ARLINGTON, Texas — Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will have to learn many things as he fills in for the injured Tony Romo over the next few weeks. Confidence, poise and maturity most certainly will not be on that list. Those traits were very much on display even though the Cowboyssuffered a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants in Prescott's first game as a starter. They also are the reasons Dallas should be excited about how he'll handle his emergency duty as a rookie.
This much we knew about Prescott coming into Sunday: He sure could put on a show in the preseason. He was the NFL's most efficient signal caller when the games didn't count and that created ample hype about him entering this contest. Prescott had done enough in those exhibitions to make people consider him the early steal of this year's draft. What he hadn't done was anything when the action really mattered, which is what we all wanted to see.
Now there's enough evidence to know Prescott actually does have many of the requisite skills to be a difference maker in this league. The most important indication came when Dallas had the ball with 1:05 left in the game, no timeouts and a chance for Prescott to lead them to victory.
"I was thinking, 'Go win the game,' " Prescott said during his postgame press conference. "That starts off with a completion and getting into a rhythm. I wanted to have the ball in my hands [at the end of the game] instead of [Giants quarterback] Eli [Manning]."
The box score will show that Prescott couldn't pull off that comeback. He moved the Cowboys to the Giants' 40-yard line and then watched Dallas wide receiver Terrance Williams fail to get out of bounds after a 14-yard reception that became the game's final play. If Williams had been smarter, maybe Dallas wins on a last-second, 57-yard field goal by Dan Bailey. Since Williams had a brain freeze, that still isn't a reason to diminish what Prescott did on Sunday.
Prescott's numbers weren't jaw-dropping — he completed 25 of 45 passes for 227 yards — but his game management was impressive. The Cowboys came in with a predictable strategy of controlling the clock and limiting mistakes — and their rookie quarterback did everything that was asked of him. He understood the Giants would try to take away his most dangerous weapon, star wide receiver Dez Bryant. So Prescott basically took what the defense gave him and did it well enough to create ample scoring chances for his team.
Yes, you can knock the Cowboys for only converting one of their three red-zone opportunities into a touchdown. But that stuff likely will improve the more Prescott grows.
"I really liked his poise, his composure, his decision making throughout," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "I thought he threw the ball well, made a lot of plays from the pocket, made a lot of plays outside the pocket, made plays with his feet [and] made a lot of smart plays. He handled different situations that came up over the course of the game very well [and] came back from adversity when things weren't going well."
Prescott deserves even more credit for his poise because he also didn't have the running game theCowboys were expected to provide. The Giants successfully contained rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott (who gained 51 yards on 20 carries), largely because they had an effective strategy that allowed them to crowd the line of scrimmage and provide deep help to control Bryant. Garrett said New York accomplished this by playing a lot of two-deep coverage and then blitzing safeties to disrupt the run game. It's the kind of tactic teams can use when facing a first-time starter.
The upside for Dallas is that Prescott didn't allow those issues to lead to mistakes by him. He didn't throw an interception. He didn't fumble. He didn't even take a sack. Prescott also revealed that he has the potential to offer a dynamic to this offense that Romo might not bring anymore: The ability to do major damage with his legs.
The Cowboys ran a couple designed runs for the 6-foot-2, 226-pound Prescott and he looked quite comfortable banging against defenders. Romo used to be a nimble runner himself, but the toll on his body is now becoming cumulative. At 36 years old — and coming off two collarbone fractures last season — he's trying to let a broken bone in his back heal over the next couple months. Dallas would be crazy to put him in those situations, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to let Prescott do more running to increase his comfort level.
It's also likely that the rookie will become more willing to take some shots when the defense isn't giving him what he wants. As Garrett said, "Cautious is not a word that we use. I thought Dak did a really good job of running the offense. He was very effective running the bulk of our dropback offense [and] the movement offense was outstanding. … You want a good decision maker. Here's a good decision maker."
Prescott actually had only one moment during the entire day when he felt his emotions surging out of control. That was when he was standing for the national anthem. Everything hit him at that point: the magnitude of the stage, the importance of the moment, the opportunity he'd been handed in his first start in the National Football League. "That was when I soaked in everything," Prescott said.
The way the Cowboys are spinning it, Prescott will have at least five more games to go through such emotional highs (and lows). There have been reports that Romo could be back on the field by Week 8 (right after Dallas' bye), especially since the prognosis for his recovery was about six to 10 weeks. That means Prescott has about a month and a half to keep proving himself to all those who believe in his potential. More importantly, he has to help the Cowboysavoid the type of implosions that have plagued them when Romo has gone down in the past.
At first glance, that doesn't seem likely to happen. Dallas might be starting a quarterback who was just drafted in the fourth round, but he isn't playing like the project he was deemed to be coming out of Mississippi State. Prescott already has proven that people underestimated his talents back in the spring. The deeper he plays into the fall, the more he's going to show how promising he actually is.