FRISCO, Texas — The Dak Prescott story is at a crossroads.
Not so much because of what he will write, but for how the Dallas Cowboys quarterback will be perceived.
Prescott will be making his fourth playoff appearance when the Cowboys face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2/ESPN+) in the wild-card round. He has won one playoff game, in the 2018 wild-card round against the Seattle Seahawks.
Fairly or unfairly, Cowboys quarterbacks are judged by what Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman did in the 1970s and 1990s, respectively, when the Hall of Famers combined for five Super Bowl championships. The accomplishments of every Cowboys quarterback since, despite statistical success (or in Danny White’s case, making it to three straight NFC Championship Games), have just not been good enough.
Unless Prescott pulls off a playoff run over the next month that ends the Cowboys’ 26-year Super Bowl drought, he will have to fight through the unending question of whether he can ever deliver.
Prescott isn’t running from the pressure to do what Staubach and Aikman did.
“I’ve got to say I want to. I want to win the championships and win the titles and everything that they did, and all the games, put this team in that position,” Prescott said. “But I can’t say that that’s at the forefront of my mind, as I’m thinking about what those guys have done, what the great quarterbacks here have done before me. I don’t have any tell on what they did then. It’s about focusing on the now and knowing what I can do, what I’m capable of doing and the opportunity this team has in front of them.”
Tony Romo, Prescott’s predecessor, found himself in the same position. He put up gaudy statistics in becoming the franchise’s all-time leading passer. But he could never get past the divisional round of the playoffs.
He had gone from unknown regular-season savior in 2006 (losing in the wild-card round) to losing a divisional-round playoff game at home as the NFC’s top seed in 2007. In the 2009 playoffs, he won his first postseason game, only for the Cowboys to get wiped out in the divisional round.
In 2014, his eighth season as the full-time starter, Romo made his fourth playoff appearance, coming off his best season. He had the Cowboys in position to beat the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round only to have it ripped away when Dez Bryant’s catch at the goal line was overturned by replay.
He would start only four more games as his body kept breaking down. A twice-broken collarbone in 2015 and recurring back issues — as well as Prescott’s Rookie of the Year performance — ended Romo’s career after the 2016 season.
Prescott, 29, is younger than Romo was then (34), but he also has physical scars. He suffered a dislocated and fractured right ankle in 2020. He missed five games this season because of surgery to repair a fractured right thumb. He missed a game last season because of a calf strain. He also had offseason surgery on his left shoulder.
Staubach was 29, like Prescott now, when he won Super Bowl VI against the Baltimore Colts. But it was just his third season with the Cowboys after a five-year commitment to the Navy. Aikman was 29 when he won his third championship, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. He won his first Super Bowl in his fourth season as the Cowboys’ starter.
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Prescott has started the past seven seasons.
Since 1980, only three quarterbacks have made it to their first Super Bowl with their original team after a longer run as the every-game starter than Prescott has had as the Cowboys’ starter. Ken Anderson was in his 10th season with Cincinnati Bengals when they made Super Bowl XVI. The Indianapolis Colts‘ Peyton Manning (Super Bowl XLI) and Atlanta Falcons‘ Matt Ryan (Super Bowl LI) were in their ninth seasons as the starters for their respective teams.
Prescott’s playoff appearances have been mixed.
He got off to a slow start in the 2016 divisional round against the Packers, only to finish 24-of-38 for 302 yards and three touchdowns and lead a late comeback to tie the game before Aaron Rodgers’ end-of-game wizardry ended the Cowboys’ season.
For his lone postseason win, in the 2018 wild-card round, his numbers weren’t great (22-of-33 for 226 yards, one touchdown, one interception), but he put the game away with a memorable 16-yard run on third-and-14, flipping near the goal line. On the next play, he gave the Cowboys a 24-14 lead over the Seahawks on a 1-yard score with 2:08 to play.
But the next week, the Cowboys were run over — literally — by the Los Angeles Rams (273 rushing yards) in the divisional round.
And then there was last season’s 23-17 loss in the wild-card round to the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium. The lasting image is Prescott’s quarterback keeper in the final seconds, after which the Cowboys could not spike the ball in time to try one last play.
That loss is still motivation.
“Damn right. Damn right,” Prescott said. “Then, obviously, after a game like last week [26-6 road loss to the Washington Commanders], it helps remind you how precious these moments are. You don’t get these opportunities, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to play this game in general, but to be in the playoffs, have the team that we have and knowing we’ve got to make sure it counts now.”
Prescott enters the 2022 playoffs tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with 15, despite starting only 12 regular-season games. He has had at least one pass intercepted in seven straight games, the longest streak by a Cowboys quarterback since 2004. He has had three interceptions returned for touchdowns in the past four games.
Yet the belief in Prescott within the organization is as high as ever.
“I don’t know if it’s really affected his confidence at all,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “When you put all the work in, when you leave nothing up to doubt, then there is no reason for you to lose confidence. You’ve built that through continuous repetitions, through continuous hard work. So, I mean, he’s put the work in. I know he’s ready.”
Said offensive tackle Tyron Smith: “Expect him to be great like he always is. He does everything he can to prepare himself.”
Said receiver Michael Gallup: “[He’s] literally the same guy every day. First one in the locker room, last one to leave. That’s just what he does. That’s how his brain is wired. … He’s ready to go. It’s just how he is. Never lose faith in [No.] 4.”
Prescott hasn’t lost faith, either.
“I’ve just got to go win the game, do everything I can and leave no doubt in my preparation to make sure I’m putting this team in the best chance to do that,” Prescott said. “And understanding, I’ve said it myself, right, we’re all judged off of wins and wins in the playoffs. These matter. I know that.
“Not that it’s pressure, but you’ve got to love playing in these moments. You’ve got to love being in games like this. If you don’t, this league, this sport, this isn’t the place for you. So for me, it’s about embracing the moment. Staying within myself. It’s not time to do anything new, create anything new. Trust my teammates, trust how I prepared throughout and go out there and stay within the moment.”