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Dak Prescott: Unfair comparisons to past greats and leading America’s Team

Vincent Frank

Dak Prescott is the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback. He’s the face of a franchise that has suffered through years of playoff futility since the glory days of the 1990s. He’s the poster boy for recent Cowboys postseason failures. He’s also a $40 million per year quarterback working under a man by the name of Jerry Jones.

A product of Sulphur, Louisiana, Prescott’s claim to being the face of America’s Team took many turns. From being a mere three-star recruit of Mississippi State to finding himself selected behind the likes of Connor Cook in the 2016 NFL Draft, Prescott’s success is something we should all pay homage to.

But we don’t. We compare him to the likes of Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman — two Cowboys legends with five combined Super Bowl titles. The media questions Prescott’s ability to win the big game despite struggles fielding a championship-caliber team from the Cowboys’ front office. We push back at every turn against the narrative that Prescott is an elite quarterback.

Despite all of this, Prescott continues to prove naysayers wrong. He was a Day 1 starter in Dallas, has led the team to a 53-32 record as a starting quarterback and three playoff appearances in six seasons. He marches to the beat of his own drum and does it his way. He has overcome injury and off-field tragedy to become the face of America’s Team.

This is Dak Prescott’s story, one defined by unrealistic expectations for a team with a history unlike any other and in a state where football is a religion.

Related: Dak Prescott and NFL’s top QB of 2022

Dak Prescott: From rocky draft day start to Day 1 starter

dallas cowboys rookie qb dak prescott
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

More than six years later, it’s still shocking that Dallas was able to nab Prescott with the 135th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He went 35 picks after the then-Oakland Raiders selected Connor Cook. Former NFLer Cardale Jones was taken four picks after Dallas nabbed the Mississippi State product. The Cowboys were criticized for taking Prescott over the better-known Jones. Just check out this unfortunate take from none othere than Skip Bayless.

Prescott was pegged to back up franchise legend Tony Romo, who had played in just four games due to injury the previous season. Social media sleuths decided to look into some of Prescott’s old tweets immediately after Dallas took him in the fourth round. What they found was rather interesting.

A self-defined Cowboys fan, Prescott grew frustrated with their lack of postseason success under Romo. He let it be known on Twitter.

“I’m DONE Taking up for Romo,” one tweet from back in 2012 read. Then a freshman at Mississippi State, Prescott continued to bash Romo — pretty much blaming him for the Cowboys’ playoff failures. Certainly, this isn’t the way Prescott wanted to start his career in Big D.

“I’m going to let him bring it up. I think it’s funny. I’m sure he’ll think it’s funny. I was a frustrated fan at the time. I’m sure you can go back and look at fans of Mississippi State and they may have said something similar at one point or another, so I was just being a fan and now he’s my teammate and I’m behind him 100 percent.”

Dak Prescott during Cowboys rookie minicamp (May, 2016)

Romo ultimately had no issues with the old social media posts, proving himself to be a true professional in the process.

Once Romo suffered a compression fracture in his back during Dallas’ third preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, the reins were handed over to Prescott. For the Cowboys, it made more sense to roll with the upside of Prescott over veteran Mark Sanchez given how the former performed during off-season activities.

The shaky foundation upon the start of his career in Big D gave in to Prescott putting up one of the better rookie seasons in NFL history. In fact, many compared Prescott’s performance to that of Russell Wilson with the Seattle Seahawks a few years earlier.

Prescott ultimately led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record for their best regular-season performance since Romo’s second season as Dallas’ starter back in 2007. But much like what we saw with the ‘Boys under Romo, it did not translate to postseason success. Dallas fell to the Green Bay Packers by the score of 34-31 in the divisional playoffs.

Despite the loss, Prescott had a coming-out party against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. He completed 24-of-38 passes for 302 yards with three touchdowns and one interception — pretty much outplaying Rodgers in the process. For many, this was seen as a sign of things to come for Prescott. For others, it was an example of more Cowboys playoff failures with another quarterback coming up small.

Related: Dak Prescott and NFL’s top 100 players of 2022

Dak Prescott’s devastating injury and emergence into Dallas Cowboys team leader

dallas cowboys qb dak prescott
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Back on October 11 of 2020, Prescott suffered one of the ugliest-looking injuries for a quarterback in the history of the game. It came on a scramble against the New York Giants in which his ankle was dislocated in an unimaginable way.

As you see in the video we linked above, Prescott’s right ankle popped out of place. In addition to suffering a dislocated ankle, Prescott almost immediately underwent surgery for a compound fracture. He missed the remainder of what was a disastrous six-win season under first-year head coach Mike McCarthy.

Questions arose about Prescott’s ability to rebound from such a devastating injury. Would he ever be the same player? How would he react to being hit below the waist moving forward? After all, we know how these types of injuries have impacted other quarterbacks in the past — former Washington star Joe Theismann being the most-notable modern example of that.

“I’d love to reach out to Dak. A matter of fact, I put feelers out to see if it’s a possibility that I might be able to just have a conversation with him and tell him no matter what you go through mentally, you’re gonna get through this and you’re gonna be okay.”

Joe Theismann on Dak Prescott injury (October 2020)

Back on November 18 of 1985, Theismann suffered what was ultimately a career-ending injury against these very same Giants. It’s a play that still lives in NFL infamy, one that saw a clearly emotional Giants linebacker in Lawrence Taylor waving to the sidelines for help. Two loud pops reverberated throughout both the old Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in D.C. and the broader NFL on that fateful Monday night.

Fast forward 35 years, and the technology advances we’ve seen since Theismann’s injury have saved many careers.

Through his own hard work in rehabilitation and relying on said advances, Prescott shockingly made his return to the field in well less than a calendar year when he led Dallas out of the tunnel against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to open the 2021 season. Brady even touched on his opponent after that Thursday night opener — one in which Prescott played well in defeat.

“Amazing, amazing. And that’s what sports are all about. They push us to understand who we are, what our character is out there. He had a long rehab and missed a lot of the preseason and came out and played a hell of a game.”

Tom Brady on Dak Prescott’s return from injury (September 2021)

Imagine the reaction from Dallas’ locker room to Prescott’s return from injury if those are the words presented to us by a rival quarterback. The idea of a quarterback working his tail off behind the scenes while dealing with both the COVID-19 pandemic and personal tragedy had to be uplifting. It showed Prescott’s true character. It showed why he is a team leader and why his teammates will go to war with him on any given Sunday.

The shocking Dak Prescott contract and narrative surrounding it

Back in March of 2020, Prescott signed his $31.4 million franchise tag tender after he was unable to come to terms on a long-term contract with Dallas. He played said year under the franchise tag with negotiations proving to be oftentimes volatile behind the scenes.

That’s why it was so shocking that Dallas opted to hand Prescott what was then the richest contract in NFL history mere months after he suffered the aforementioned injury.

Dak Prescott contract: 4 years, $160 million w/ $95 million guaranteed at signing

It’s the $95 million that sent the NFL world into shock and proved that Dallas’ brass had confidence in Prescott returning from injury.

“The truth is most anything that I’ve ever been involved in that ended up being special I overpaid for, every time, to the end. Anytime I’ve tried to get a bargain, I got just that. It was a bargain in a lot of ways and not up to standard. And so, the other thing, that our process of getting here from Dak’s rookie deal, I knew that Dak wanted to be here and really no place else,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Dak Prescott extension, via NFL.com.

Fast forward more than a calendar year, and Prescott is now the sixth highest-paid QB in the NFL behind a less-accomplished Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders.

If there’s one thing the embattled Jones knows about, its finances. Question his decision-making as “general manager” all you want. But when it comes down to the economics of the game, Jones far outpaces his counterparts.

Here’s a dude who purchased the Cowboys for a mere $140 million from then-owner H.R. Bright back in February of 1989. Even in 2020 dollars ($292.5 million), that’s proven to be a bargain. Right now, Forbes values the Cowboys’ franchise at $8 billion.

Jones knew full well that the NFL quarterback market continues to reshape itself on a near never-ending loop. With the likes of Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow likely to receive monstrous extensions, next offseason the market will be reset once again. In the process, Prescott’s $40 million average salary will prove to be a bargain for the Cowboys.

Related: 2022 NFL Playoff and Super Bowl predictions

Dak Prescott comes back better than ever from injury

dak prescott
Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

As we noted above, Prescott drew tremendous praise from other stars upon making his return to the gridiron. It was an astonishing return, one that showed a combination of medical advances and hard work can pay off.

In his first eight games to open the 2021 season, Prescott completed north of 70% of his passes while averaging nearly 300 yards per outing. He added 21 total touchdowns against five interceptions. Prescott’s performance was a prime example of how a quarterback can change the dynamics for his team in the modern NFL. Dallas averaged 33 points per outing in those eight games.

This didn’t come without some scary scenes in Big D. Prescott missed Dallas’ Week 8 outing against the Minnesota Vikings with a calf strain that he had suffered a couple of weeks prior. Calf strain. It’s become somewhat a part of the sports world’s lexicon in recent years, starting with NBA star Kevin Durant eventually suffering a torn Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals — mere weeks after he was diagnosed with a calf strain.

For a quarterback in Prescott and a team that had seen him suffer through a devastating injury roughly a calendar year prior, they just couldn’t take any chances.

“There is a bigger picture. It is more than just this one game,” Prescott said. “The fact is I don’t want this to linger past this week. (It’s) Something I want to nip in the bud and make sure I’m healthy and ready to go so I don’t think about it playing and we’re not having these conversations past today.”

Dak prescott on calf injury, via ESPN.com

This cautionary mentality proved to work out in the Cowboys’ favor in a big way. Not only did Dallas defeat Minnesota with Cooper Rush starting under center, but Prescott also returned for the second half of the season to lead his Boys to a 6-4 record in his final 10 starts despite some struggles in a Week 9 loss to the Broncos.

To be perfectly clear, Prescott was not the same quarterback before he suffered said injury. He threw eight touchdowns against six interceptions in his first six games coming back from the calf problem. However, it was his performance to close out the regular season that had people buzzing for a Cowboys squad that ultimately took the NFC East. In Prescott’s final four regular-season games, he threw 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions for a QB rating of 124.1 while leading the Cowboys to an average of 40 points per game.

This was a culmination of Prescott putting up the best single-season performance of his career and the best statistical campaign in the history of the Cowboys’ organization.

Dak Prescott stats (career)

YearStartsRecordComp %YardsTDINTQB rating
20161613-367.83,667234104.9
2017169-762.93,324221386.6
20181610-667.73,88522896.9
2019168-865.14,902301199.7
202052-368.01,8569499.6
20211611-568.84,4493710104.2

Prescott’s ability to up his game certainly caught the attention of those around the league. He finished in the top five in NFL MVP and NFL Offensive Player of the Year voting. Prescott also finished second behind Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burow in NFL Comeback Player of the Year voting. Remember, Burrow suffered a torn ACL during his rookie season back in 2020.

Related: Sportsnaut’s updated NFL power rankings

Transitioning to change and playing for America’s Team

dallas cowboys qb dak prescott
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For a quarterback in Prescott who had one high school head coach and one collegiate headman at Mississippi State, change is something that didn’t come naturally on the field. As a team leader with the Bulldogs, he shared a great relationship with head coach Dan Mullen. It’s something that transcended the gridiron.

“I know that was his dream, always wanting to be in Dallas, be the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, and now for him to get to do it, it’s a dream come true. And I’m just happy for him that it was able to get done.”

Dan Mullen after the Dallas Cowboys selected Dak Prescott

Prescott’s first bout with change in the NFL came following the 2019 season when Jason Garrett was let go in favor of former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Not only did Garrett act as Prescott’s first and only head coach through four seasons, he was technically Dallas’ quarterbacks coach, too.

To say that this change didn’t come without some perceived issues behind the scenes would be an understatement. Like with Mullen in Starkville, Prescott enjoyed a solid relationship with Garrett.

This was magnified in 2020 when Garrett, then the Giants’ offensive coordinator, rushed onto the field to be alongside Prescott when he suffered the aforementioned injury.

“I really feel sad for Dak. He’s such a great player and a really special person. It just makes you sick. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll face this challenge head-on and come back stronger and better than ever,” Garrett said after the game.

Transitioning to a head coach in McCarthy who had his issues with future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay wouldn’t prove to be as difficult as most figured.

In fact, Prescott has taken his game to the next level during the McCarthy era in Dallas. Just look at how he’s performed in his first 21 starts under McCarthy compared to his final 21 starts with Garrett calling the shots.

Head coachComp %YardsTDINTRating
Jason Garrett66.86,3603914100.6
Mike McCarthy68.66,3054614103.0

Prescott’s ability to deal with this change and still perform at a high level tells us what we need to know about his mentality. We’ve seen it with other great quarterbacks in the modern era. Tom Brady‘s divorce from Bill Belichick after two decades resulted in a title under Bruce Arians with the Buccaneers. Aaron Rodgers transitioned from McCarthy to Matt LaFleur, only to win two consecutive NFL MVP awards.

As he has done with his previous two coaches since turning in his high school cleats for pressure-packed environments of the SEC in college and the NFL, Prescott obviously has McCarthy’s back.

“Coach McCarthy has done a great job with the culture of this team. Just our messaging, our brotherhood and our locker room. I’ve never been a part of a team where on offense and defense, it was the same. You would have thought a defensive end was in the same position group as a receiver, just from how close and the camaraderie of the group.”

Dak Prescott on Mike McCarthy (February, 2022)

Related: Dallas Cowboys schedule and game-by-game predictions

Pressure is squarely on Dak Prescott following playoff disappointment

dallas cowboys qb dak prescott
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Time was running out in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs against the San Francisco 49ers this past January. Prescott had led the Cowboys back from a 23-7 third-quarter deficit to give them a fighting chance to win.

That’s when everything went to hell. Without a single timeout and 14 seconds remaining with Dallas down by six, Prescott scrambled up the middle for 17 yards to the 49ers’ 24. Unfortunately, he was not able to get his ‘Boys to the line in time for one last play.

It’s the latest in a long line of playoff failures for Dallas since its last appearance in the NFC Championship Game back when Prescott himself was a mere two years old.

The backdrop here was an ugly scene at AT&T Stadium with fans throwing stuff onto the field in the direction of officials. For the first time in his career with Dallas, Prescott had faced criticism for his own words and actions.

When confronted with dialogue about fans throwing stuff at officials, Prescott simply said “credit to them then. Credit to them.” He was ultimately fined $25,000 for his comments and had to release an apology.

“I deeply regret the comments I made regarding the officials after the game on Sunday. I was caught up in the emotion of a disappointing loss and my words were uncalled for and unfair,” Prescott wrote on Twitter following the loss.

It’s almost like the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy. A Cowboys quarterback is being criticized and thrown to the wolves after so many years of playoff failures. Since the days of Troy Aikman, the likes of Tony Romo have had to deal with this.

This isn’t a foreign idea. The Cowboys’ status as one of the most recognizable organizations in the professional sports world adds pressure. Prescott’s status as the face of the organization adds another layer to this.

Without an appearance in the NFC Championship Game since all the way back in 1995 when Barry Switzer was manning the sidelines, every year of futility in Big D brings even more pressure.

Dallas Cowboys playoff futility through the years

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoff-San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
YearRecordPlayoff resultOpponentScore
199610-6Lost divisional playoffsCarolina Panthers26-17
199810-6Lost wild card roundArizona Cardinals20-7
19998-8Lost wild card roundMinnesota Vikings27-10
200310-6Lost wild card roundCarolina Panthers29-10
20069-7Lost wild card roundSeattle Seahawks21-20
200713-3Lost divisional playoffsNew York Giants21-17
200911-5Lost divisional playoffsPhiladelphia Eagles34-14
201412-4Lost divisional playoffsGreen Bay Packers26-21
201613-3Lost divisional playoffsGreen Bay Packers34-31
201810-6Lost divisional playoffsLos Angeles Rams30-22
202112-5Lost wild card roundSan Francisco 49ers23-17

The unfair comparisons to all-time great Dallas Cowboys QBs

NFL: Super Bowl XLV-Green Bay Packers vs Pittsburgh Steelers
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Being the starting quarterback for America’s Team is not all roses. You’re simply not anointed the next great player in Big D.

Back in 1969, Craig Morton had to take over for the legendary Don Meredith as the Cowboys’ quarterback when the latter shockingly retired. He started a total of 42 games with the team from 69-74, posting a 29-12-1 record in the process. That was not enough for Morton to stick around in Dallas as he would ultimately be replaced by Roger Staubach despite leading the Cowboys to an appearance in Super Bowl V against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. At the time, it was one of the biggest QB controversies in NFL history.

Thus began the history of Dallas’ quarterback position and the pressure that comes with starring for America’s Team.

Staubach remains the golden boy. The ideal Cowboys quarterback. The man who defines what it means to bleed the star. He played for Dallas over an 11-year span after the team made him a 10th-round pick in the 1964 NFL Draft. A Heisman winner at Navy, Staubach’s NFL career was delayed five years due to military service in Vietnam — adding to his legacy in the process.

“Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest.”

Legendary Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry

Nothing defined this more than Staubach’s career with the Cowboys. From 1971-79, he led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles and four appearances in the big game. This is when Dallas became, literally, America’s Team.

Danny White had the “pleasure” of replacing Staubach after the latter retired following the 1979 season. Despite posting a 62-30 record from 1980-88, White never lived up to the legend that was his predecessor in the eyes of Cowboys nation. Why? He failed to lead the ‘Boys to a Super Bowl despite three consecutive appearances in the NFC Championship Game.

Dallas’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 1981 NFC Championship Game is perhaps the most memorable of White’s tenure with the team. It’s also considered one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history, resulting in a play simply known as “The Catch.”

dallas cowboys' danny white
Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports

White received a ton of criticism for losing to the upstart 49ers in a game that began what would ultimately become one of the greatest rivalries in the sport. However, it must be noted that White did what he could to lead Dallas to a win. That included a 21-yard touchdown pass to Doug Cosbie late in the fourth quarter to give Dallas a 27-21 lead.

It was the defense that let this team down, yielding a game-winning score from Joe Montana to Dwight Clark in the final seconds. Despite this, White was the poster boy for the Cowboys’ failure to make it to the big game.

This initiated what many would conclude to be unrealistic expectations for Cowboys quarterbacks. Tony Romo is a more modern example of this. Despite being one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks during his run with the Cowboys, Romo didn’t lead the team to playoff success. This came years after Troy Aikman succeeded in becoming the winningest signal-caller in franchise history, hoisting three Lombardi Trophies during his run with Jerry’s Cowboys in the 1990s.

Romo finished his career as the Cowboys all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns while finishing with the third-most wins in franchise history. Regardless of the different eras, he was a better statistical quarterback than both Staubach and Aikman.

PlayerCompAttComp %YardsTDINTQB rating
Tony Romo2,8294,33565.334,18324811797.1
Troy Aikman2,8984,71561.532,94216514181.6
Roger Staubach1,6852,95857.022,7001539183.4

None of this matters. Romo didn’t win the big game. He didn’t have Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith to work with like Aikman. Romo’s Cowboys era didn’t include a legendary defense like what we saw in Big D when Staubach was starring for the ‘Boys. It led to playoff futility with Romo joining White as one of the biggest scapegoats in franchise history.

Dak Prescott is now under the microscope following an ugly home loss to the 49ers in last season’s NFC Wild Card Playoffs. Boy, how things come full circle with White’s career in Dallas being defined by a loss to that very same rival.

These unfair comparisons. The idea that Prescott must live up to Stabauch and Aikman’s legacies. The idea is that he alone is responsible for the Cowboys’ successes and failures. It would be too much for most quarterbacks to compete with.

But as we’ve seen with Prescott since he became a mere mid-round pick of the Cowboys back in 2016, he defies logic. After all, no one would’ve envisioned the success Prescott has had since he joined the Cowboys.

Despite these comparisons, Prescott is his own man. He will do it his way. He’s not following in anyone’s footsteps. In and of itself, that should give Cowboys fans hope that Prescott can retun this team to the glory days.