Dougherty: Cowboys' faith in Prescott pays off
The Green Bay Packers aren’t the only NFL team wishing Kellen Moore hadn’t broken his leg in training camp.
Moore, in case you have forgotten or didn’t know, was the Dallas Cowboys’ No. 2 quarterback when his season ended in early August. His injury dominated NFL news for several days, because there was no way the Cowboys were going into the season with fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott as backup to brittle Tony Romo.
But this time the Cowboys didn’t make a rash move for a recycled veteran. They trusted what they’d seen of Prescott in camp and made him their No. 2.
Sure enough, Romo sustained a cracked lumbar vertebra late in the preseason and hasn’t played since. He’s out a minimum of six games and probably longer.
And look where the Cowboys are as opposed to where they might have been.
A year ago they were 1-11 without Romo, including a 28-7 loss to the Packers at Lambeau with punchless veteran Matt Cassel at their helm. Is there any reason to think things would have been different with Moore running their offense? No. He is, after all, a 27-year-old career backup who was winless in the two starts the Cowboys gave him in Romo's stead in 2015.
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But Prescott, not Moore, is Romo’s replacement now. So the Cowboys come to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a 4-1 record and a young quarterback who has provided the franchise a huge jolt not only for what he might be in the future, but for what he is in the here and now.
Pay no mind when Jerry Jones insists Romo is his quarterback when healthy. The owner will do whatever he thinks is best at the time and explain it away later. And if Prescott keeps playing like he has through five games, it will be hard to make the case that he should give way to Romo.
“The (Cowboys’) run game obviously helps, the line obviously helps,” said a high-ranking personnel executive for an NFC team. “(But Prescott) looks really calm when things break down, that’s always a good characteristic for a quarterback. He looks like Cam Newton looks sometimes; nothing really bothers him, like, it’s third and 10, no big deal.”
Prescott (6-2¼, 226 pounds at the NFL scouting combine) no doubt has his limitations as a rookie playing the hardest position in the NFL. As the scout said, it helps tremendously that the Cowboys have the NFL’s best offensive line and drafted running back Ezekiel Elliott at No. 4 overall. Dallas has run the ball more times (169) than any team in the league.
Still, the Cowboys had essentially the same offensive line last year yet won only one game without Romo and were No. 31 in the league in scoring. Prescott, on the other hand, is 4-1; ranks No. 8 in the NFL in passer rating (101.5); hasn’t thrown an interception and is running the No. 6 scoring offense in the league. He also hasn’t had his best receiver, Dez Bryant, the last two games, both wins.
Yes, a quarterback makes all the difference in the world.
It makes you wonder where Prescott would be picked if this year’s draft were held again. It’s too early to make definitive judgments, but he’s been one of the stars of this year’s rookie class even though he was the eighth quarterback taken and the No. 135 selection overall.
The quarterbacks picked ahead of him were Jared Goff to Los Angeles (No. 1 overall), Carson Wentz to Philadelphia (No. 2 overall), Paxton Lynch to Denver (No. 26 overall), Christian Hackenberg to the New York Jets (second round, No. 51 overall), Jacoby Brissett to New England (third round, No. 91), Cody Kessler to Cleveland (third round, No. 93) and Connor Cook to Oakland (No. 100).
Wentz already looks like a star and would have to be the No. 1 pick overall if the draft were held over. But Prescott’s start at least opens the door to the possibility that in five years he’ll prove to be the second-best quarterback in this draft.
Prescott has outperformed his draft status for two main reasons: One, he’s been a more polished passer than teams thought coming out, and two, intangibles.
Early in his career at Mississippi State, he drew comparisons with Tim Tebow, meaning he was a good runner and a winner, but couldn’t throw. By late in his career he’d shown good arm talent but shaky mechanics that gave him the look of a developmental prospect.
But with the Cowboys, he’s been sound from early on. He already holds the NFL rookie record for consecutive passes without an interception at 155 and counting. He ranks No. 4 in the league in completion percentage (69.0 percent). Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan protects him with a strong running game and some read option, but when it comes time to pass Prescott still has to make the decisions and throws.
And it’s probably Prescott’s poise and command that have stood out as much as anything. At Mississippi State, he was a natural leader and winner (23-10), and like Wentz, that’s what you see with Prescott even as a rookie. The game is not too big for him.
That’s why teams fail so often when projecting quarterbacks to the NFL. Scouts can pick up some intangibles watching game tape and interviewing college coaches and the player himself. But if that’s all it took, there wouldn’t be many mistakes.
The fact is, even with ever-accumulating draft data, scouting players still is as much art and luck as it is science.
“Some of it’s overthinking,” a scout said of the mistakes. “Some of it’s, can they handle the pressure? A lot of it is stuff we don’t know about until they get here.”
Give the Cowboys credit. They picked the player, and then they believed their eyes when they saw him on their practice field.
Now the teams on their schedule are paying for it. The Packers can only wish they were facing Kellen Moore on Sunday.
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