FRISCO, Texas – You know, thought we had moved on from all these yeah buts a long time ago when it came to Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
Remember, seems every time the Cowboys would win a game that first half or so of the season, most wanted to qualify the victory by saying something like, *Yeah, that was good but Dak hasn't … *you fill in the hurdle.
He hasn't played an NFC East opponent on the road yet. He hasn't played from behind yet. He hasn't played at the likes of Lambeau Field yet. He hasn't played a top defense, one like, oh, Green Bay or Cincinnati or Pittsburgh yet.
And at every corner, Dak kicked those yeah buts over the crossbar.
But, buckle your seatbelts, here we go again. Great Dak has won 13 games, tying Ben Roethlisberger for the most victories by a rookie quarterback. Great Dak set the Cowboys record for most wins by a rookie quarterback. Great Dak put up a 104.9 quarterback rating, the third highest in the NFL this season and the highest by a rookie quarterback – ever.
Great that Dak led the Cowboys to victories at Lambeau, only the second one in franchise history. Great that he beat the likes of Washington, Pittsburgh and Minnesota on the road. Great he led the Cowboys to a franchise-high 11 consecutive victories, and then after that winning was interrupted on the road against the Giants, he came back to smack Tampa Bay and Detroit upside the head – two teams with playoff aspirations at the time.
And I'll be, here we go again:
Yeah, but Dak has never played in an NFL playoff game.
Yeah but, of all the rookie quarterbacks since 1970 to start a playoff game, only four have ever led their teams to a conference championship game and none have ever led their team to the Super Bowl.
So history certainly is not on Dak's side going into Sunday's 3:40 p.m. kickoff in the NFC Divisional Playoff game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium, the Cowboys but a win away from their first NFC title game since 1995, seemingly a lifetime ago.
But you know what? Wonder if history had the likes of the Cowboys offensive line on its side or the NFL rushing champion, or receivers such as Dez Bryant and Jason Witten and Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. Or did history have what was thought to be a susceptible defense jelling at the right time, holding five of their final six opponents (sorry, not counting the season finale in Philly the Cowboys punted) to no more than 21 points, and even at that, the Cowboys backed off at the end of the one game they didn't, leading the Washington Redskins 31-19 and making sure they did not give up a big play as the Redskins drove down the field, eating up the fourth-quarter clock, to make it 31-26 in the end.
And think about all this rookie stuff: If the Cowboys season were over at this point after the 16 games Dak did play, and they came back to work, oh, say mid-April, just three months from now, the official roster would list Dak in the experience category as "2," right? No longer a rookie, and I'll guarantee you those idle three months would have done little to make him any better than he is right now heading into his 17th NFL game.
Hey, rookie no more.
I know, it's THE PLAYOFFS, and the intensity picks up and that win-or-else anvil hangs overhead, certainly adding a measure of pressure to play well. I get it.
But you don't think there was pressure on this 23-year-old kid from Haughton, La., by way of Mississippi State, when he came in on third-and-8 for the injured Tony Romo against Seattle that third preseason game, and he calmly completes a 12-yard pass for a first down. Pressure in that NFL debut against the Giants on national TV and had the Cowboys driving for at least a winning field-goal attempt before those final seconds vanished.
Pressure down 14-0 on the road at San Francisco. Pressure facing the likes of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field. Pressure going into overtime against Philadelphia. Pressure trailing Pittsburgh on the road, 30-29, with 42 seconds left. Pressure trailing Minnesota on the road, 9-7, in the fourth quarter.
He seems immune to it all, as if he received an extra immunization shot to combat these combustible situations before he started grade school.
Cool, calm and collected.
Maybe it's in his DNA.
Now, this does not come from me, but an unnamed NFC scout quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week in the lead-up to Sunday's game against the 10-6 Packers, winners of last Sunday's wild-card game over the New York Giants, 38-13:
"He's won games on the road at (LSU), he's played in big stadium games. The fact he's playing at home helps, too. He's won at Heinz Field, Lambeau Field and went to Minnesota and won a game. He's not going to be nervous."
See, him, too, thinks so, and he has no dog in the fight.
[embeddedad0]Now Dak claims this poise, his even-keeled demeanor, are products of "where I come from, definitely family, old high school coach, everything I've been through in life, and (now) I've got some great teammates that help me."
Somehow the other day in a vibrant, rambunctious Cowboys locker room out here at The Star, no different from when these guys were preparing for, say, Game 10 or 12, the topic of nerves came up, something he's seemingly not afflicted with.
So Dak, when is the last time you remember being nervous?
"Ah, I mean, don't know, that's a good question. I'm sure some time in college or another. I mean, to me, it's all about being prepared. In a way you get nerves, nerves hit you, you're not human if they don't hit you. But there's a difference between being nervous and having good nerves to go out there and play. But it's been a while since I've been truly nervous."
What about coming in on third down in the preseason game at Seattle after Romo went down?
"Naw, I knew the play Coach called and went in there and went through my reads. If you get too nervous your mind is on other things than what you're prepared to do."
Well, what about the first preseason game, that start in the Los Angeles game?
"Naw, I was excited."
No nerves in the season opener?
"Excited … nerves of excitement."
So, what made you nervous in that college game you previously referred to?
Shrugs sheepishly, and says, "I mean, I was kind of just saying that to just throw an answer out there."
Too good, even I joined in on the out-loud laughter.
Maybe that is the product of spending five years in college, starting three. Maybe that comes from a growing up with no silver spoons around. Or what can be worse than having your mother, Peggy, pass away when you are but 20 years old and away at school?
Of course, none of this ensures Dak will play flawlessly Sunday against the Packers. Nor does it mean the Cowboys will go to or even win the NFC Championship and earn the Super Bowl LI berth down I-45 in Houston.
But sure seems to scream he'll be prepared for whatever the Packers throw at him, that he won't be in over his head just because he's a rookie or that his nerves will strangle him by the throat.
If the Cowboys thought all that, they would have pulled the plug on this fairytale of a story long time ago. Romo would have been back in the saddle after he recovered from his L1 vertebrae compression fracture suffered that night in Seattle.
So all this time, yet still the yeah buts.
See, this belief in Dak does not just come from his teammates or his coaches. Think about this, what Cowboys COO Stephen Jones said the last week in August when the Cowboys placed their bet with little insurance on their second fourth-round draft choice:
"At the end of the day, I don't know that we'd trade Dak for any quarterback taken in this year's draft after we've been able to spend four or five months here with Dak and seen what he's about as a competitor, as a person, as a leader, as a player. He's exceeded all expectations. He has an insatiable appetite to want to learn the game. The game is important to him. He wants to have success in the NFL. There's very little things I could be critical of him up through this point …
"So far he's passed all the tests. I don't think it's too big for him, and I think we're fortunate to have him."
Well, pretty prescient, wouldn't you say?
Yet still, after all this, 13-3 record, NFC East title, best record and top seed in the NFC, 7-1 at home, 6-1 in meaningful road games, there are those dangling yeah buts.