FRISCO, Texas – More than 20 years after “It Takes a Village” was published, the Dallas Cowboys have used the theme to help Dak Prescott.
The Cowboys have employed a village of sorts to help raise Prescott from developmental draft pick to perhaps the best rookie quarterback in NFL history.
Prescott can write the final chapters of the book by becoming the first rookie quarterback to take his team to a Super Bowl with a win Sunday against the Green Bay Packers and another in the NFC Championship Game.
He deserves the most credit for his success this season, but he has been quick to praise those around him: offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson and quarterbacks Tony Romo, Mark Sanchez and Kellen Moore.
“They’re the reason I’m prepared for each and every game,” Prescott said. “All the credit goes to each and every one of them. The little different things they bring to me, the little nuances they get from the defense they add into the game plan, that just helps me out. Having all those quarterbacks around me, great quarterbacks, great men, it’s the reason for my preparation each game.”
Before anybody else with the Cowboys truly loved Prescott, Wilson loved him. He was the one who went to Starkville, Mississippi, for a personal workout.
Not long after the Cowboys took Prescott in the draft, Wilson was directly responsible for teaching him the playbook. Most of Linehan’s time was spent with Romo and Moore, even into training camp. Wilson was the one who taught Prescott the ins and outs of the playbook.
“Dak is like a sponge,” Wilson said. “Any piece of knowledge you give him, he tries to absorb and apply on the practice field and see it come to fruition.”
Because Prescott came from a spread offense at Mississippi State, he had to work on the seemingly simple task of taking a snap from center. It’s more than just the physical action of putting your hands on the ball. Prescott had a habit of dropping too deep after the snap.
“It happens more in play-action and run-action,” said Wilson, who was the Chicago Bears’ quarterbacks coach when Kyle Orton won 10 games as a rookie in 2005. “He takes seven full strides from under center, and if he gets past 8 1/2, 9 yards, that’s too deep for our tackles. They’re protecting to a spot that is shorter than that. If he gets a little deep, I’m fine as long as he steps up at the top of the drop. But if it’s 10 yards hanging back there or floating, we’re not protecting to that spot. Tony’s more of a short strider. He’ll hit 8 1/2. Dak’s a long strider. He hits a lot of time over 9, sometimes 10. Again that’s fine as long as you climb up. But that’s something he’s gotten better at.”
As Wilson worked the finer points of the position, Linehan was tasked with tailoring the offense to what Prescott does best. The Cowboys have incorporated more bootleg and waggle actions into their passing game because of Prescott’s athleticism. They have some zone-read runs as well.
Linehan found himself remembering how he coached Matthew Stafford, who was the No. 1 overall pick of the Detroit Lions in 2009. It was the first time in his career Linehan worked exclusively with a rookie. There are things a coordinator can do with a seasoned starter like Romo that he cannot do with an inexperienced rookie.
After two subpar games against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants and some rumblings about a quarterback change, Linehan devised a game plan that put Prescott in control. The rookie responded by completing 32 of 36 passes in a win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The everyday approach and preparation that you have, you kind of have a starting point and a finishing point, to the start of the season to the end, as far as what you ask them to do,” Linehan said. “I think you grow with it as the season goes on. Not that they can’t handle it, but I feel like you can overload them. These guys are extremely bright guys. They can handle anything, but the experience factor factors in. And once you get those hours under your belt on the field, it tends to come a little easier to expand on some of [the] things you do.”
Not long after suffering a compression fracture against the Seattle Seahawks, Romo sent Prescott a text message.
“I believe in you,” he wrote. “You’re the type of guy I pull for.”
Romo believed he would get the job back when healthy, but his heartfelt speech in November, when his back was fully healed, took any sting away from a possible controversy that could tear at the fabric of the team.
Romo’s help to Prescott has been mostly through relating his experiences.
“He’s been great, helping me out every day on the field, off the field,” Prescott said. “Come Sundays, giving me looks and telling me things that he’s done in the past to beat this coverage or things to look for, [like], ‘We scored on those two drives in a row, expect a blitz now, expect them to throw their game plan away.’ All kinds of things Romo has helped me with. He’s been great.”
After his first practice with the Cowboys, Sanchez took a call from his dad.
“He was asking, ‘How’s it going? How’s Dak?’” Sanchez said. “And I was like, “Papa, this kid can play, man. He can spin it. I mean, everyone at this level can spin it, but he’s got something. I’m telling you, he can call the plays. He just has no problem. No fear. There’s nothing going on. He’s just balling.’ It was pretty impressive.”
Sanchez is the last rookie quarterback to take a team to a conference championship. He was the New York Jets’ quarterback in 2009 and lost to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game. Sanchez’s time in New York did not end well, but he has an appreciation for what he accomplished. He wants Prescott to appreciate what he has done, too.
“He grabs me and tells me to make sure I take 15, 30 minutes to soak it all in and enjoy it,” Prescott said. “Mark has been great. I guess he’s been my mental coach if anyone has been, about what we need to do this drive, what we need to do to get going.”
When the Cowboys got to Oxnard, California, for training camp, the plan was for Moore to be Romo’s backup. A week into practice, Moore suffered a broken ankle that would knock him out for the season.
From his time with Linehan in Detroit, Moore, who attends games away and at home, knows the coordinator better than anyone. He can quickly decipher what Linehan wants and pass the message to Prescott.
“He’s an offensive coordinator in his own mind,” Prescott said. “He’s simply a genius when it comes to helping Coach Linehan out and early in the week giving looks, helping me out with things the defense does, maybe little keys here and there to tip me off on coverages or blitz.”
Moore was a rookie more recently than anybody else in the quarterback room. He’s also the last quarterback not named Romo to start for the Cowboys before Prescott. After a record-setting career at Boise State, it took four years for him to see his first NFL action. Prescott’s success makes him shake his head.
“Just the preparation, probably the comfort level more importantly, especially just because everything changes,” Moore said. “Week in, week out, everything evolves. The game plan changes, a signal maybe, maybe a protection. We change a lot of things. To be able to handle that change as a rookie is obviously amazing.”