You Can’t Play Like a Rookie in the Playoffs
On Sunday, Dak Prescott will begin his quest to go where no starting rookie quarterback has gone before: to the Super Bowl. Prescott will become the 22nd rookie QB in NFL history to start a postseason game when his Cowboys take on the Packers. Of the 21 who have gone before him, only two have won more than one playoff game (Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez). Prescott got the best of Aaron Rodgers earlier this season—Dallas won, 30-16, in Week 6—but Rodgers has 15 playoff games, including a Super Bowl title, under his belt. Just how much does experience matter when it comes to the heightened expectations of the postseason? The MMQB sought insight from a panel of quarterbacks who’ve been in Prescott’s shoes: Jim Everett, the former L.A. Rams rookie who lost his first playoff start in 1986; Flacco, the Ravens’ QB who won two as a rookie in 2008; and Sanchez, who won two postseason games in 2009 as a rookie with the Jets. The three quarterbacks spoke to The MMQB about the rookie playoff experience, their advice for Prescott, and whether he might be the rookie to burst the Super Bowl ceiling. Sanchez, now the third-string quarterback in Dallas, also about Prescott as a teammate and leader.
KAHLER: Think back to your first playoff game as a rookie. What is the biggest difference between the postseason and the regular season?
EVERETT (at Washington, 1986 wild-card): Going into my first playoff game, I had the veterans tell me certain things were going to happen or try to explain it to me, but there is no way that any rookie can be prepared for the postseason play and level. First of all, you are playing good teams, the best teams in the NFL. So you know you are going to be in for a bunch of talent, but there is no way that anyone saying, Hey, this game is going to be tougher, will prepare you. I’m not saying guys don’t play hard during the season, but 16 games is a marathon. When you get to a postseason game, every player is all-out like it is their last game ever—they scratch and fight and do whatever it takes to win that one battle, that one play. The veterans would tell me that the intensity level is going up, but there is no way to know it until you actually go out there. That’s the biggest difference between regular-season play and postseason play, the level of intensity.
SANCHEZ (at Cincinnati, 2009 wild-card): We had just played Cincinnati the week before, it was the last game at the Meadowlands, the old stadium... If we won, we made the playoffs and we had to play them at their place. It was freezing cold and we came out like gangbusters, we ran the ball so well, had some timely shots down the field, played really well and blew them out. They took their starters out around halftime, maybe even earlier. So we knew going into that next week that it was going to be a dogfight at their place, a quick turnaround and a quick rematch. We had to play smart football, establish a strong run game, get me out on the move. I knew that was going to be the plan and we had an awesome week of practice. That's the most important thing that I can relate to Dak now—there’s nothing that changes in the postseason. The game is the exact same game. There are a lot of things on the outside that are going to change: the amount of media coverage, the amount of people that you have to talk to this week in a press conference, all the regional media people are going to be there. So don’t be surprised when they show up. It will feel maybe a little bit different from other people’s perspective and everybody can say, Wow, what a big game, but it is really the same game. You prepare on Monday through Saturday and go out and cut it loose because you prepared so hard. You work your butt off and go enjoy the process as well. Dak has a great mindset and he’s had a good week so far.
FLACCO: (at Miami, 2008 wild-card): It's definitely a lot of excitement around the game and a lot of buildup, but at the end of the day it's all about going out there, taking it one play at a time, doing your job and playing good football. Once the game starts the atmosphere tends to go away a little bit, except for certain spots in the game. We had gone down to Miami and played earlier in the year, so I think that helped out a little bit. Like I said, I think after being in games like that ... I didn't know it going in, but you just go in there and do your job and it becomes a pretty normal game once the whistle blows. I don't think I was [any more nervous than usual]. We won 11 games that year and I played 16 games. It was a big accomplishment to get into the playoffs at that point, so I would say I was probably a little bit more confident than my first start or my first couple starts.
KAHLER: Do you remember a certain instance when you realized the postseason was indeed another level of intensity?
EVERETT: I went out with an injury right before half, I remember the pass rush was so intense that I actually hyperextended my left knee. They were relentless. At the time, low hits to the quarterback were legal. I took one of those and I threw the ball and wasn’t expecting those types of things. Nowadays, of course, that would have been a penalty. But in those days, it was those borderline—I wouldn’t say cheap shots—but if they can take advantage of anything, they would. I specifically remember during the game, Eric Dickerson breaking one open and getting pulled down from behind, which was rare for Eric. We joked about that with him throughout his career. Those little things. I remember the injury and doing the X-rays and being out of the game for some time. That was one of the first injuries I had in the NFL. It was one of those borderline-type plays, like holy cow, but the thing is they are doing anything they can to win. That is the mindset that you are in, you have to play on that edge.
SANCHEZ: In the locker room before the game our punter, Steve Weatherford, he had a cardiac issue. It wasn’t a heart attack, but I remember walking out to pregame warm-ups and he was in the training room and he was on the table. Have you ever seen the movie, I Am Legend? Remember when they captured one of those zombies and he was on the table freaking out and breathing super heavy? That’s what Steve Weatherford was doing. People said, Oh, it’s just the punter. And I said, Well, he’s our punter! I’m like, Holy crap! Our punter can’t even handle the playoffs, how am I going to handle the playoffs? He almost has a heart attack before the game, this is insane! Jay Feely punted instead of him, and I remember thinking before the game, If this guy can’t even handle it, what am I going to do? You feel the intensity ramp up when you are playing and guys understand that there are some big implications. [Ed. note: Weatherford suffered from an irregular heartbeat that day, a condition he’d had since high school. He recently underwent an operation to prevent abnormal heart rhythms.] It’s not just winning and losing and pride, but there is a certain monetary component to it as well. All these guys who are playing, it’s not for a couple bucks. It’s thousands of dollars. It’s real money and it’s not a part of people’s contracts, so all that stuff plays into it.
KAHLER: Of the 21 rookie quarterbacks who have started a postseason game, only nine have won a game. What are the specific challenges that a rookie quarterback faces at this next level?
EVERETT: Of that breakdown, I would also look at many of those rookie quarterbacks were at home and how many were on the road. I’d like to see that breakdown. Not only is there a difference in the level of intensity that happened within the players, but you are walking into an atmosphere on the road where you can’t hear yourself think. It can get so loud, the fans are really into it. It’s not like you are at a theater and getting golf claps. It’s all about your communication, and that’s where I think the veteran quarterback has an advantage, because he has been there before and knows what to expect as far as how to communicate with your receivers and what your signals are. All of that comes with experience and time and knowledge. A rookie quarterback obviously doesn’t have those things. It’s a little bit of a disadvantage, and I know there is a way you can prepare for those things, but having a kid that comes in with ice running through their veins, that is basically what you need—and to have the communication skills to say, Hey, I see the blitz coming, I need to run a slant, I need a hot read.
FLACCO: The challenges are the same challenges that everybody else faces. You're playing against the five other best teams in the conference. I think that's the biggest challenge, the fact that you're playing against good teams, and if you want to get to the Super Bowl you have to be able to do it for three or four weeks in a row.
KAHLER: What advice would you give to Prescott?
EVERETT: My advice to Dak would be do what you do, stay calm, know what you need to do. I don’t think the sound issue is going to be an issue. The intensity level will be. Don’t be baited into doing something that you don’t do. They are going to try to force Dak with pressures and all sorts of stuff. I’m sure they are going to try to confuse him and make things difficult. Just do what you do. Don’t play outside yourself, don’t try to do too much. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t try to turn into Superman just because you are in the spotlight... I watched Dak in the preseason at the L.A. Coliseum. The kid was on fire. He was just playing ball, doing what he did, not doing too much. And when he didn’t understand it, he ran. He had that ability to make positive things happen. He has a good football IQ. He is not making dumb mistakes or rookie mistakes and killing the team. That’s usually what you see, some of the other young quarterbacks would make those decisions, but he didn’t. He would just use his speed to turn nothing into something.
FLACCO: I would just say to go out there and continue to do what you've been doing. Take it one play at a time. You don't have to do anything more than what you've been doing. Just be you. Lean on Tony [Romo] a little bit. He's been in some games and he's won some and lost some. I'm sure he has a bunch of support.
KAHLER: Mark, you see Dak every day. Have you given him any advice this week? Have the two of you talked about your success as a rookie in the postseason?
SANCHEZ: The most important thing is that we don’t talk about it. If you’re going to say that [the playoffs] are the same thing, then you can’t keep saying it’s the playoffs and win or go home. You can’t use all those stupid clichés. You use the same stuff that has been working all year. This is the most important thing going on. Today’s practice was third down. How prepared can you be for today’s practice? How well are you going to work? How are you going to lead, what is your body language going to be like today? You can’t worry about Sunday yet. There should be a crescendo that leads up to Sunday. I’ve heard coaches say you don’t want to peak too soon, but you also don’t want to forget to peak. Dak will hit that right time where he’ll be ready to go and he is just kind of jumping out of his skin ready to play and get this going. You can see that in his demeanor, and by the time Sunday comes around, he’s loose and smiling and ready to go because he is so prepared. Part of that too is that you are kinda stuck in that rookie bubble. You don’t know what you don’t know. You can’t fathom or comprehend that experience, so why worry about it? Don’t put anything on his plate that he doesn’t need to know. There is no extra this or that. Who cares, it is irrelevant. Eventually he will be able to handle all those things, but right now, why even mess with it? There is no difference in my approach to this week with him.There’s nothing that I am saying that is different than anything that we have done during the season. Footwork, reads, getting completions at the right time, understanding the situation. When you come to the sideline for timeouts, it’s the little stuff like that that you remember. Those little nuggets don’t change depending on the game, it doesn’t matter if it is a preseason game or a scrimmage, those things carry over.
KAHLER: Mark, you defeated two veteran quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Philip Rivers, as a rookie in the postseason. Since then, rookie quarterbacks are 0-4 in playoff games when going up against a veteran starter. What kind of an edge do the vets have over the rookies?
SANCHEZ: I guess the experience and knowing what to expect, but there is also that ignorance and bliss argument too, like we talked about before. There is an argument to be made both ways. Usually home teams win in the playoffs, and usually experienced quarterbacks win in the playoffs. For me, we went on the road and won two games as a rookie and then won two games in my second year on the road, and those championship games were down to the wire. That was a pretty special time. In my third year, I’m like, We’ve been to this championship game two damn times already and we’re definitely going to the Super Bowl next year. But it doesn’t work like that, it’s a whole new deal every year and you start 0-0. It doesn’t feel like that though, when that’s all you’ve known, those first two years of success. It makes sense that more veterans have won games like that. But the bottom line is how well we play. We are facing a great opponent [this weekend], and a really good veteran quarterback, not just a guy who has been around for a while. He’s been in big games and won big games. It’s going to be a big competition for our defense and I know they are up for the challenge.
KAHLER: An argument for the Packers winning is this—if Aaron Rodgers builds a quick lead, it could add pressure because Prescott hasn’t had much experience playing from behind. He’s thrown 16 passes all season trailing by nine or more points.
EVERETT: If they get down 14-0, that is going to put them into a place that they haven’t been. That’s going to be the question mark. Just chill. Be yourself. A negative play is not bad, turnovers are. Play within yourself. The positive thing about that is that they are playing at home and it is not going to be total chaos. It will be more so for Aaron [Rodgers], but their communication skills are great and able to play wherever. At least Dak is in the friendly confines
KAHLER: Mark, what is your best Dak Prescott story?
SANCHEZ: Dak actually just walked by and asked me what style of headphones I want, he’s doing something with Beats headphones. He’s just that kind of kid. He doesn’t know who I am on the phone with, he’s just like, What style do you want? This or that? What size, this or that? He got everybody on the team Ugg slippers, not like the ones you see girls wear with the yoga pants, but the real slippers. He is doing all the right things. He’s a good kid and I think that is why everybody wants to make big plays for him, because they see his dedication and how he cares about people and the game. I like the headphones deal. He has just done well with any sponsorship stuff, making sure other guys are involved. He could give headphones to anybody, he can do whatever, but he has always done team stuff. He has always been a team guy, he’s not a ‘Me and the Cowboys’ kind of guy. He’s more like, ‘It’s the Cowboys, and I play quarterback for them.’ Guys can really appreciate that. He is such a competitor and such a good kid. The best story of him playing was in the Green Bay game this regular season when he threw his first interception. Talk about not flinching, this guy didn’t even budge or bat an eye. It was so impressive to see that. I remember talking to him on the sideline and saying, ‘This is your first taste of adversity, and I know what you are going to do, I just want you to show all these people on the sidelines and this entire stadium and everyone watching around the world what you are going to do. You’re going to go out and you are going to get your first completion, I know that. And then we are going to go down and score. I just know that, I just know how you play and I know how you operate. I know how competitive you are. So go do it, go show what I already know.’ You could see it in his face how determined he was to get back out there and get the ball again. He doesn’t shy away from that kind of stuff. You have to have that at this level. You can’t teach that kind of stuff. You either have that or you don’t. It was so cool to see. He’s a total team guy. He’s fun to be around, he loves to smile, loves to laugh with the guys. He’s one of the guys, but he is also the quarterback. It’s not easy to do that and navigate that, especially as a rookie. I think he just lets his instincts take over and he has great instincts.
KAHLER: No rookie quarterback has ever started in a Super Bowl. Do you think this is the year for Prescott to be the guy that breaks through?
EVERETT: He has answered all the other critics during the regular season. A lot of people didn’t think he could. A lot of teams passed him up those first three rounds to even be their quarterback. There has been some doubting Thomases. I don’t know… I think history is going to be against him. I don’t know, he is not going to be facing the Cleveland Browns. Defensive coordinators are going to be challenging him every possible way, and if he can make it through this, well then by golly, he will be the best rookie quarterback ever. The odds are against him, but he’s already answered a lot of critics. Who would have thought, two rookies, a quarterback and a running back, could do this? They might defy all odds.
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