Chris Canty: Tony Romo could be the next Wally Pipp
1:57 | NFL
Chris Canty: Tony Romo could be the next Wally Pipp
Tuesday October 11th, 2016

This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

On the Thursday before his third NFL start, an eventual 31–17 devastation of the Bears, Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott parked his Escalade in his driveway and entered his three-story, three-bedroom suburban condominium. After an early-bird 5:30 p.m. dinner he faced the type of dilemma familiar to burgeoning NFL stars: Kanye West was playing in downtown Dallas at the American Airlines Center, and one of the few companies Prescott endorses had sent him some sweet seats in Section 105, just left of stage.

Prescott did the math aloud: Kanye will go on after 9. The show will last a few hours, which means getting home after midnight. The decision was clear. He ­offered the tickets to his childhood friend, Cobi Griffin, who declined. So Dak kicked back in a recliner, Cobi sprawled on the couch and the two spent the night flipping between a Texans–Patriots game and Clemson–Georgia Tech. “I wanted to go a little bit,” Prescott said of the concert. “But I just think about the perception of it all. And I love my sleep.”

The 23-year-old Prescott worries like this because he treasures his reality so much. In six dizzying months he has zoomed from fourth-round pick to serendipitous starter to one of the league’s top rookies, orchestrating the second-ranked offense for the 4–1 Cowboys. He has replaced injured starter Tony Romo and backup Kellen Moore with such uncanny composure that he set the rookie record for most passes without an interception. (He’s still at zero, after 155 attempts.) Along the way, his poise has drawn as much praise as his production: 247.8 yards per game, 69.0% completion rate, four passing TDs, three rushing. “It’s like he’s not even a rookie,” says receiver Cole Beasley. “It’s like he’s a five-year vet.”

Dak Prescott is on a roll. Why do the Cowboys want to mess with it?

So how did the eighth quarterback drafted in April—eighth!—develop so quickly that Dallas already feels good about his succeeding Romo? How has the 135th pick outplayed every other QB in his class, including even the Eagles’ Carson Wentz (No. 2)? The answers are scattered throughout Prescott’s condo.

Start with those Kanye tickets—they lie unused on the table. Now head out on the roof deck, from which you can see the Cowboys’ practice facility a couple of miles to the south. Some teammates roll their eyes at the idea of living in Frisco, a strip-malled McSuburb; trendy Uptown is only 30 miles away. But Prescott loves waking up at 6 a.m. and being at work, in the hot tub, by 6:15. “If I don’t hit the traffic light,” he says, “I can be there in two minutes.”

Then there are the walls. While most rookies begin and end their home decorating by purchasing a leather couch and mounting a flat screen, Prescott has framed photos of himself and two of his brothers. He has hung a decorative turtle over the tub and his kitchen features a rotating spice rack that suggests a cut of lumber. In the bathroom next to his man cave hang four inspirational signs, seemingly swiped from a sorority house, that say things like dream a little bigger and go your own way. “Everybody who comes over is like, It looks like you’ve lived here way longer than you have,” he says, flashing a smile of pride. “I’m one of those people—when I start something, I want to have it done within a week.”

Prescott moved into his condo in late June and enlisted his aunt Paige Gilbeaux in a decorating two-minute drill. “I lost 10 pounds helping him,” she jokes. “He worked me to death.” Gilbeaux is a local representative for SportStar Relocation in Houston, and her clients typically give her free rein. Dak was the opposite: After practice he would push the shopping cart through HomeGoods, making sure every purchase had meaning.

Prescott insisted on a prominent clock (the oversized decoration at the top of the first-story staircase), as if he knew his time was coming. The dominant piece in the garage is a framed oversized photo of himself and his late mother, Peggy, who died of colon cancer in 2013. And the last thing Dak sees when he leaves his bedroom is a cross inscribed have faith. 

In the end Prescott and his aunt finished a three-month decorating job in nearly two weeks, an early sign that he operates ahead of schedule.

A few blocks from home Dak Prescott enters Mattito’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant with big screens suspended from the ceiling, and slides into a gaudily patterned booth. He has ordered chips and queso and a water with lemon when a waiter walks by, does a double take and asks, “What’s up, Zeke?” Prescott cracks up. The poor guy has confused him for fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the league in rushing (and by a large margin)—hardly the first time someone has struggled to identify Prescott.

This off-season the Dallas brass prioritized drafting an heir to the 36-year-old (and perpetually injured) Romo, a departure for a franchise that had picked just two QBs—Quincy Carter in 2001 and Stephen McGee in ’09—since 1991. The Cowboys flew in seven potential rookie passers, using nearly a quarter of their 30 allotted predraft visits. Jared Goff, Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Connor Cook and Prescott all came to town. 

After Goff and Wentz were off the draft board Dallas chose Elliott fourth, then furiously tried to trade up for Lynch. When the Broncos snagged the Memphis QB with the 26th choice, owner Jerry Jones said he regretted not making the move. The Cowboys moved on to Cook, but Oakland made a deal to move one slot ahead of them, grabbing him at No. 100. Raiders owner Mark Davis would later josh Jones about how their selection set up Dallas to ultimately draft Prescott, whom they took with a compensatory pick. “Thank God,” Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones says of the confluence of events. 

At Mississippi State, Prescott had been named All-SEC; he was a nominee for the Heisman, Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards; he set single-season school records for total offense, passing yards, passing TDs. He slipped in the draft partly because he had played in a spread offense and because of a DUI ­arrest last March. (He was later found not guilty of the charges.) Dallas’s quarterbacks coach, Wade Wilson, had few questions about the QB’s character, having visited Prescott in Starkville. He left their blue-plate lunch at Restaurant Tyler with a bill too small to expense and a strong impression. “He has an aura and confidence about him,” Wilson says.

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When the 6' 2", 226-pound Prescott made his predraft visit to Dallas, coach Jason Garrett and coordinator Scott Linehan put him through the wringer, harassing him as he diagrammed plays. But little rattled Prescott. “I felt like Dak was enjoying it,” says Linehan, “because it was football.” In the end the Cowboys say they identified Prescott as having the highest football IQ of the seven visiting passers.

At camp he learned the playbook faster than any rookie Wilson has seen in his 10 seasons with Dallas. He eliminated the staggered stance he’d used in the Bulldogs’ shotgun offense, he shortened his stride, and he spent his nights focusing on the transition from a no-huddle offense to one that gathers after almost every play. Prescott’s training camp roommate, rookie tight end Rico Gathers, remembers the QB reading aloud from his practice script in bed, stressing the formation, motion and protection so he could better enunciate them in the huddle. “When he has an area he has to work on,” Garrett says, “he’s very diligent in getting that right.”

Prescott’s first real opportunity to showcase his new game came on Aug. 2, after Moore broke his right fibula in practice. Prescott cringes when he recalls his initial work with the second unit. “The first play I dropped the snap,” he says. “In my head I was like, Did you really just do that?” 

When Prescott met with Mississippi State quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson in the spring before his senior year, he wrote down a simple goal: Master the game. He manipulated his schedule so he could finish his master’s in workforce leadership without much class time, which freed him to pursue an advanced degree in football, with coach Dan Mullen as his professor. Arriving at the Bulldogs’ facility before 8 a.m. every day, he acted in many ways like an extra assistant coach, sitting in on game-planning meetings and earning autonomy at the line of scrimmage. “I had so much freedom,” Prescott says, “that if I didn’t change anything at the line I’d get in trouble.”

Still, a skeptical NFL audience awaited: Some personnel experts still fail to realize that not all spread offenses rely on basic half-field reads. An observant NFL scout would have noticed that Prescott often whipped his head around to see the opposite side of the field after throws. He was peeking at the entire defense, preparation for the next time it showed that look.

Mullen has served as a college coach for three NFL starters—Alex Smith at Utah, Cam Newton at Florida and Prescott—and he chuckles at the notion that all quarterbacks from spread offenses are created equally. “There are a lot of guys who play in pro-style offenses who are not prepared when they come out of college,” he points out. It’s simple: “Either you’re coaching the quarterback to be a quarterback or you’re not.”

“It’s a silly stigma; it’s Neanderthalic,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly says of the NFL execs who remain dubious about QBs from spread offenses. “Do they think they aren’t taught to read a defense? Do they [think they don’t] have quarterback meetings or coaches? Go down the list in the NFL: There are more quarterbacks from spread offenses than pro-style offenses.” 

Playing last year behind a makeshift O-line—Alabama sacked him nine times—Prescott proved spectacular at the unspectacular. He’d check down on first-and-10, hitting his third or fourth read in the flat. But the results should look familiar now to Cowboys fans. He had the third-longest streak of completions without an interception in SEC history (288), he improved his completion percentage from 61.6 to 66.2 and he tossed 29 touchdowns against just five interceptions. “I learned last year that you win at this position by knowledge,” he says, “by being ahead of the defense mentally.”

In a way, everything at Mississippi State prepared Prescott for the events that led him to be the Cowboys’ starting quarterback. (That includes the infamous beating he suffered on spring break, which was captured on a video that went viral—a hard lesson on the drawbacks of fame.) When Romo injured his back in the third preseason game, coaches felt comfortable with Prescott’s grasp of the entire offense. He’d already won over veterans like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten with his no-nonsense approach.

Even when Prescott went out and celebrated a win over the 49ers—­rapper Snoop Dogg posted a video of Prescott and Elliott at a bar on Instagram—he was in the facility by 9 the next morning, watching film. 

For a franchise that named the street leading up to its new $1.5 billion practice complex the Avenue of Champions—but that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1996 (and is 3–8 in playoff games since then)—the matter of quarterback succession is a crucial one. Romo has been a franchise linchpin for a decade; he holds team records in passing yards, TDs and game-winning drives, but not, notably, wins, which is at least partially tied to his missing 29 starts due to injury since 2009. Stephen Jones describes a query into the timing of a succession plan as a “fair question.” (His father, Jerry, walked away from a reporter who asked a similar question on Oct. 9. He later said that Romo “is our No. 1 quarterback.”) Stephen is careful in saying that this is Romo’s team now, but that there’s a crossroads coming. The only question is, When? “[Dak] can develop—and to me the key word is develop—into what you want in a franchise quarterback,” he says.  

Some observers would suggest Prescott is already there. Linehan points to a veteranlike Week 2 play against the Redskins in which the QB used his eyes to bait Washington’s defense into thinking he was running a stop route to Witten. Instead he hit Bryant on a deep cross for a 17-yard gain. Those nuanced moments have built belief.  

In looking forward, Stephen Jones brings up the changing of the guard from Joe Montana to Steve Young in San Francisco, from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. (Romo is due back around Halloween.) “Right now Tony still gives us the best chance to win big games; Dak is only going to get better,” he says. “At some point an intersection is going to happen where we ask, Is it in our best interest to start giving Dak the reps?”

Jerry Jones says Tony Romo remains Cowboys' No. 1 quarterback

Prescott’s rookie contract will pay him nearly $2.7 million over four years. (He’s so conscious of that comparatively limited salary that he provides game tickets only to his father and brothers.) Romo’s dead cap number for 2017, meanwhile, is $19.6 million, which makes it unlikely that Dallas will dramatically change his role anytime soon. But that figure drops to $8.9 million in ’18 and $3.2 million in ’19. Retirement has to be considered a possibility, considering his injury history. “These are all good problems to have,” Stephen Jones says.

Meanwhile, Prescott respects the process, consistently calling the Cowboys “Romo’s team.” On Sunday, after he completed 18 of 24 passes for 227 yards and two total TDs in a 28–14 win over the Bengals, he celebrated at a local steakhouse with a group of 35 friends and family, and then retreated to his condo where he played dominoes and fired up UFC 2 on his PlayStation 4.

Performances like Sunday’s can be traced back to Prescott’s routine. Five days before the Cincinnati game he was settled in his man cave, prone on a massage table. His Tuesday tradition during the season is a 90-minute in-home kneading from masseuse Jennifer Bargman. He acknowledged having seen some of the debate over the team’s quarterback future on TV, “but that’s not my issue to get involved in,” he said. “Yeah, I want to play. But I’m at the beginning of my career. [Tony’s] at the end of his. As long as we’re winning, I don’t care.”

For now he’s settling into the idea that he could be the long-term quarterback solution for the team he grew up following as a kid in Haughton, La. “It’s a dream come true,” he says, as if reading from his bathroom wall, “but it doesn’t feel like I’m dreaming.”

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