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Why No One—Not Even the Cowboys—Saw Dak Prescott Coming

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 09:  Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistOctober 28, 2016

FRISCO, Texas — On the Cowboys' draft board last spring was a magnetic card.

Printed in big, bold letters: PRESCOTT, DAK.

Underneath the name, in smaller type: Mississippi State.

Farther down, on one side of the card, a box with six grades in small print: one assigned by the scouting director, two by scouts, one by the head coach, one by the offensive coordinator and one by the quarterbacks coach.

On the other side of the card, his height ("6022", or 6'2 2/10"), weight ("226" pounds), 40-yard dash speed ("4.74" seconds), arm length ("32 ¼") and hand size ("10").

In large type next to the name: "1.44."

That was the team grade for the player, and it was the reason the card was placed in the middle of the fourth round.

Four quarterbacks' cards on the board had higher grades: those belonging to Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook.

During the draft, the Cowboys would try to trade down in the first round to acquire Lynch. When that didn't work, they would plan to take Cook with their fourth-round pick only to have the Raiders trade up in the round and steal him.

As it turned out, seven quarterbacks would be chosen ahead of the quarterback with the 1.44 grade. In addition to the aforementioned four, also on the list: Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett and Cody Kessler. Another 127 players who weren't quarterbacks also would be taken ahead of Prescott.

Six months later, as Prescott prepares for a game against the Eagles and Wentz that will establish who controls the NFC East, it's remarkable how much has changed. Prescott has become so many things in that short time.

He has become the starting quarterback for the Cowboys and may remain so no matter who comes back. He has become a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. He has become the fifth-highest-ranked starting quarterback in the league with a passer rating of 103.9.

And maybe more than anything, he has become a mistake.

A mistake who makes every NFL talent evaluator slap his forehead.

The Cowboys' 1.44 grade was in line with what the rest of the NFL was thinking of Prescott. Bleacher Report surveyed six other teams on their predraft grades. Three others had him in the fourth round. One had him in the second round. One had him in the third round. And one had him in the fifth.

Everyone missed on Prescott, on what he could become.

And they missed on him because of three myths.


MYTH NO. 1: It will be difficult for him to play in a pro-style offense

"I think he'll struggle playing under center. Everything he did was shotgun. He might fit in some of the Chip Kelly concepts. But he could struggle with coverage, windows and tempo of game." — High-ranking AFC personnel man before the draft

Prescott played in Dan Mullen's spread offense at Mississippi State. Every college quarterback who plays in a spread offense gets the stink-eye from NFL teams, but not every college quarterback who plays in a spread offense has been penalized on draft day the way Prescott was.

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - NOVEMBER 21:  Head Coach Dan Mullen talks with Dak Prescott #15 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs on the sidelines during a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium Stadium on November 21, 2015 in Fayetteville, Arkansas
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Goff, the first overall pick in the draft, played in a spread offense at Cal. So did Cam Newton at Auburn, and he was chosen first in 2011. Mullen was Alex Smith's quarterback coach at Utah, running a similar offense to the one Prescott played in. Smith went No. 1 overall anyway.

Prescott may have been branded as a running quarterback, too. The Cowboys had concerns because he frequently operated outside the pocket. He had 536 rushes and scored 41 touchdowns on runs in his career at Mississippi State. "You see a guy who runs the ball 20 times in a game, and you let that shield you to the rest of his game," Prescott said.

"We all got caught up in the offense," an AFC front office man said.

Cowboys director of player personnel Stephen Jones acknowledged that Cook was pushed up their board ahead of Prescott in part because he had the "advantage" of having played in a pro-style offense at Michigan State.

The fear many shared was it would take time for Prescott to transition to the pro game. "The biggest thing with these quarterbacks for us is, Can he change and adapt quickly?" a longtime college scouting director said. "We had questions about it with him."

Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan did, too. But he saw enough potential in Prescott to believe that even if he took time, he would be worth the wait. According to Jones, Linehan was "on the table" for the Cowboys to draft Prescott. Linehan had him rated with the top quarterbacks in the draft, Wentz and Goff, and he pushed for the team to rate him higher than it did.

Linehan studied the Mississippi State offense as well as the quarterback. His impression was that Prescott was making more whole-field reads than most spread quarterbacks. But he knew three elements would be transitional for him: Playing under center, running a huddle and learning/making more expansive play calls.

Prescott said he went from four words to describe a play in college to eight words in the NFL. He scored an impressive 25 on the Wonderlic test, but that wasn't a reliable predictor of how he would understand and process football concepts.

Jason Garrett's boyish good looks and Princeton diploma can be deceiving. He spent 16 years as a professional backup quarterback and is in his 12th year as an NFL coach. He has answered to Jimmy Johnson, Sean Payton, Jon Gruden and Nick Saban. At 50, the head coach of the Cowboys has an edge to him.

Garrett wanted to see how much Prescott could handle when the Cowboys brought him to their old facility in Irving, Texas, eight days before the draft. Prescott was led into the offensive staff room, where Garrett, Linehan, quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, wide receivers coach Derek Dooley and assistant head coach/special teams coach Rich Bisaccia were ready.

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 16: Dak Prescott #4 is congratulated by his head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys after scoring a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers during the first quarter at Lambeau Field on October 16, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsi
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Garrett took a marker and went to the grease board. In an installation that took about 10 minutes, he drew four vertical concepts three different ways and against two coverages—single safety high and two safeties high. Then he took an eraser and wiped his plays off the board.

"Now," he told Prescott, "Get up and draw the formation, call the play and put the defense up there. Then tell me what you do in different scenarios."

Prescott took the marker, calmly drew the plays as Garrett had drawn them and answered questions about defensive adjustments.

Prescott had this.

"I'm fortunate I have good visual recall," Prescott said. "If we are drawing it out, I can give it back to you two days from now. I could see it in my head."

Garrett wasn't done, though. He erased what Prescott had drawn and took the marker again.

He started with another installation, with two concepts and two protections. On one of them, he drew the No. 3 receiver running a vertical route through a defender.

When it was Prescott's turn to draw the same play, he drew the receiver "staircasing," or going around the defender, because that's the way he always drew it.

Garrett didn't like that. Or he acted as if he didn't like that.

"I don't think that's the way I drew it," he barked.

So Prescott erased the route and had the receiver going around the defender a different way.

Garrett turned to the other coaches in the room. "Does that look like what I drew?" he asked. They all shook their heads no.

"That's the only time I got nervous," Prescott said. "What the hell? I'm almost shaking."

Prescott drew it a third time, again with the receiver avoiding the defender.

Garrett shot a dagger at him.

"I know this is where he goes," Prescott said to Garrett.

Garrett stood up, took the marker, erased the route and drew it himself again, with the receiver running through the defender.

They all chuckled. Prescott had passed the test.

Wentz, Goff, Lynch, Cook, Brissett and Hackenberg also visited the Cowboys and went through similar drills. Prescott, the coaches agreed, was more composed than any of them.

"There was a perception about him because of the offense he came from," Garrett said. "We never felt there was anything negative about it. In fact, we thought it was a positive, because you could see him make NFL throws."

Pro scouts had a chance to observe Prescott making NFL throws in late January at the Senior Bowl. As a member of the South team, Prescott was being coached by the Jaguars' staff. He had a solid week of practice and was voted the most outstanding player in the game after completing seven of 10 passes and throwing a touchdown pass.

MOBILE, AL - JANUARY 30: South team's quarterback Dak Prescott #15 with Mississippi State on January 30, 2016 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

At the NFL meetings in late March, Jaguars senior vice president Tony Khan told Jones his team had Prescott rated highly and was not concerned about his ability to transition to an NFL offense. He could share that kind of information because the Jaguars weren't planning on taking a quarterback in the early rounds.

"After working with him for a week at the Senior Bowl, our coaches felt he would be more comfortable in a pro-style offense than in the system he played in college," Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said.


MYTH NO. 2: His throwing ability is below NFL standards

"His arm strength is good enough, but he doesn't spin it like the real good ones. He's late with the ball. His accuracy bothers me." — NFC national scout before the draft

Before he coached Prescott, Mullen coached Tim Tebow. Prescott loved Tebow. Mullen gave him Tebow's phone number, and Prescott put it on speed dial. He chose No. 15 as his jersey number in college just like Tebow.

His connection to Tebow didn't help him in NFL draft rooms, though.

"He's Tim Tebow with more passing skills," an NFL front office man said in the spring. He did not mean it as a compliment.

At the combine, Prescott threw the ball pretty well. According to one scout's notes, he completed 10 of 12 passes to his left and six of nine to his right. "He had some ball-placement issues on out routes," his notebook reads.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Quarterback Dak Prescott of Mississippi State throws during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

At Mississippi State's pro day on March 10, Prescott was less impressive, according to the same scout. He said Prescott's accuracy was inconsistent.

"Best up the seam," he wrote. "Struggles outside the numbers. On longer throws, his ball wobbled and he was off target."

He also was critical of Prescott's timing on deep routes but did say he has enough arm strength.

The takeaway: "After that, I don't think anyone thought he was a great passer," the scout said.

Prescott's body of work at Mississippi State would have led talent evaluators to a different conclusion. Through his career, Prescott threw 70 touchdowns to 23 interceptions. He put together the third-longest streak in SEC history of passes without an interception at 288 (his NFL encore was a string of 176 attempts without a pick, which broke the rookie record held by Tom Brady).

He also had a metamorphic effect on the Bulldogs program. Prior to his arrival, Mississippi State didn't even play in a bowl game in seven of 10 years. They went to a bowl every year he was there, and for a five-week stretch, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation—a first in school history. He had a .697 winning percentage as a starter.

Dak Prescott college stats
YearCmp%YdsTD-INTRate
201262.11944-0163.8
201358.41,94010-7126.6
201461.63,44927-11151.7
201566.23,79329-5151.0
Career62.89,37670-23146.0
sports-reference.com

But despite a 66.2 completion percentage as a senior, his accuracy was questioned. Many of his college throws, they said, were short and easy to complete, so his percentage was skewed.

With the Cowboys, Prescott has completed 68.7 percent of his throws—the second-highest percentage in the league behind Tom Brady.

"His accuracy has been the most pleasant surprise," Wilson said. "He would have some up-and-down throws in college. … He has been very consistent."

Even after training camp, the team didn't know Prescott could be such an accurate passer. When veteran quarterback Kellen Moore broke his ankle in early August, the Cowboys investigated trading for Josh McCown because they weren't sure Prescott could handle being Tony Romo's backup.

Prescott really didn't start showing how accurate and effective he could be until the preseason. In exhibition games, he led all NFL quarterbacks who completed at least 25 passes with a passer rating of 137.8 and a completion percentage of 78.0. With each passing preseason game, the Cowboys' front office and coaching staff had to rethink what Prescott could become.

It was challenging because what Prescott was in workouts and practices wasn't what he is in games.

"I will tell you this about Dak," Jones said. "In practice, he does not throw it as accurately as he does in a game. That's been going on out here. It's not for lack of want to or effort. It's not perfect like it was when [Troy] Aikman was here. Romo throws it to perfection. Dak has a lot of gamer in him. When the lights come on, he plays better than he does in practice. For whatever reason, it seems like everything seems to refine at the right time."


MYTH NO. 3: His character is lacking

"Was he a good kid? There were some red flags. You knew he liked going out. The school said it wasn't that big a deal. But because he is a quarterback, you had to look at it harder. I would have stuck with him if there wasn't that off-the-field stuff. It dissuaded me. I couldn't tell if he was a bulls--tter or real." — NFC general manager whose team dropped Prescott to the fifth round from the third because of character concerns

A scar starts near the corner of Prescott's right eye and travels down and out. It almost looks like a laugh line, but there was nothing funny about how it came to be.

Prescott and some teammates were in Panama City at a Waka Flocka concert during spring break in 2015 when they were jumped. A group of men got Prescott on the ground. They kicked him and hit him in the face with a bottle. Video and photos of the fight were all over the internet.

It had been easy enough for NFL teams to look past the incident, as the attack apparently was unprovoked. But then at 12:45 a.m. on March 12 of this year, Prescott was pulled over on University Avenue in Starkville, Mississippi, in a 2016 white Cadillac Escalade for speeding. The officer said he was driving 41 miles per hour, and the speed limit was 25.

Prescott also was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.

Now there was a pattern.

The timing of the arrest—just 46 days before the draft, in peak overreaction season—was almost as concerning as the arrest itself. The buzz began.

Didn't he realize what was at stake? Couldn't he control himself?

Prescott is convinced his DUI arrest, more than anything, precipitated his fall in the draft.

"I felt, based on what I was being told by teams, that I was a second- or third-round pick," he said. "No way the fourth. I felt there was a chance when people got to know me [that] I could jump to late first round. I felt if it was the fourth, it was just doubting me because of the DUI. The DUI boosted everybody's doubts."

Representatives from three teams, including the Cowboys, acknowledged that they moved Prescott down their boards as a result of the incident.

"It found its way into our grade," Jones said.

Wilson visited Starkville to work out Prescott on March 21. But it wasn't just about seeing him throw. He wanted to see how Prescott interacted in the environment that had been his home for five years.

Prescott took him through the athletic facilities, where they watched tape together. Then they shared a meal at Restaurant Tyler downtown. What Wilson experienced was a young man who appeared to be respected and liked by everyone who knew him—and lionized by those who did not.

"I couldn't find anyone to say a bad word about him," Wilson said.

In subsequent weeks, Prescott visited the Cowboys, Eagles, Broncos, Bills and Cardinals. And wherever he went, the DUI charge was "the elephant in the room," he said. He couldn't wait to talk about it and get it out of the way.

Neither could Garrett. Prescott said Garrett grilled him about the DUI more than any other team representative throughout the draft process.

In the middle of talking about X's and O's during Prescott's predraft visit, Garrett suddenly shifted the conversation.

"What was going on with the DUI?" he said abruptly.

Prescott answered him the way he answered everyone.

"I didn't feel I was drunk," he responded. "I had a couple drinks at the bar. I know eyes were on me. I got in my truck and hit the gas. I was speeding. But I wasn't drunk. I put myself in a position I shouldn't have."

Good answer. But it didn't suffice for Garrett.

"Are you kidding me?" he said. "You are the face of the program down there. You are the guy everybody looks up to."

Prescott owned up to his mistake and made it clear he wasn't blaming the arresting officer.

Still not good enough for Garrett.

"You're getting ready for the draft and you decide to do this?"

Prescott acknowledged his timing was bad and took the blame.

Garrett kept pressing, and now it was getting uncomfortable.

"What the heck were you thinking? What would we be getting here?"

Prescott kept his cool, as he might while trying to bring his team back from a fourth-quarter deficit.

"I don't know what else you want me to say," he told Garrett. "This is what happened. I'm completely accountable for it. It's not going to happen again."

That was enough.

"He was so mature and matter-of-fact," Garrett said. "He handled it so well. It was a very important part of our evaluation of him."

GREEN BAY, WI - OCTOBER 16: Dak Prescott #4 is congratulated by his head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys after defeating the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on October 16, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Green Ba
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Prescott's maturity also was evident in a dinner later that night with Linehan, Wilson and Cowboys national scout Walter Juliff.

The Old Hickory Steakhouse in the Gaylord Texan Hotel in Grapevine is the kind of place where you can sample wines from around the world, select from a cheese cart with 25 varieties and feast on a $53 "Prime Cowboy Ribeye" covered with tobacco onions and smoked bacon.

It's also the kind of place where you can see through rehearsed responses.

Their talk wandered—the Cowboys offense, what happened in certain games at Mississippi State, growing up in a trailer home in Haughton, Louisiana, his late mother's battle with colon cancer, fishing, favorite sports outside of football, favorite athletes.

The Cowboys still were interviewing Prescott, but he was interviewing them too. This was a conversation.

"He was asking us things, trying to find out what we were about," Linehan said. "He did it in a very respectful way. It seemed like we were talking to this mature, veteran guy. A friend of mine probably said it right: He's an old soul. But then he's a young, vibrant guy."

The Cowboys were starting to suspect that instead of Prescott's character being his drawback, it could be what might make him special. It took time to really understand him, though.

"Sometimes it's hard to judge the character, the football IQ, the nervous system," Jones said. "Until you see it firsthand and touch it, it's hard to understand how rare he is in terms of people skills and leadership qualities."

Mike Woicik is the Cowboys strength coach. He's been coaching in the NFL for 27 years and has six Super Bowl rings, including three from his tenure with Bill Belichick's Patriots. After all this time, he knows how players' minds work as well as how their muscles work.

After the offseason program had concluded, Jones asked Woicik, who had spent a lot of time with the rookies since the draft, which ones stood out to him.

"I'm not saying he's Tom Brady as a football player," Woicik told him. "But Dak has the same type of people skills and leadership skills that Tom has."

As time passed, Prescott's truths continued to be revealed. He would show up to The Ford Center at the Star, the Cowboys' new facility in Frisco, every morning at 6:15. He came to practice with the scripts memorized. Instead of hearing Linehan make the play call in practice, he would stop him after a couple of words so Prescott could call the play all by himself.

He connected with everyone from 14-year veteran tight end Jason Witten to the cafeteria workers. "Romo's team," he kept calling the Cowboys, even as he made it more his own with every pass.

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 09:   (L-R) Dak Prescott #4, quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys talks with injured quarterback Tony Romo #8 prior to the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at AT&T Stadium on October 9, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hi
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

"The thing with him is his makeup just kept coming out—the intangible stuff, the non-box-score-type stuff," said Linehan. "To me, his quarterback makeup is complete."

That DUI charge? It didn't stick. Prescott was acquitted in July. But what did stick is the lesson that powerful intangibles often are more important in quarterback evaluations than youthful indiscretions, throwing motions and system experience.

What makes Prescott special may be what made Brady special. And Russell Wilson. And Drew Brees. And Romo, too. Every one of them was underrated in the draft process.

"I'm really mad at myself," the NFC general manager said. "I went to school and loved Prescott. There was the 'it' factor with him. We had some people in the building who didn't like him. Two of us were really on him, so it wasn't worth the battle. In retrospect, it would have been. I wish I had been more open-minded. I will look at some guys differently this year."

A lot of talent evaluators will. They won't want to make the same mistake again.

          

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.

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