FRISCO, Texas –Asking two rookies to carry huge shares of offensive production for a team with playoff aspirations doesn't happen often for a reason: It's unlikely they'll be prepared to shoulder that burden. No one comes into the NFL fully formed as the player they will eventually become from a physical or mental standpoint, so trying to win crucial games while they go through that process is a lot to ask.
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have made it look easy so far. Of quarterbacks who have thrown at least 130 passes, Prescott is the only one who has yet to throw an interception. Elliott is leading the NFL in rushing with 412 yards. More importantly, the Cowboys are 3-1 led by the two rookies.
They aren't the first pair of rookies to start from day one with enormous expectations placed on their shoulders. On Sunday the Cowboys will face a Bengals team that features Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, who went through similar experiences and have made it out the other side.
In 2011 the Bengals selected Green out of Georgia with the fourth overall pick in what is arguably the most impressive draft this century, featuring players like Cam Newton, Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, and J.J. Watt. They followed that up by drafting Dalton out of TCU with the 35th pick.
Cincinnati traded Carson Palmer shortly afterwards, and unlike Prescott who has had to fill in for Romo after a late preseason injury, Dalton was given the keys to the franchise immediately, and his fellow rookie wide receiver was right there with him.
"Right from the start we committed to Andy as the guy," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis remembers. "He took every rep with the first team. A.J. was at the front of every line."
Despite being unable to work together until training camp due to the 2011 NFL lockout, the duo had obvious talent and immediately validated the Bengals' faith in them, connecting on touchdowns in their first two games in the NFL. But Dalton, who threw four interceptions in his first four NFL games, has noticed Prescott's rare ability to protect the ball.
"It's hard to do some of the things he's done," Dalton said of Prescott. "The biggest thing he's done is take care of the ball. He hasn't turned the ball over. That's huge."
Dalton and Green worked through growing pains and ended up breaking the NFL record for combined yards for a rookie quarterback/wide receiver pairing, totaling over 1,000 yards.
Prescott has already set a record himself for most completions by a rookie quarterback without an interception, and Elliott is on pace to be only 150 yards short of the NFL rookie rushing record.
Having been on the sideline for rookie projects himself, Lewis thinks a little bit of the acclaim for Prescott and Elliott's success should extend past just the players.
"You've got to credit the coaching," Lewis said. "Jason [Garrett] and the things they're doing."
Prescott and Elliott have only played four games, and as great as they've been, slumps and adversity in some form are inevitable. Perhaps more enticing than how productive their rookie seasons turn out is the bright future they have ahead if they continue to grow together like Dalton and Green.
"I think [being rookies together] has helped us throughout our careers that we can go back and talk about experiences and different things that have gone on," Dalton said about Green.
Lewis added on that he thought it was beneficial that the pairing were able to lean on each other throughout their rookie year.
Five seasons later Dalton and Green are still together, a rarity in a league with constant roster turnover, and they've only built up a better sense of chemistry that has made them more dangerous.
"It's cool that we got to come in together," Dalton said. "We're learning as we go, and we're growing as players at the same time."