Tim Cowlishaw: Dak Prescott’s career has been full of surprises, and the Cowboys QB needs another big one vs. TB

By Tim Cowlishaw

The Cowboys have worn these shoes before. It was just nine years ago, the start of the 2012 season, that the league had Dallas visit the Super Bowl champs for the Thursday night opener. The Cowboys beat the New York Giants 24-17 that night, but Tyron Smith is the only starter around here who can recall what that was like, so it’s fair to call this a new test for these Cowboys.

This is especially true for quarterback Dak Prescott. Regardless of time, place or opponent, his first game under center as a freshly minted $40-million-a-season quarterback would be a major story. The fact that he’s doing it in the new home of Tom Brady while shrouded in his own personal mystery due to injury makes the challenge all the more considerable.

Brady has seven Super Bowl rings. He played college ball at Michigan last century. Who even knows what planet he comes from at this point? Comparing others to him or examining a “tale of the tape” for any quarterback opposing Brady is just mindless at this point.

Prescott has his own worries. He has pronounced himself ready a remarkable number of times — the start of training camp, the return to training camp from his shoulder injury, this past week — without ever actually playing the game. Prescott is one of 15 starting quarterbacks who did not throw a single preseason pass, but Brady talked this week about why he likes to at least get the feel of the game in the exhibition season and how long it took him to feel normal in the pocket after his major injury in 2007.

Injured Oct. 11 against New York last season, Prescott will go almost 11 months between throwing passes against a true opponent of any kind, and it just so happens his opposition is the Super Bowl champs.

On top of that, the club does not expect its best offensive lineman, Zack Martin, to be available due to a positive COVID-19 test. While Prescott tries to prove he has moved on from last year’s broken ankle and this summer’s related shoulder strain, the Cowboys can’t shake the pandemic or the league protocols that reflect how it is to be managed.

(Random thought: Given what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pulled off with doctors and Jason Witten a few years back, don’t rule out some late-breaking negative tests showing up for Martin.)

The Bucs’ Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh pose the kind of challenge at defensive tackle that the Cowboys only wish they could unleash up the middle against Brady. So if Prescott is not running for his life Thursday, expect him at least to be on the move to keep those first-down chains in motion.

In a negotiation that was closing in on the two-year mark by the time the Cowboys got around to presenting Prescott with the four-year deal he had long sought, it was mentioned many times that money will not change Prescott. And in a personal sense, that may be accurate, even if I can’t say the same would be true for me or anyone I know. Top-flight athletes are of a different world, and it’s not as if his numerous endorsements hadn’t propelled him into the higher tax brackets long before his guaranteed $126 million contract came along.

But it’s never about what people buy or how their lifestyle changes. It’s about the expectations around them and how that new world is managed. Whether it’s against Tampa Bay Thursday night, the Los Angeles Chargers a week from Sunday or one of the three home games that follow, Prescott is going to endure a bad game or some level of disappointment in the near future. When that happens, the reaction will no longer be about the overachieving fourth-round pick. Instead it will focus on the guy eating up all the Cowboys’ salary cap money, and few will care whether that’s even true.

Actually, Prescott is third behind DeMarcus Lawrence and Amari Cooper in salary cap hits this season, but that will change in the future. Regardless, he negotiated his way into more money per season than Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers or any other Super Bowl quarterback you care to mention besides Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, whose deal is heavily back-loaded.

Prescott got paid. Now it’s time to play.

It all starts against a defense that was fourth in the NFL in sacks and fifth in takeaways, a unit that nearly knocked Mahomes into submission in its last game at Raymond James Stadium. For the Cowboys, hope lies in the fact the Bucs were the league’s hottest team a year ago much more than they were a dominant team. Tampa Bay ended November with a 7-5 record. There wasn’t much Brady-Super Bowl talk going on at that time.

This is the start of a new season, one with fans in the stands and more pressure on visiting quarterbacks. Prescott has earned his way into a new financial level of pressure. He will start to answer questions about his ankle, his shoulder and his team’s determination to return to the top of the NFC East in the most demanding of settings.

The schedule says things get easier for Prescott and Dallas after Thursday night. Passing or failing this first test, however, will feel like more than just one of 17 games. And this particular quarterback has made surprising people a habit in his first five NFL seasons.


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