Dougherty: Packers must pressure Prescott
Dak Prescott can make NFL history in these playoffs.
No rookie quarterback has taken his team to the Super Bowl, let alone won one.
He has a realistic chance to become the first. His Dallas Cowboys have the NFC’s best record (13-3) and the NFL’s second-best odds (9-to-2) to win the title. Only New England’s chances (7-to-5) are better in the eyes of oddsmakers.
The Green Bay Packers, on the other hand, are looking to add Prescott to the list of rookie quarterbacks who have been dispatched in their first postseason game. According to research by Pat Kirwin of NFL.com, 15 rookie quarterbacks have started a playoff game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Ten of them were one and done.
Of the five who won their debut, four (Shaun King, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez) advanced to the conference championship. But none got any further.
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Prescott’s chances to go further look promising, though. He’s surrounded by maybe the most talented team in the league, and while his precocious leadership seems to be what everyone wants to talk about, he also has real skill at the position despite lasting until the fourth round of the 2016 draft.
“He’s better than the (game manager) mentality,” said a scout who works in the NFC East and has seen all the Cowboys’ games. “This guy makes plays.”
The Packers saw a glimpse in the teams’ first meeting, a 30-16 Cowboys win in Week 6 at Lambeau Field. Prescott didn’t play great, and in fact threw an interception that ended his NFL record for most passes without an interception (177) to start a career. Tom Brady held the record before him.
But Prescott still put up a good rating (117.4) and stood out with several throws on the move that kept drives alive. And that’s what he has been doing all season, keeping drives alive. His 104.9 rating is the best ever for a rookie with at least eight starts since the merger. His ratings on third down (94.6, No. 8 in the league) and in the fourth quarter (106.4, No. 6 in the league) hold up well, too.
“He can throw equally well going to his left and his right,” the scout said. “Most guys can’t do that. You’re dealing with a guy that can move laterally either way and throw the ball with some accuracy.”
Now, Prescott has a big advantage over the large majority of rookie starting quarterbacks who have come before him, and that’s a strong supporting cast. He wasn’t drafted to play right away for a bad team.
If I had an MVP vote, I’d be tempted to use it on Cowboys rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott over Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. The Cowboys’ fifth-ranked offense is built around Elliott, and his running is the best protection a quarterback could hope for.
Dallas also is a rarity in today’s NFL because of the resources it has put into its offensive line. The Cowboys’ league-best line includes three first-round draft picks who were Pro Bowlers this year: Tyron Smith at left tackle, Travis Frederick at center and Zack Martin at right guard.
Smith is the NFL’s third-highest paid tackle ($12.2 million average) and Frederick is the highest-paid center ($9.4 million). Martin is in only his second season, but it’s a given the Cowboys will make him one of the league’s highest-paid guards when he’s eligible for a contract extension in 2018.
Few teams are willing to spend that much capital on the offensive line because they’re always in need of playmakers on both sides of the ball. When it comes time to make do, it usually starts on the line, where more than any other position group the whole can eclipse the sum of the parts with good coaching and lesser-talented players brimming with intangibles.
The Cowboys, though, are like Seattle a couple years ago when Russell Wilson’s rookie contract gave the Seahawks a free ride to spend big on defense. Dallas is in position to do the same with its line because it has two premium players (Prescott and Elliott) still early in their rookie deals. Tony Romo will be off the books after this season.
So when Prescott takes the field against the Packers on Sunday, this is what he’ll have around him: difference makers at running back (Elliott) and receiver (Dez Bryant), an offensive line that collectively is the equivalent of another impact player; and an older (34) but still effective future Hall of Fame tight end (Jason Witten).
The Packers’ charge is to make Prescott play like a rookie on the biggest stage of his young career.
It could happen. Prescott turned the ball over twice the last time the teams played — the Burnett interception, and a strip-sack fumble forced by Julius Peppers. He also had an unforced fumble that the Cowboys retrieved after his thigh popped the ball from his hand on a scramble.
But that’s not who he has been most of the season. He has thrown only four interceptions, and his nine fumbles (four lost), while tied for fifth-most in the league, are only one more than Aaron Rodgers’ eight (four lost).
He has made his living this season playing mostly ahead of the chains, thanks to Elliott, and working off play-action passes. To beat him, the Packers will have to find a way to force the game into his hands rather than Elliott’s, and see if they can get the young quarterback to crack now that the real money is on the line.
“He’s won games on the road (in college) at (LSU), he’s played in big stadium games,” the scout said. “The fact he’s playing at home helps, too. He’s won at (Pittsburgh’s) Heinz Field, Lambeau Field and went to Minnesota and won a game. He’s not going to be nervous.”