FRISCO, Texas – A year ago today, Cowboys coaches directed the North squad at the Senior Bowl and the organization – Cowboys coaches and personnel staff – kept an eye on the quarterback prospects with the clear priority of finding a developmental backup in the 2016 draft.
This year, priorities have shifted since the 2016 Senior Bowl MVP and subsequent fourth-round pick, Dak Prescott, is now on the roster as the quarterback of the present and future.
"Not as much (emphasis) as we put in last year because we actually thought we were getting our backup quarterback when we got Dak," Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones told reporters last week in Mobile, Ala. "But we were pushing hard. We knew we had (Tony) Romo and we were pushing hard looking at those quarterbacks with an eye to the future. That won't quite be the emphasis this year."
Prescott replaced an injured Romo in August and kept the starting job with a Pro Bowl season, helping lead the Cowboys a franchise-record tying 13 wins.
Romo's future in Dallas is now a popular source of public speculation, though Jones wasn't ready to discuss the matter at the Senior Bowl.
"I'm not going to get into that at all – whether we've talked or not," Jones said. "We're at a juncture now that, we need to just cool it in our public conversations about what we're going to be doing or not doing there with Tony."
The Cowboys do have questions about their backup quarterback spot in general. Kellen Moore, who spent the 2016 on Reserve/Injured, and Mark Sanchez, his replacement in the No. 3 spot, are set to be unrestricted free agents this offseason.
Prescott's rise and development offsets some of that depth uncertainty. The seventh of 15 quarterbacks selected in last April's draft, Prescott wasn't coached by the Cowboys in Mobile. But the team noticed how well he adjusted to snaps under center on the South squad, coming from a spread offense at Mississippi State.
Pre-draft conversations with Prescott cemented the team's thinking that he had the skills and intangibles to be successful in the league.
A year later, he's the only rookie quarterback and only the second player in NFL history (Tom Brady) to throw for at least 3,500 yards with fewer than five interceptions in a season.
When did the Cowboys know he could be this good this soon?
"I don't know if there was a moment," head coach Jason Garrett said last week from the Pro Bowl, "but I think there were a number of different times where it was obvious that he was handling the situation the right way, whether it was a situation on the field or off the field, and you can see him just approaching it the right way right from the outset, always prepared for every opportunity. And when different challenges came upon him, he embraced them."
Make no mistake, Jones and Cowboys brass arrived in Mobile last week still reeling from the team's divisional-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. The scouting contingent would have visited the Senior Bowl regardless of the postseason outcome, but they certainly would have preferred to have Houston and the Super Bowl next on their itinerary.
"It's a little bit of a downer," Jones said. "But we are buoyed by the success of the team, the success of the young players we had, and certainly the thought that Dak Prescott was out here last year and was not in our mind's eye. And then what he contributed."