Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Cowboys Rookies Face Ultimate Playoff Test

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 11, 2017

Playoff speed is warp speed, let's keep some perspective on Odell and the huge heart of Warrick Dunn.


1. Dak, Zeke and Playoff Speed

Around the NFL, there is great respect for Dallas rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. There is also an admiration for the Dallas front office that drafted them. 

But this is a different time of year, and those coaches and front-office executives who praised the Cowboys are waiting, almost like children on Christmas Eve, to see how the two rookies handle the playoffs.

"Lots of people are watching to see if they are finally overwhelmed," said one AFC senior team executive.

Finally is the key word. Little has fazed them so far, and I'm not sure anything on the football field will. They are among the smartest and most composed rookies this league has ever seen.

But if there is one thing that can slow a rookie, it's the speed and intensity of postseason play, say players and team executives.

Packers players I spoke to were equally impressed with Prescott and Elliott. But several wondered how the level of postseason play would affect them. To be clear, this wasn't trash talk or an attempt to demean the two players. No, these Green Bay veterans were genuinely curious because they understand the difference between regular-season and postseason speeds the way a pilot knows the difference between Mach 1 and Mach 2.

There are many sayings in football, but only a handful of them are actually true. One of those truths is that there are three speeds in the NFL: preseason speed, regular-season speed and postseason speed.

Prescott and Elliott have done more than fine in two of the three settings, but nothing can really prep them for the third.

Owner Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan's G-Bag Nation (via Mike Fisher of CBS DFW) that the duo's college experience has prepared them for the playoffs. This is wishful thinking. It's also silly. Prescott winning the 2015 Belk Bowl MVP does not prepare him to play the Packers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.

Prescott, in particular, has handled every type of blitz package, scheme and piece of nasty aggression from defenders with skill. But playoff speed is all but impossible to replicate outside of the games. It can't be accounted for with film study or postseason tales from Michael Irvin. Or what happened in a college bowl game. It can only be learned with raw experience.

This isn't groundbreaking news, which is why Prescott should expect Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers to test him. We aren't just talking physical adjustments, but mental. Can Prescott handle new, hyperaggressive defensive schemes and coverages, shifting and moving at warp speed?

Prescott won't be alone in facing a new learning curve. Capers is sure to challenge Elliott as well.

This is nothing new for any playoff rookie. Just last week, we saw Odell Beckham Jr. drop passes and lose his cool in a loss to the Packers. And while many have tried to lay the blame on the now-infamous Miami boat trip Beckham took, players and others I spoke with believe it wasn't the boat that sunk him (sorry), but his difficulty adjusting to a different game speed—playoff game speed.

At least that's a theory going around the league.

Prescott and Elliott are so good, they will probably be fine. More than fine. And that Dallas offensive line can cover for a lot of mistakes and slow even the quickest of playoff defenses.

At least, that's what the Cowboys hope.


2. All Aboard the Rodgers Bandwagon

Another week, another slew of texts, phone calls and spine tingles about how well Aaron Rodgers is playing.

What seems to catch everyone's attention is how Rodgers balances throwing accuracy with athleticism. He can hit his targets from the pocket, after eluding pressure or while on the run.

Many of those I spoke with around the league believe the stretch of football that Rodgers has been playing will go down among the best in history.


3. Alabama Fans Can Rest Easy

One official on a team with a coaching vacancy said he believes "every team with an opening has reached out to Nick Saban."

The result?

"All of us were told to f--k off," said the official, "but in a very polite and respectful manner."

Few in the NFL believe the Alabama head coach will return to a professional football sideline again.


4. NFL Still Taking Concussions Too Lightly

Bud Dupree's hit on Matt Moore was one of the most vicious I've ever seen. It was like something from 1970s football. And the way the Dolphins reacted was like something from the same era. Moore missed very little time.

That's not how the league's concussion protocol is supposed to work. The league's own rules say an examination is supposed to last between eight and 12 minutes. Moore missed one play.

So here we are again, talking about head trauma, and again, wondering if the league follows its own rules.


5. Giants Talk Tough on OBJ

On Monday, Giants general manager Jerry Reese told reporters that wide receiver Odell Beckham needs to grow up. One general manager texted afterward and said Reese needed to state that publicly. Another texted me an emoji with two hands clapping. (There is nothing more dangerous than a grown man, his iPhone and emojis.)

Does Beckham need to grow up? Sure, a little bit. Did he lose the game because he was on a boat in Timberlands and no shirt? Hell no.

Lost in the Beckham kerfuffle is how some of the game's greatest, most historic players did things far worse than Beckham did. Google "Lawrence Taylor" and "handcuffs." Go ahead. Do it. I'll wait.

Taylor was the most destructive, brilliant, stupendous defensive force in the history of football, yet there was also no bigger miscreant.

One of the reasons why I love writing sports books with historical angles is because of how quickly people forget history. Sports fans are among the worst offenders. Great, all-time players got drunk, partied all night and did drugs before games. Some stashed alcohol in their lockers. Debauchery abounded. Then they'd go out and perform.

Beckham didn't err by going to Miami or punching a wall, as Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel reported. Players have partied on off days since there were off days. Entire locker rooms have been trashed by players and coaches alike. Who cares?

But Beckham, so adept at using social media, didn't seem to understand the power of the medium. Allowing teammates to post that picture gave people an excuse to bash him if he didn't play well, and he didn't play well.

Beckham should know better.


6. Jaguars May Be Getting Things Right

Yes, Jacksonville hired Doug Marrone as its new head coach, but the best move the Jaguars made since the end of the season was bringing on Tom Coughlin as executive vice president of football operations. I love this. (Don't @ me, bro.)

The Jaguars have missed having someone high up in the organization who has done a lot of, well, winning. Coughlin won a lot of games there. He then went to New York and won two Super Bowls. Jacksonville needed someone like Coughlin.

The idea of building a "winning culture" isn't just lip service. It's important. Coughlin can help build it in Jacksonville...again.


7. Playing for History

A veteran player called the divisional round "legacy weekend," and I found it was an odd label until I thought about it.

He's right.

This weekend features quarterbacks who can either build on their Hall of Fame careers (Tom Brady, Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Ben Roethlisberger) or begin new legacies (Alex Smith, Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott).

(Brock Osweiler has been so bad this year, he doesn't count for this weekend.)

The most interesting quarterback to watch this weekend is Smith. He still has the rep as a game manager and average player. If he beats Big Ben, and plays a significant role doing so (instead of, say, Spencer Ware dominating the game), Smith could go a long way toward changing the perception around him.


8. Stranger Things in Pittsburgh

The arrest of Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter might be historic in some ways. I can't find anyone who can remember the last time a coach was arrested during the playoffs.

Coaches have been arrested while driving naked at a Wendy's, but who hasn't done that? And regardless, that was a regular-season arrest.

Porter is a highly popular assistant in the Pittsburgh locker room. And while the Steelers may have too much to worry about to let this distract them, this is highly unusual, and the potential effects are unknown.

It sure isn't the kind of news you want when you're starting to prep for a potential trip to the AFC title game.


9. Will the Browns Trade No. 1?

Some team executives I speak to believe the Browns will trade the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, move down, and take North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky. I find this difficult to believe because for my money, Clemson star Deshaun Watson is better than Trubisky by, like, a factor of 1000. Watson is potentially a franchise-changing player.

If the Browns pass on him (and I'm not sure they will) and he becomes special (and he might), and Trubisky becomes Johnny Manziel, it would be another Brownsian mistake in a long list of Brownsian mistakes.

Taking Watson seems like the smartest thing to do, which some of you cynical types might think takes him out of play for Cleveland. But I don't think this Browns regime is like past ones; I think this one knows what it's doing.

At least, I hope so.


10. Warrick Dunn Paid It Forward

I knew Warrick Dunn, the former NFL running back. I never met a kinder, more genuine and tougher person in my life.

When he started his charity, I wrote stories on the lives Dunn changed, providing homes to the financially disadvantaged. You knew he was changing lives forever, but it still was hard to quantify just how much. Now, we have an idea.

Watson was in one of those families, according to Paul Newberry of the Associated Press. Now, he's a national champion, on the verge of making millions in the NFL. And from everything I've heard about Watson, he will help other families the way Dunn helped his.


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.  


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