FRISCO, Texas – Of course, Dak Prescott was going to win the home run derby.
That’s just who he is.
And we witnessed yet another example of his innate ability to learn Wednesday night at a mere charity event, the Eighth Annual Reliant Home Run Derby at Dr Pepper Ballpark where 10 of the Dallas Cowboys took cuts, earning monetary funds for putting the ball in play but a whole lot more for hitting “home runs” over the makeshift fence roughly 200 feet deep.
You know, last week during the rookie minicamp, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett recalled a relevant tale of his initial impression of Dak, no more than the team’s second fourth-round pick in 2016. Something about how early on in a first rookie minicamp practice run drill the quarterback who played mostly in the shotgun at Mississippi State wasn’t doing a very good job of getting out from under center fast enough to get the ball to the tailback.
“I got on him a little bit,” Garrett says. “I said, ‘What are you doing? You got to get the ball back to this guy,’ and I kind of explained to him how you have to put more weight on one foot, and push and drive back, and he was kind of looking at me like, I didn’t know how he was taking it.
“But it was amazing how he processed it. On the next rep, it got better, the next rep after that got better, and by the end of practice the thing that was a concern at the outset was no longer a concern. And I walked off the field and said, ‘Hmmmm, this kid is really interesting . . . how coachable he was to get better,’ and that’s the way he’s been ever since.”
Now back to the home run derby. Two years ago in his first home run derby appearance, Dak was raw swinging the bat. You could tell he probably had not played any baseball in a while. But by his last round of cuts he started making solid contact, driving the ball as if the old skills had been rekindled.
So afterward I asked him when he had last played baseball. He said, “Never.” Uh, what, you mean never? An athlete like you surely played baseball, probably shortstop and hit third in high school. He smiled and nodded, nope. You really mean never? Said he never played organized baseball, and very little if any pickup stuff as a kid growing up.
Now here we are Wednesday night. The MVP honor going to who raised the most money was coming down to the final of three rounds of swings. The standings were tight. To that point, seven of the 10 players had totaled 25 “homers” in the first two rounds. Anything less than a homer was considered an out, and they were only getting three in the final round, plus a money ball doubling the hit’s value. The winner of this round was going to be the MVP.
Well, none of the first seven batters homered. Then Jaylon Smith hit one, his only one of the derby. The MVP door still was open. Dak was next, to be followed by Ezekiel Elliott, who had hit three homers to that point but also would get blanked in the final round.
Dak, still seemingly the neophyte swinging a bat in the box, who already had hit three homers in the first two rounds, promptly steps into the box with the pressure to win on. And what does he do, but homer twice in the final round and smash a line drive on the money-doubling ball to emerge the winner, with $9,300 total earnings, mostly thanks to those clutch, third-round home runs.
“Came up big in the third round,” Dak says with a smile, clutching the winner’s silver bat as if he knew something few others did.
Yep, that’s what Dak does.
Just another illustration of this guy’s unquenchable thirst to improve, no matter if it’s hitting a baseball, coming out under center to get the ball to the running back or simply playing football, where his 32 wins over the past three years is second in the NFL to only Tom Brady’s 35. Where his 14 game-winning drives over the past three years is tops in the NFL. Where finishing 20 games with a 100-plus QB rating (at least 20 attempts) is the most of any NFL quarterback in the first three years.
Yet he’s not satisfied.
When asked about the possibility of a new contract and purported ongoing negotiations, Dak basically brushed off this hot-button topic, saying he’s not worrying about that, but instead “as far as I’m concerned, it’s just about getting better, getting better as quarterback, getting better as a leader and just making sure our team is getting better.”
And with that, enter Jon Kitna, as if Jupiter aligning with Mars.
The new Cowboys quarterback coach, the one-time Cowboys backup quarterback who spent 16 years quarterbacking in the NFL, along with moving on to coach high school football for another seven – back in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash. (3), then here in nearby Waxahachie (3) and a preparatory high in Phoenix, Ariz. (1) – might be just what Dak needs.
He’s a teacher first, then a coach. Stickler for QB details. Imparting his experience on anyone willing to listen, pointing out he can go into a room and basically tell a quarterback, look I made that mistake plenty of times, don’t even go there on this particular throw. Go here because I’ve made that mistake for you, thrown that interception for you, if you’ll just listen.
The 46-year-old gives credit to Mike Martz for his understanding of how important the ability to teach becomes in this game, Martz a lifelong football coach starting back at the high school level in 1973 who led the St. Louis Rams to the Super Bowl XXXIV title that 1999 season with his Greatest Show on Turf offense.
“I got a ton of respect for Mike Martz in what he’s done shaping and forming my mind offensively and how to see things as a quarterback,” Kitna says. “A guy that worked for him was Ken Zampese, Ernie’s son (Ernie Zampese, the one-time Cowboys offensive coordinator), and I had (Ken) in Cincinnati for a couple of years before I went to Mike.
“But things Mike taught me in year 11, and being able to break down the smallest little details of how to get the most out of yourself, I was going into year 11, and that was a springboard to how I played in my career, really, and I was at the end of my career the last six years. So, I learned (the importance of teaching) from him and Ken, and then coming here with Jason.”
And with those offensive mentors, and his years playing quarterback in the NFL, Kitna learned to never settle, to continue to push himself to get better each year, and that thinking sure seems perfect for Dak’s metabolism.
See, Jon, the one-time rookie free agent who won an NAIA championship at Central Washington and a World Bowl championship with the Barcelona Dragons, has developed this philosophy of “The Land of Good Enough.”
“Do you want to be really good or great to elite,” Kitna says. “I think it’s one of the hardest things. They’re kind of enemies of each other. Because when you’re really good at something, you can say, ‘I don’t need to work on that. Why do I need to take a step backward?’ You can say that’s good enough. As opposed to, no, there’s still room to get better and get to elite.”
Dak is really good, no matter what his detractors try to say. And this past season, when a really good wide receiver was added to this team, Amari Cooper, Prescott led the Cowboys to that 7-2 second-half record, to the NFC East title and to that first-round playoff win – and would’ve had a chance to win that second-round game if the Cowboys hadn’t given up 30 points and 273 yards rushing to the Rams in the 30-22 divisional-round loss.
But in just his fourth NFL season, there still is room for Dak to take the next giant step: Head fake around the Land of Good Enough to reach that elusively exclusive elite level that would be commensurate with what he calls the “generational contract” he’s sure to sign.
This ability to learn and improve seems to be in Dak’s genes.
Be it dropping back from under center to hand the ball off.
Going from the rookie fourth-string quarterback to the 13-3 starter that same season.
Hitting a baseball he’d previously rarely hit.
Or flat out just playing better football in this his fourth NFL season.
Yep, this Land of Good Enough, foreign territory to him.