FRISCO, Texas – Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had just combined for 427 yards and three touchdowns in the Cowboys' second victory ever at Lambeau Field – the NFL's equivalent, in college football terms, to perhaps Tuscaloosa or Ann Arbor.
Dez Bryant was impressed, yet again, with his new teammates in only their sixth professional regular-season game since dominating the SEC and the Big Ten.
"I tell them all the time," Bryant said, "rookie is just a title. That's all it is. It's a title."
Fast forward a few weeks to the midway point of the 2016 season. The Cowboys' rookie class has now prepared for, if not played in, 12 preseason and regular-season games – the equivalent of a full college football season. The Cowboys are 7-1, the best record in the NFC and tied for the best record in the NFL.
They've got a 23-year-old quarterback and a 21-year-old running back pushing the offense to unprecedented franchise levels: six straight games of at least 400 total yards in this seven-game winning streak.
They've got a rookie defensive starter, Maliek Collins, holding an A-plus grade from Rod Marinelli in last Sunday's 35-10 win over the Cleveland Browns. As team owner/general manager Jerry Jones said Tuesday on 105.3 The Fan, "I don't know when I've seen Rod Marinelli give out an A-plus."
And they've got a rookie cornerback, Anthony Brown, who has capably stepped in twice now for injured veterans: first Orlando Scandrick, now Morris Claiborne.
The Cowboys drafted nine players in 2016. Eight were healthy enough at the time to begin the season (second-round pick Jaylon Smith was always a likely medical 'redshirt' due to a knee injury).
Four rookies, two on offense and two on defense, are playing meaningful snaps and making significant plays – led, of course, by Dak and Zeke.
When's the last time the Cowboys got this many first-year contributions from a class?
Two come to mind, at least in Jones' franchise ownership tenure.
How about 2005, when first-round picks DeMarcus Ware and Marcus Spears became first-year cornerstones for Bill Parcells' transition to the 3-4 defense; fourth-round pick Chris Canty played 16 games in the defensive line rotation; and fourth-round pick Marion Barber III rushed for 538 yards and five touchdowns in a running back committee. All four were starters by 2007.
And how about 1989, when first-overall pick Troy Aikman started 10 games at quarterback; second-round pick Daryl Johnston held down the backfield for 10 fullback starts before Emmitt Smith arrived a year later; third-round pick Mark Stepnoski started four games at center; and fourth-round pick Tony Tolbert got five starts in a timeshare with the great Ed "Too Tall" Jones in his final season. All four rookies were starters by 1991, the first significant step toward the future dynasty.
Neither of those teams made the playoffs, and '89 was a clear rebuilding year, the unsightly 1-15 record a painful foundation for three Super Bowl titles.
What this year's rookies are doing for a 7-1 team is remarkable – and Dak and Zeke are the first to point out the help they're getting from the line in front of them and the outstanding skill players around them.
Prescott, in particular, is maximizing rare rookie quarterback reps. Do you know how long it took Tony Romo to reach Prescott's 248 career pass attempts through these first eight games? Week 2 of 2007, Romo's first full year as a starter – and his* fifth* NFL season.
Elliott is, as expected, the central focus in the running game. He's leading the league in rushing yards (891) and his 177 carries trail only San Diego's Melvin Gordon (193). Zeke's pace for 354 carries would be the most by an NFL back since DeMarco Murray's 392 for the Cowboys two years ago, and before that, Chris Johnson's 358 for the Tennessee Titans in 2009. That stat has some fans concerned about a second-half slowdown, but it's worth noting Elliott has only carried the ball 40 times in the last two games – and the 21-year-old isn't exactly in need of a pitch count.
Defensively, Collins' emergence at defensive tackle (two sacks against the Browns) has allowed the Cowboys to address their thin depth at defensive end by moving Tyrone Crawford outside, where he has thrived. Collins broke his foot in late May, needed surgery and missed most of training camp and preseason. But he has adapted to Marinelli's defense quickly and provided a tough presence in the middle of the D-Line rotation.
Brown played outside at cornerback against the Browns when Scandrick moved into the slot, but he previously spent four games filling in for the veteran there – a responsibility he never had at Purdue. He has been fearless in coverage and as a tackler – he's eighth on the team in tackles (31) despite playing less than half the total defensive snaps.
In the future, the Cowboys hope for even more from the rest of the 2016 class. Smith is a first-round talent still recovering from a dreadful injury in his final college game. Fourth-round pick Charles Tapper is on injured reserve with a back injury. Sixth-round pick Darius Jackson has been inactive for every game behind a deep running back rotation, and fellow sixth-rounder Rico Gathers is on the practice squad, acclimating to football again.
In the meantime, the above-mentioned four rookies have a pretty good grade-point average.