Down by three with less than two minutes remaining in a Divisional Round tilt with the Green Bay Packers, all eyes turned to Dak Prescott. The rookie quarterback, who began the season as a fourth-round pick no one expected to hear about come January, found himself with the ball in his hands on the biggest stage of his life. Rather than collapse under the pressure of his first playoff start, Prescott coolly and precisely sliced up the defense in front of over 93,000 screaming fans.
The drive began with a 24-yard strike down the seam to Terrence Williams. Without huddling, Prescott quickly reset the offense and completed an 11-yard pass to Jason Witten. Now nearing field-goal range, Prescott spiked the ball to stop the clock before completing a 9-yard pass to Cole Beasley along the sidelines. Dan Bailey followed by nailing the field goal, tying the game at 31 points. In six plays, Prescott had his team positioned to force overtime.
Though the Dallas Cowboys saw the game slip away on the final play of regulation, Prescott's calm demeanor and performance in the clutch capped off an astonishing rise from draft afterthought to bona fide NFL star.
In many ways, Prescott's rookie season never should have unfolded as it did. The Cowboys planned on drafting a quarterback to develop as heir apparent to Tony Romo, but Prescott ranked low on their priority list. Initially, the team hoped to trade into the back of the first round for Memphis' Paxton Lynch, but the Broncos beat them to the punch. After missing on their top target, Dallas eyed Michigan State's Connor Cook in the fourth round. Instead, the Raiders sniped the former Spartan at pick No. 100. With their top quarterbacks off the board, the Cowboys settled for the less-coveted Prescott 25 selections later.
Just landing on the right team didn't ensure Prescott an easy path to stardom, however. Even after top backup Kellen Moore fractured his ankle, Dallas first pursued a deal for veteran free agent Nick Foles rather than push Prescott up the depth chart. Had Foles chosen to sign with the Cowboys rather than the Chiefs, Prescott would have remained on the sidelines when Romo suffered his season-altering back injury during the preseason.
Looking beyond those particular circumstances, quarterbacks selected as late as Prescott generally play just a few fleeting seasons before falling out of the league entirely rather than establishing themselves as quality starters during their rookie year.
The NFL knows this. Scouting departments across the league work tirelessly to identify the field-tilting players and land them in the early rounds of the draft, especially at the quarterback position. Over just the past five years, teams spent 13 first-round selections on quarterbacks, including three No. 1 overall picks. Already, four have either moved onto new teams or will depart this offseason, and one, Johnny Manziel, washed out of the league by the end of his second season. All of which underscores an inalienable fact: Elite traits can push flawed prospects into the upper reaches of the draft.
Still, while not every passer selected early develops into a long-term starter, the hit rate plummets for those taken later. Since the inaugural NFL Draft in 1936, only five signal-callers selected after the top 100 picks have thrown for at least 3,500 yards and 20 touchdowns with no more than 10 interceptions in a season. Of those, only four pulled it off before their 30th birthday. None, however, ever managed to hit those benchmarks as a rookie, or at least that held true until Prescott's 3,667-yard, 23-touchdown, four-interception campaign this past season. The league had never before seen a player with his draft background experience such out-of-the-box success.
"One out of every 500 quarterbacks steps in and does what Dak did," NFL agent Rilio Mastrantonio says, "maybe one out of a thousand."
Mastrantonio and his agency, Capital Sports Advisors, represent multiple quarterbacks in the 2017 draft class. As with Prescott, his quarterbacks don't expect to learn of their NFL destination until the draft's final day, when the closing four rounds and undrafted free agency take place. As Mastrantonio sees it, Prescott's unprecedented success arises out of a combination of individual ability and a favorable situation.
"Dak is Dak," Mastrantonio explains. "He would succeed on many teams. On others he would get crushed. Every team has their challenges. You need to have the right coaches who are patient. Some don't do well with rookies. You also have to have some skilled receivers and offensive linemen so the quarterback doesn't get killed."
Prescott avoided such pitfalls with the Cowboys, who built one of the league's premier offensive lines and assembled a versatile stable of skill-position players prior to the quarterback's ascent to the top of the depth chart. The 25 sacks Prescott absorbed as a rookie ranked 23rd in the league, behind even the figures posted by multiple quarterbacks who appeared in significantly fewer games. Dallas' sturdy pass protection certainly contributed to Prescott's prolific rookie campaign and his clean bill of health.
Head coach Jason Garrett also played a role in making Prescott successful. While many offensive coaches might force a reserve quarterback to fit the scheme already in place, Garrett placed further emphasis on the ground attack to limit the number of difficult passing situations Prescott would face. Only as the quarterback gained experience and confidence during the season did the coaching staff put more responsibility on his shoulders.
Still, just setting up a quarterback for success guarantees little, especially for first-year players. Ultimately, they still have to deliver the goods, and Prescott performed far better than anyone could have reasonably expected of a rookie. In doing so, he proved myriad doubters wrong.
"An anomaly for sure," Los Angeles Rams scouting assistant Jordan Johnson says of Prescott's rookie season. "He has talent and he's smart enough and the system fits him."
Johnson's Rams entered last year's draft looking for a franchise quarterback of their own. In a headline-grabbing move, they traded up 14 spots to select California's Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick. While Prescott thrived in Dallas, Goff languished on the shelf for most of the season before struggling over the final seven games. Los Angeles hopes Goff finds his footing under the tutelage of new head coach Sean McVay, but it could take considerable time before he can step out of Prescott's shadow.
No one reason explains how the NFL missed on Prescott, but others have misevaluated him before. A lightly recruited three-star prospect out of Haughton, La., Prescott received just one other Power Five school offer besides his eventual destination, Mississippi State. After redshirting his first year on campus and serving as a backup for another, he took over for Tyler Russell during the first game of the 2013 season. Prescott held onto the starting job until his graduation, turning the often-overlooked Bulldogs into the top-ranked team in the country for a stretch in 2014. He finished his collegiate career with 9,376 passing yards, 70 touchdown passes and another 2,521 yards and 41 scores on the ground, all school records for a quarterback.
Prescott's résumé didn't check every box in the eyes of the NFL, however. Mississippi State ran a version of a spread offense, a red flag for talent evaluators. Prescott's physical build appeared to have more in common with a linebacker than a passer, and concerns about his deep accuracy and composure in the pocket further dampened his prospects. An arrest for driving under the influence further damaged Prescott's appeal. Though a Mississippi court ultimately found him not guilty, the situation ended any realistic chance of a team selecting him during the first three rounds of the draft.
Though few foresaw Prescott's ascent, many will scour the incoming draft class hoping to find someone to replicate it. The NFL famously operates in a copycat style, with teams shamelessly swiping the latest concepts and approaches from other organizations. So while Prescott's success stands out as a clear outlier, franchises searching for a quarterback might force a later selection onto the field early and expect similar results.
"I think it could happen," Johnson says of the NFL overreacting to Prescott. "It's a reactionary league, so absolutely I think that's a possibility. Especially when you see a guy perform extremely well in the East-West game or the Senior Bowl (Prescott won Senior Bowl MVP honors), I think you could see a guy get overvalued for that particular reason."
Agents also see the landscape shifting.
"No question the league will change because of Dak," Mastrantonio says. "He stepped into a playoff game and looked like a veteran. He did everything. What I think is happening is the quarterback position is transforming due to scarcity. There are really not a lot of quarterbacks to go around. The injury factor is taking even more of a toll. Nowadays, teams need to have access to five or six quarterbacks a season between the 53-man roster, the practice squad, and free agency. It's not like in the past in my estimation. The defenders are getting bigger, they hit harder, everyone's faster, and quarterbacks are sitting ducks waiting to be pounded. Late-round and undrafted guys have a shot now."
Though less-celebrated quarterbacks might receive additional chances to earn playing time, that doesn't necessarily mean they can equal Prescott's rookie year. Rather, his triumphs as a rookie might result in judgment errors by teams and unfair expectations from overzealous fans.
"Some of the worst things in life are anomalies because they give an extraordinary number of people false hope," Accel Sports Management agent James Krenis says about an aberration like Prescott.
From Krenis' perspective, betting on finding the next out-of-the-box star QB in the later rounds compares to buying a lotto ticker and anticipating riches.
"Somebody has to win it, right?" Krenis says. "There are winners, but most people lose money playing the lottery. Gambling in casinos, same thing. Somebody wins, but there's a reason those places are opulent and all those people get paid. The gamblers are paying them."
Like those gamblers, franchises hoping to find the next Prescott might endure similar disappointment.
Yet despite the long odds, pundits will inevitably debate which prospects could follow in Prescott's footsteps when ESPN and NFL Network begin their broadcasts of the 2017 NFL Draft's third day. Those channels need a hook to attract viewers for the later rounds, and the possibility of a team uncovering the next Prescott -- however remote -- could serve as an intoxicating lure.
Of the quarterback prospects expected to last until the fourth round or later, few match Prescott's background or skill set. Baylor's Seth Russell mirrors Prescott's ability to threaten defenses with his legs, but he attempted roughly half as many passes during his college career. Tennessee's Josh Dobbs has a comparable number of live passes under his belt, but his struggles with interceptions make him a different kind of player. Virginia Tech's Jerod Evans possesses similar size, but he left college early and started for just one season.
If any likely Day 3 quarterback shares more than a passing similarity with Prescott, that prospect appears to be Mitch Leidner, a highly experienced QB from Minnesota with a long track record and desirable physical tools.
Like Prescott, Leidner started for more than three seasons at a Power Five program and proved himself a prolific scrambler. His 33 rushing touchdowns set a Minnesota record for quarterbacks, nearly matching the 41 Prescott recorded at Mississippi State. The quarterbacks also produced comparable numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine. They measured within an inch of each other and both tipped the scale at 226 pounds. Though Prescott's 4.79 seconds in the 40-yard dash bested Leidner by 0.14, their other workouts fell mostly in line (32 1/2 inches vs. 34 1/2 inches in the vertical, 116 inches vs. 123 inches in the broad jump, 7.11 seconds vs. 6.96 seconds in the three-cone drill).
Leidner says coaches and scouts haven't discussed expectations with him, but he knows the pressure for Day 3 quarterbacks will ramp up because of Prescott's rookie season.
"I think that no matter what organization you go into, you got to go in there with a great mind to learn," Leidner says. "If you get that opportunity, you have to take full advantage of it like [Prescott] did."
For his part, Leidner believes he can deliver if given a similar opportunity, especially if he has a veteran to lean on.
"Yeah, no question," Leidner says. "I'll do the best I can and try to be a sponge and soak everything in and really just continue to learn from the guys around. Dak Prescott's got a guy like Tony Romo to be able to learn from. Just continuing to learn and get better every single day is all you can ask for."
Even if Leidner lands in an equally favorable situation, his team and its fans still shouldn't anticipate the same results. Prescott possesses an "it" quality that, combined with his talent and the good fortune of landing on the Cowboys, covers up most of his weaknesses. Trying to replicate his success is a fool's errand, but the NFL will undoubtedly try anyway. Those efforts should only serve to highlight the uniqueness of Prescott and the unparalleled success he enjoyed as a rookie.
There's only one Dak Prescott, no matter how badly the league would like to find another.