This story appears in the Oct. 17, 2016 edition of Sports Illustrated.Subscribe to the magazine here.
On the Thursdaybefore 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.”
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.
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?”
Best Rookie Quarterback Seasons in NFL History
#10: Peyton Manning (Colts, 1998)
The top pick in the draft out of Tennessee, Manning struggled early in the season, throwing 11 interceptions through the first four games to just three touchdowns. However, he turned his season around and became one of the league's most dynamic passers. Though he led the league in interceptions, he ended up finishing fifth in passing touchdowns and third in yards. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 56.7% comp., 3,739 yards, 26 TDs, 28 INTs, 15 carries, 62 rushing yards.
#9: Jameis Winston (Buccaneers, 2015)
The top pick in the 2015 draft, Winston started poorly with a bad game against Marcus Mariota’s Titans, had a four-pick debacle against Carolina, and then steadied his play to win four of six in midseason, including a five-touchdown-pass masterpiece against the Eagles. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 58.3% comp., 4,042 yards, 22 TDs, 15 INTs, 54 carries, 213 rushing yards, 6 TDs.
#8: Andy Dalton (Bengals, 2011)
Taken in the second round of the 2011 draft, Dalton stepped up to lead the Bengals back to the playoffs in his first season. He quickly established a successful partnership with receiver A.J. Green, who the team took in the first round that year. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 58.1% comp., 3,398 yards, 20 TDs, 13 INTs, 37 carries, 152 rushing yards, 1 TD.
#7: Andrew Luck (Colts, 2012)
Luck was given the tall task of replacing Peyton Manning, but in his first pro season the No. 1 pick lived up to the hype. He wasn't just good throwing the ball, either: He forced teams to respect his ability to run, especially in the redzone. Luck led the Colts to the postseason, where Indianapolis lost in the Wild Card Game to the Ravens. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 54.1% comp., 4,374 yards, 23 TDs, 18 INTs, 62 carries, 255 rushing yards, 5 TDs.
#6: Matt Ryan (Falcons, 2008)
The No. 3 pick in the 2008 draft, Ryan led Atlanta to the playoffs in his first season after the team went 4-12 the year before. He completed 88 passes to Roddy White for 1,382 yards, and was helped out in the backfield by Michael Turner. Ryan's first NFL pass was a 62–yard touchdown. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 61.1% comp., 3,440 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INTs, 55 carries, 104 rushing yards, 1 TD.
#5: Dan Marino (Dolphins, 1983)
The sixth quarterback taken in the first round of the 1983 draft, Marino didn't get the starting job until Week 6. But once he earned the job, the Marino Era officially began in Miami. He went 7-2 as a starter his rookie season. — Rookie Season Stats: 11 GP, 58.4% comp., 2,210 yards, 20 TDs, 6 INTs, 28 carries, 45 rushing yards, 2 TDs.
#4: Russell Wilson (Seahawks, 2012)
Wilson became the steal of the 2012 draft, as the third rounder helped carry the Seahawks into the playoffs. He won the offensive rookie of the year award and made the Pro Bowl. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 64.1% comp., 3,118 yards, 26 TDs, 10 INTs, 94 carries, 489 rushing yards, 4 TDs.
#3: Cam Newton (Panthers, 2011)
The top pick in the 2011 draft, Newton picked up where he left off in college—running all over defenses. The surprise was that he was just as effective through the air, topping the 4,000–yard mark. In his first professional game, the Heisman Trophy winner threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. — Rookie Season Stats: 16 GP, 60.0% comp., 4,051 yards, 21 TDs, 17 INTs, 126 carries, 706 rushing yards, 14 TDs.
#2: Robert Griffin III (Redskins, 2012)
The No. 2 pick and former Heisman Trophy winner had high expectations entering his first season in Washington, but he exceeded them in his rookie year. He led the team to an NFC East title marking Washington's first playoff appearance since the 2007 season, and threw just five interceptions the entire regular season. — Rookie Season Stats: 15 GP, 65.4% comp., 3,200 yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs, 120 carries, 815 rushing yards, 7 TDs.
#1: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers, 2004)
The Steelers drafted Roethlisberger with the 11th pick in the draft, intending to initially deploy him as a backup. But when Tommy Maddox got hurt in Week 2, Roethlisberger was forced into action. All Big Ben did was rattle off 13 straight wins to finish 13-0 as the starter in his first season. The Steelers ended up losing in the AFC Championship. — Rookie Season Stats: 14 GP, 66.4% comp., 2,621 yards, 17 TDs, 11 INTs, 56 carries, 144 rushing yards, 1 TD.