FRISCO, Texas – It's fitting that exactly one year after coaching in the Senior Bowl, the Cowboys are preparing to coach in the Pro Bowl.
Of course, a lot of factors contributed to a worst-to-first reversal that saw this team improve from 4-12 to 13-3. But as Senior Bowl practices get set to start in Mobile, Ala., one element looms larger than most: quarterback production.
After all, Dak Prescott wasn't on the Cowboys-coached North team for last week's game, but Mobile was where his NFL journey began. As a quarterback for the Jaguars-coached South squad, Prescott was named the game's MVP and turned plenty of heads in the process.
"Every time anybody mentioned his name, it was the 'it' factor," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "When we went to the Senior Bowl, the coaches, Jacksonville, they talked about the 'it' factor. They said he's got it."
A successful Senior Bowl week led to an interview at the NFL Combine, followed by Prescott's private workout with Cowboys coaches. This week, he heads to Orlando, Fla., as a Pro Bowler and one of the biggest success stories of the 2016 NFL season.
As Prescott said himself on Twitter, the process started all the way back in Mobile:
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett didn't work much with Prescott in Mobile, as he was instead charged with Carson Wentz, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan and Jeff Driskel. But Garrett has spoken on many occasions about the importance of those practices and what can be gleaned from senior prospects starting the path to the draft.
"It goes back to your love of football. Your passion for football," Garrett said this fall. "That is where it starts. Do they love it? Are they passionate about it? And then are they willing to do the work necessary?"
Prescott is just the easiest of several callbacks. The Cowboys' success with Senior Bowl players actually goes back several years. Another one of their six Pro Bowlers, Zack Martin, took part in the game back in 2014, following a distinguished career at Notre Dame.
Martin used those practices to showcase his abilities, as he held his own against the likes of future Pro Bowler Aaron Donald. The performance solidified him as a first-round prospect, and the Cowboys picked him 16th overall to play guard, where he has earned two first-team All-Pro selections and three Pro Bowl nods in three seasons.
Look throughout the Cowboys' roster and you can find these stories. Terrance Williams played in the 2013 game, three months before the Cowboys drafted him No. 74 overall. Six picks later they also selected J.J. Wilcox, who notched two tackles in that 2013 game.
It feels like ancient history at this point, but DeMarco Murray was also a Senior Bowl participant back in 2011. The Cowboys drafted him No. 71 overall that year, and he went on to 4,526 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns in four years – highlighted by his 1,845-yard 2014 season, which earned him NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Going back even further, before Jason Garrett's time with the team, DeMarcus Ware was also a Senior Bowl player. The Cowboys drafted him 11th overall back in 2005, and he has racked up 138.5 career sacks, nine Pro Bowl appearances and four first-team All-Pro selections over the course of an amazing career.
The list goes on, but the point remains. The Senior Bowl serves as a footnote of the football calendar for all but the most diehard fans – and obviously the NFL clubs that attend it.
But if the past is any indicator, a future difference-maker – perhaps even a franchise-altering player – could be on hand in Mobile this week.