physically touch as many of his teammates as he can through the course of a game. There’s a correlation between fist bumps, head taps, etc. and winning games.
Quarterbacks who take the league by storm — like Prescott did in ’16 — tend to come and go.
After that sterling rookie season, after Butler first declared that his QB could be a “star,” his mind raced back to a different quarterback. He said then that Prescott needed to keep improving. “If he doesn’t,” Butler added, “he’ll be like Colin Kaepernick.” Butler worked out with Kaepernick in the 2013 offseason. He believed that after the Niner quarterback lit up Green Bay in that epic divisional playoff win, his priorities shifted. Right when we all assumed Kaepernick was redefining the position, Butler saw a quarterback who didn’t merely like the spotlight. “He loved it.”
Yeah, Prescott can have a good time. But up close, Butler saw a quarterback who was wired differently. Unlike all QBs who fade away, he evolved. He learned how to read defenses and confidently gun the ball downfield.
Bring this conversation up to Butler six years later and he correctly points out that there’s always been something different to Prescott’s makeup.
After all, he put Mississippi State football on the map. Butler still remembers his friends back in Atlanta, Ga., laughing in his face when he was happy about Mississippi State giving him his first college offer. For SEC-level prospects, this was basically a safety school. “Boo-boo trash,” Butler calls it. With Prescott, the Bulldogs climbed to a No. 1 ranking.
“Dak turned that program around,” Butler says. “Now, they’re a reputable brand. To him, it was no different getting to the NFL. Starting quarterback goes down and he has to go in there and make some plays. I know he works his ass off so that won’t happen to him. Because he’s been that guy. He works hard, man. That’s my dog. I was trying to spend some time with him this offseason but with him having the shoulder injury, I couldn’t really link with him. He said, ‘Bro, I’ve just been grinding. Focusing in.’ That told me right there he’s focused.”
They’ve kept in touch throughout this season. Butler remembers a young Prescott saying how crazy it was that his phone lit up with texts when he played well but if he played poorly? It went dry. That’s why Butler texts after losses more than wins. And despite Dallas’ 13-5 record, this has been a rough season. Prescott missed five games and still tied for the NFL lead with 15 interceptions. His streak of seven straight games throwing a pick into the postseason tied for the third-longest streak since 1990.
No wonder so many people — guilty as charged — thought Brady would eliminate Dallas.
Butler cites the moving parts on offense. The fact that Noah Brown is just now getting meaningful offensive snaps after spending four years as a backup. Brown hasn’t gotten this many targets since his final year at Ohio State in 2016, and even then he was in a crowded receiver room. He also cites the fact that this is CeeDee Lamb’s first season as the true No. 1. We miss so much on the broadcast, too. Butler has seen plays where Lamb is supposed to cross a safety’s face and, instead, loops around the safety. When Prescott fires the ball in there — and it’s easily picked — we assume it was his fault.
It happens. It comes with the territory. But, again, Dallas is different.
When it’s Hall of Famer Troy Aikman on the broadcast criticizing Prescott for this sort of interception, legions of fans will take his cue.
“The people inside of that meeting room know what’s going on and that’s all that matters,” Butler says. “Jason Garrett used to say something great that I use to this day: ‘There’s always going to be the prognosticators, the naysayers, the Monday morning quarterbacks that have their two cents but all that matters is what’s inside this room.’ I know that’s something seared into his mind because those words Jason Garrett used to say to him were the first words he heard in the NFL. Typically, those are your most impressionable years.”
Even if what Aikman says is taken as gospel by those fans filling up Jones’ 80,000-seat palace of a stadium.
“The one thing I’ll say about Troy,” Butler adds, “he came up in a different era. I wouldn’t say it was easy for him either. And he won three Super Bowls. So I get it. I understand it. And then there are other times, I’m like, ‘Bro, shut up. You don’t know what play was called.’”
Have no fear, it’s Kevin Burkhardt and Greg Olsen on the call Sunday evening.
Dallas can pull this upset.
It’s true San Francisco is a team quarterbacked by the last player selected in the 2022 draft: Brock Purdy. The magic could wear off any day now. After working the Niners-Raiders game in the media — and seeing Davante Adams torch this secondary for 153 yards and two scores — Butler is convinced Lamb will erupt. And it’s also true that pressure is rising in the Bay Area. Kyle Shanahan is quickly becoming a coach defined by his own playoff failures, from his reckless playcalling at the end of the Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse to New England to blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth against Kansas City in the Super Bowl to last season’s NFC Championship loss against the Los Angeles Rams.
Brice Butler’s next-door neighbor is a rabid Giants fan who still owes him 25 pushups from a loss earlier this season. He cannot imagine how hyped a Cowboys-Giants conference title game would be.
On the other hand, what happens when the ball flies off the right foot of Brett Maher? The Cowboys survived an NFL-record four missed extra points against the Bucs. That won’t fly against San Francisco. This Cowboys’ offensive line is battered. Again. Left tackle Jason Peters exited Dallas’ win over Tampa Bay after 33 snaps with a hip injury. His status is uncertain. Dallas has started five different offensive line groupings this season — potential disaster against Bosa and the gang.
Mike McCarthy’s Packers defenses typically folded in this exact spot. They were pulled into the dark alley and pummeled with crowbars — and that’s exactly what happened against these same Niners last season. The Dallas run defense was gashed for 169 yards and two scores, Ezekiel Elliott mustered all of 2.6 yards per carry, Prescott was hit 14 times and Dallas committed an appalling 14 penalties. McCarthy can throw on a chain, shimmy and slide, but is this roster any tougher than that one? Than the Green Bay units that fell just short for a decade?
We’re about to find out.
The quarterback may need to keep a cape handy.
Much like all “morally corrupt” nonsense that happens off the field in Dallas, and all front-office decisions that inevitably backfire, Prescott must be the one who rises above all turmoil through these playoffs.
He certainly can.
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