Sports of The Times: Cowboys’ Dak Prescott Can Handle Any Kind of Pressure

Sports of The Times
By JULIET MACUR

FRISCO, Tex. — What would it take to distract the Dallas Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott? On Wednesday, running back Ezekiel Elliott tried to find out.

As Prescott spoke to reporters in the locker room — four days before his first playoff start, and at the center of a group so large that Prescott likened it to a crowd on a Black Friday shopping day — Elliott lobbed balled-up pieces of tape at Prescott, again and again.

When Prescott wouldn’t flinch, Elliott tried shooting straw wrappers at him, again and again. When Elliott finally connected, he celebrated with a shout: “Boom!”

But Prescott never lost focus, never acknowledged Elliott, the Cowboys’ other prized rookie. He just grinned and kept talking.

Green Bay will surely throw more complicated — and more dangerous — things at Prescott on Sunday when the Packers visit the Cowboys for an N.F.C. divisional playoff game, but in one way, Elliott’s antics provided a perfect snapshot of Prescott’s remarkable season.

Nothing seems to faze him.

Spitballs. Winning streaks. Criticism after a tough night. Praise after a great day.

“I don’t know,” Prescott said when asked to describe the last time he felt nervous about a game. “That’s a good question. I’m sure sometime in college or another.”

Asked to describe the moment, Prescott admitted he had been lying. That moment hadn’t existed at all.

“I mean, I was just kind of saying that, you know, to throw an answer out there,” he said, laughing.

This is the leader the Cowboys will follow onto the field against the Packers, a rugged 6-foot-2, 226-pound 23-year-old sturdy enough to shrug off defenders and steady enough to throw 23 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.

That he has done it all as a surprise starter is remarkable. But the fact that he has done it in Dallas — for a team owned by a man who can’t seem to stop talking about how great Tony Romo is, or how ready Romo is to reclaim the quarterback spot if Prescott somehow relinquishes it — has made Prescott’s rookie performance even more remarkable.

Last month, that owner, Jerry Jones, was talking so much about Romo that a former Cowboys quarterback, Troy Aikman, stepped up to question him on a Dallas radio program, saying Jones’s comments “just dumbfounded” him.

Just the thought that an owner would praise a player who could replace you might fluster another quarterback — and certainly another rookie — but not Prescott. He remained in his bubble, leading the Cowboys on an 11-game winning streak, through a disappointing road defeat against the Giants and to a 13-3 record, tying a franchise mark.

So how does an N.F.L. team happen upon a player like Prescott, whom the former Cowboys coach Dave Campo on Wednesday called “ice-cold” and “business all day long”?

Before they drafted him, in the fourth round, the Cowboys stuck Prescott in a classroom and threw different plays and different coverages at him, seeing how he would respond to changing scenarios and to criticism if he answered wrong. They tried to trick him into making mistakes, or into panicking. And then they studied his reactions.

All the while, their spies worked the periphery, grilling teammates and coaches and ex-teammates and former coaches and even personnel like Mississippi State’s equipment manager — anyone who might have known details about Prescott that other people hadn’t seen.

In the end, the Cowboys decided they had found their man.

“I guarantee you that nobody expected him to turn out like this, as good and as poised as this,” Campo said. “When you take a player, you have no idea; you really don’t. You just ask people you trust about him. But you never ask the head coach because he might love his players, kind of like Jerry Jones loves Tony Romo.”

Jones, whose affection for Romo and other veterans is deep, and well known, acknowledged this week that he never expected Prescott to be this good this fast. When he spoke to my colleague Ken Belson on Monday, Jones said all of his hype about Romo being healthy enough to retake the starting job wasn’t meant to scare Prescott into playing harder, or designed to motivate the team.

In fact, Jones said he was pretty sure his comments about Romo didn’t affect Prescott at all.

“I never thought it would,” he said. “He’s not fragile.”

Jones added: “What it got to show was his unique makeup. He’s got an uncommon approach to preparing, unique stability and unprecedented leadership, and he exudes confidence to his teammates and coaching staff.”

Prescott’s teammates saw that early on, most likely even earlier than Jones did.

Even before Mark Sanchez signed with the Cowboys in early September — with Romo injured and ruled out for the start of the season — he had watched Prescott play in the preseason. When Sanchez saw him in person, he was even more impressed. When his father called and asked about Prescott, Sanchez gushed.

“Pop, this kid can play,” Sanchez recalled telling his father.

Of course, he can play, too, Sanchez said. Everyone at the N.F.L. level can play. “But he’s got something,” Sanchez said.

The coolness under fire? Sanchez can’t explain that.

“Listen, it’s not like he’s lying on the couch and I’m writing down his thoughts and that kind of stuff,” said Sanchez, 30, who has served as a mentor. “Let’s not make it bigger than it is; we’re just playing ball.”

Prescott can’t say exactly why he is so cool, either. Maybe he was born that way. Maybe he learned to be like that somewhere on the road to Dallas. To delve into the reasons behind it, to try to pinpoint it, might take too long to discern, or to explain.

So let’s just enjoy it. Perhaps for this one game on Sunday, perhaps for a few more.