Seeing a quarterback enter his second NFL season after a stellar rookie one and suddenly stall isn’t a rare occurrence. The Dallas Cowboys, who almost lucked into a terrific Dak Prescott-led season in 2016 are hoping it doesn’t happen to them.
Catching a Break
Prescott, a 4th round pick out of Mississippi State, was drafted to wait behind Tony Romo as the Cowboys squeeze the last drops out of their veteran QB. However, Romo was injured in preseason, and the inexperienced Prescott was thrown behind the best offensive line in the NFL, while a rookie running back (Ezekiel Elliott) was by his side. The results were better than anyone imagined: Winning the NFC East with a 13-3 record, with Prescott slowly getting more freedom from the coaching staff as the season progressed. He lost the playoff game, but the feeling at the end of the season that the Cowboys moved forward by replacing Romo with Prescott.
Prescott completed 67.8% of his throws last season, throwing 23 touchdown passes and 4 interceptions. He had just a 0.9% interception ratio, posting a passer rating of 104.9 and QBR of 81.5 per ESPN. The Cowboys didn’t make him throw deep, didn’t risk him by running him too much, and were rewarded thanks to a great offensive line, excellent running and a veteran receiver corps that helped Prescott through. These numbers aren’t the story, but Prescott’s leadership carrying through the offseason into the 2017 campaign, as the Cowboys attempt to win a division back to back for the first time since 1996.
Prescott seems like the kind of player who thrives under pressure and expectations. There are bigger markets than Dallas, but no teams gets the kind of attention the Cowboys get – city, state and nationally. The Cowboys are the most popular team (and most valuable too) and most hated team, usually something that goes hand in hand when sports are involved. He helped the Aggies to reach heights even their older fans don’t remember – a 10-win season and playing in the Orange Bowl. Mississippi State have only two double-digit wins seasons since World War II, one of them in 2014 with Prescott under center. If this season isn’t a slam dunk for Prescott, it won’t be because the pressure of leading the Cowboys to wherever they end up was too great.
Past cases of failure
The most recent case of a stellar rookie season that turned into ashes comes from Robert Griffin III. He also starred for a relatively small college in the CFB landscape, and also played in the NFC East. The great hope of the Washington Redskins played with a game plan that suited his skills, but then injuries happened, and there were issues with his relationship with owner Dan Snyder, affecting his dealings with Mike Shanahan, the head coach. Griffin never recovered from the injuries late in his rookie season, and probably won’t start for an NFL team again. Prescott doesn’t seem to be Griffin; not in style or personality. But Griffin serves as a cautionary tale, suggesting to anyone who thinks rookie greatness means the same in the next year and down the line.