Dak Prescott Can Learn a Lot from Great Rookie Quarterbacks of the Past

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 22, 2016

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 20:  Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys walks off the field after a 27-17 win against the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It's easy to see a little of Tom Brady in Dak Prescott. Like Brady before him, Prescott replaced an injured big-name veteran and promptly stapled him to the bench, reinvigorating his franchise with an unanticipated playoff run that, in Brady's case, has lasted 15 years.

Brady, like Prescott, was unheralded and physically unimposing, starting out as a humble product of the system before redefining, perfecting and eventually transcending the system.

Brady was a second-year pro, not a rookie, when he took over the Patriots. He was not as pedigreed a collegiate prospect as Prescott. His first-season statistics and regular-season accomplishments were no match for what Prescott has done so far. So when you think about it, Prescott is an even better version of Tom Brady who should win six or seven Super Bowls in the next decade.

That, as they say, escalated quickly. Let's downshift for a moment.

A Prescott-Russell Wilson comparison is obvious: overlooked prospects with ordinary measurables but extraordinary intangibles, mid-round picks of whom little was expected, wise-beyond-their-years young decision-makers who never played like rookies. Wilson endured a rough patch midway through his rookie season, but Prescott appears immune to rough patches. So it stands to reason that the Cowboys will win at least one Super Bowl, next year if not this year, and dominate the NFC for years to come.

Oops. Got carried away again. Let's start over.

Prescott doesn't quite resemble the rookie Ben Roethlisberger, though there are some key similarities. Big Ben left college as a giant, raw, bazooka-armed small-school product, resembling more of a Carson Wentz than the SEC-seasoned, midsized Prescott. But the results were similar. Roethlisberger led the Steelers to a 13-0 record as a starter in his rookie season.

The circumstances were also similar: Roethlisberger led a roster populated by Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Alan Faneca and many others. The 2004 Steelers may end up sending five or six players to the Hall of Fame, including Roethlisberger.

PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 7:  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers drops back to pass against the Philadelphia Eagles during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2004 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Eagles 27-3
Harry How/Getty Images

Maybe we will look back at the 2016 Cowboys and see a half-dozen Hall of Famers. But that would be getting ahead of ourselves yet again. It's the circumstances that matter. The Steelers were coming off a poor year when they drafted Roethlisberger, but they were a successful, stable organization not long removed from the playoffs, and there was talent all over the roster.

Wilson's 2012 Seahawks and Brady's 2001 Patriots were broadly similar. Both teams were a few years removed from playoff glory but still talented and well-run, renovating instead of rebuilding. The rookies joined talented rosters, just as Prescott has joined Jason Witten, Ezekiel Elliott, Dez Bryant and the Ploughboys of the offensive line. They were never asked to be saviors; they were anointed post-ipso facto.

Oh, that's where this is going. It's the Prescott is just propped up by his supporting cast angle. He's nothing special, just a lucky kid who landed in a good spot. And Wilson is just some scrambler with a great defense, while Brady would be nothing without Bill Belichick and cheating, or something.

We're having a hard time modulating the message here. Perhaps other examples will help.

Prescott is like Andy Dalton in many ways.

BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 20:  Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals scrambles against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Bengals 31-24. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
Larry French/Getty Images

Wait. Timeout. Andy Dalton?

Yes, Andy Dalton, who led the Bengals to the playoffs as a rookie and has thrown for more than 20,000 yards and 135 touchdowns in six seasons. Dalton, like Prescott, was an accomplished college starter in a major conference, highly rated on NFL readiness but with medium, at best, athletic sizzle. He was passed over in the first round as teams chased a scrum of bigger, stronger, faster prospects. Dalton also rendered his team's veteran incumbent obsolete. Dalton's rookie statistics don't leap off the page, but his playing styleball distribution, early mastery of the playbook, heady, well-timed scramblingscreams Prescott.

Dalton also inherited a favorable situation: The Bengals were stable, well-coached and talented on both sides of the ball. Maybe Dalton is Prescott's floor, the Brady-Roethlisberger crowd his ceiling. The Cowboys will take a string of 10- to 11-win seasons as a "downside."

Or maybe Dalton is the middle path for a position at which early success carries a lot of risk.

Take a long look at Robert Griffin III's rookie statistics: 20 touchdowns, five interceptions, a 102.4 passer rating. They are the only rookie numbers that look anything like Prescott's current 17-2 touchdown-interception ratio and 108.6 rating. Griffin and Alfred Morris were the Prescott and Elliott of 2012, the rookies poised to alter the balance of power in the NFC East for a decade.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 23: Robert Griffin III #10 of the Washington Redskins celebrates after Josh Morgan #15 scored a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first half at Lincoln Financial Field on December 23, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pe
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Griffin's physical gifts were on a different plane of existence from Prescott's. As for his mental, intangible qualities, try to recall what was said and thought about Griffin in 2012. The man's garbage cans smelled like scented candles in those long-forgotten days.

A knee injury derailed Griffin's momentum, but fame, expectations, hype and intrigue drove his career off the train trestle. Fame brings pressure and temptation, the potential for complacency, arrogance or pride. The successful young person must choose the straight-and-narrow or risk being consumed by the glamour of being hailed as a "superhuman" whose socks make headlines. It's a story as old as storytelling, give or take the socks.

Attributing part of a rookie quarterback's success to his team or coaches sounds like a slight. Better to rave about the magical personal characteristics, the "it" factor that sets him apart. The problem is the magical stuff is hogwash, and the hype is potentially damaging. If Prescott obliges, we'll make him a hero, and then we'll profit from the backlash when he falters. And if that happens, then we'll market the redemption angle.

Prescott is not merely a "product of the system" either. Arguing chicken-versus-egg or imagining what would happen if Prescott were on the Rams or Browns is missing the point by as wide a margin as polishing his Canton bust after 10 starts.

ARLINGTON, TX - NOVEMBER 20:   Dak Prescott #4 hands off to Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys during the second half against the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Look again at Brady, Roethlisberger and Wilson. Prescott is being made into a great quarterback in exactly the way great quarterbacks are made. The opportunity, coaches and supporting cast are always factored into the equation. That doesn't mean Prescott is guaranteed anything. It just means that ideal results often come from ideal conditions. Of course, Prescott's Cowboys wouldn't be 9-1 with the Jaguars offensive line or Rams coaching staff. That will be irrelevant in three years if Prescott keeps seizing the opportunity he has been granted.  

All Prescott has to do to achieve greatnesslong-term greatness, not rookie-sensation greatnessis keep using the resources at his disposal to grow and develop while simultaneously helping the Cowboys win.

All we have to do as fans and media is keep our feet on both the sensationalism and backlash brakes. Let's enjoy Prescott's journey instead of rushing him to his destination. Because once he is there, we'll inevitably sweep him away for the next come-from-nowhere story.

Tony Romo began his career as an unheralded youngster who unseated an established veteran. Romo threw five touchdown passes on Thanksgiving Day 10 years ago. The hype surrounding the Next Great Cowboys Quarterback was instantly deafening.

Romo turned out to be pretty great, but his fame took on a life of its own. It wasn't long before doubts about everything from his big-game gumption to his personal life latched onto him and stuck for good. Most quarterback sagas end that way, even the ones that last for dozens of wins and hundreds of touchdowns.

Prescott is aiming to achieve more than Romo did. It's easy to compare him to the quarterbacks who did so. But it's for the best if we hold back on the comparisons for a while and just let the rookie play more football.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.


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