OXNARD, Calif. — Perhaps as quarterback Dak Prescott walks down the tunnel at the Los Angeles Coliseum he will take a moment to reflect on how things have changed since playing there a summer ago.
On Aug. 13, 2016, Prescott was a fourth-round draft pick trying to make the Dallas Cowboys‘ roster, trying to convince the powers that be he could be Tony Romo‘s backup and there was no need to look for a veteran even with Kellen Moore out for the season.
As he returns to the Coliseum to face the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday, Prescott is the Cowboys’ quarterback of the present and future, coming off one of the most historical seasons a rookie has had in the NFL.
If the Cowboys knew any of this then, of course, they never would have flirted with the possibility of trading back into the first round to take Paxton Lynch or trading up in later rounds to take Connor Cook. They would not have waited until the 135th overall pick to take Prescott.
But on that night at the Coliseum, Prescott gave the Cowboys a glimpse of what was to come.
This wasn’t the typical preseason game. This was the NFL’s return to Los Angeles for its first game in the Coliseum since 1994. There was a buzz around the stadium hours before kickoff and during warm-ups. Former players roamed the sidelines. The capacity of the stadium was expanded for the game. More than 89,000 showed up. Celebrities dotted the landscape. ESPN had its Monday Night Football setup with Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden calling the game.
In pregame, Randy Moss, an ESPN analyst, hugged team owner Jerry Jones as they joked about what could have been had the Cowboys selected the receiver in 1998.
Prescott: “That was a normal crowd to me being from the SEC. It was a college venue, it was 100,000 people. I guess you can say the impact of the crowd, I don’t ever pay attention to that. I don’t care if it’s 30,000 or it’s 130,000 in the stadium — that’s not really any of my focus going into a game.”
Prescott’s first pass came on a bootleg and it was dropped by tight end Geoff Swaim. The throw was fine. Swaim just dropped it. Prescott’s first third-down pass went to Cole Beasley for 15 yards, which is something they combined a lot on in the regular season.
Three plays later, he and Dez Bryant hooked up for a back-shoulder throw for an 18-yard gain. Timing on such a play normally requires a lot of work together.
Bryant: “Man, not with that guy. He see it. He do it.”
A second third-down conversion came on a screen to Alfred Morris. Prescott beat the Rams’ blitz with a 8-yard throw underneath to Beasley. On second-and-5 from the Los Angeles 10, Prescott saw Bryant matched up in one-on-one coverage with Coty Sensabaugh. There was no doubt where he was going.
The ball was high and to the pylon, giving Bryant the best chance to come down with the touchdown.
Prescott: “I mean, I realized that five years ago watching the Cowboys. You can just throw it near Dez Bryant and he’ll make the plays. But, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. You get out there and you actually get to throw it to him and just watch what he does. Just give him a chance.”
Prescott ended the first quarter with a 22-yard completion to Brice Butler, taking a hit after releasing the pass. He then showed he can get the ball deep.
On first-and-10 from the Los Angeles 32, Terrance Williams ran a perfect double move, cutting in to draw the cornerback and sprinting down the field. Prescott’s second touchdown pass of the night was as perfect as the first, put right at the opening pylon, away from the recovering defender.
Prescott: “I want to say I got hit as I was throwing it. I was trying to figure out if he caught it or not and then you hear everybody scream. I don’t know, it just sticks out. Usually the touchdowns stick out more than the incompletions.”
Third and fourth drives
Prescott played the first two drives with Travis Frederick as his center, Zack Martin as his right guard, Doug Free as his right tackle and La’el Collins at left guard. Only left tackle Tyron Smith was sitting. On these drives, he was with the backups.
Only Chaz Green and Ronald Leary were with him on these drives. The third drive consisted of three run plays and a three-and-out. The fourth drive opened with a second Swaim drop. And behind the backup line, things broke down. At different points the Cowboys faced first-and-25, second-and-29, second-and-34 and third-and-26.
But it was the third-and-26 play that might have been Prescott’s best.
Knowing the Cowboys were on the fringes of field goal position, Prescott chose not to risk a throw as the Rams brought pressure, scrambling for 14 yards. It allowed Dan Bailey to kick a 44-yard field goal.
Jason Witten: “It was like third-and-long and he tucked it and ran. It showed great awareness.”
After the game
Prescott’s night ended after one half. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His two incompletions were on drops. The Cowboys lost 28-24, but Prescott was the story.
Prescott: “I think it was important. I think it showed some significance in the fact it was the first game experience they got to see me play with the offense. I mean, I had plenty of scrimmages and live reps out here, but the first game experience with the crowd, a huge crowd out there in the Coliseum, it was a pretty good performance and I think it gave them confidence in believing in me and pushing further.”
Executive vice president Stephen Jones: “We just felt really good about our situation there after Dak did that. He was going to deserve to have every opportunity to have that backup spot, short of him not continuing to at least play pretty well the remaining preseason games. We were going to be real comfortable with him being No. 2 for us.”
Not two weeks later, Romo suffered a compression fracture in his back and Prescott was the starter. He played so well that the franchise’s all-time leader in passing yards and touchdown passes played just one series in the regular season.
The Cowboys had the NFC’s best record at 13-3. Prescott threw 23 touchdown passes and was intercepted four times. He ran for six scores. He was named to the Pro Bowl and earned the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
The walk down the tunnel Saturday night might not feel different for Prescott but it will for just about everybody else.
Witten: “I don’t know if there’s a better example of how quickly you can have an opportunity and take advantage of it like Dak did last year. I’ve been really pleased with his approach so far. He’s continued to focus and understand that, ‘Hey, there’s things I need to try to do better at.’ When your quarterback has that approach and going into his second year it really is motivating. It pushes you to want to do better, and he deserves a lot of credit for his approach.”