FRISCO, Texas – Mark Sanchez remembers seeing punter Steve Weatherford on a training-room table before Sanchez's first playoff game as a rookie quarterback for the New York Jets after the 2009 season.
“Did you ever see ‘I Am Legend,’ the movie? Remember when they capture the zombie guy, and he’s in there breathing superfast?” said Sanchez, now a backup QB for the Dallas Cowboys. “I promise you, he was on the training-room table like that before we took the field.”
Weatherford had a heart condition since high school, but it was never a problem in the NFL until that day.
“I’m walking out there thinking, ‘All right, nothing to be nervous about. Let’s go.’ And I see him having, like, a heart attack,” Sanchez said. “I was like, 'Oh, my God, the punter can’t even handle it. How am I going to handle it? Geez, Louise, we got guys dropping like flies.’ So it was pretty wild.”
The Jets beat the Cincinnati Bengals and would go on to the AFC Championship Game in late January 2010, losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
Sanchez’s memory speaks to what Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott will face when Dallas opens the divisional playoff round against the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants or Detroit Lions on Jan. 15.
A rookie quarterback has never led a team to a Super Bowl, but the Cowboys are relying not only on Prescott, their rookie QB, but also on Elliott, their rookie back who led the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards.
So does playoff experience matter?
“No,” Elliott said, not offering a reason why until prompted.
“Because we’re competitors. That’s what we love to do. We go out there and compete; we’ve done it all season. I mean, we’ve played in big games all season. Every game in this league is a big one. Every time they play the Dallas Cowboys, especially when you’re winning, you’ve got a target on your back, and you’re going to get the team's best. So I think the season has prepared us for this.”
The Cowboys won at Lambeau Field against the Packers with Prescott throwing three touchdown passes and Elliott rushing for 157 yards. They won at Heinz Field against Pittsburgh with Prescott outdueling two-time Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger and Elliott running for 114 yards and scoring three touchdowns. They won against another Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, with Prescott throwing three more touchdowns and Elliott rushing for 97 yards.
“I just think experience is experience. Some guys have some experience; some guys don't,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “My experience in life is you use your experiences to help you with new experiences. For rookies in particular, every experience they have up until this point is the first time they have done it. It was their first rookie minicamp. It was their first OTA. It was their first minicamp. It was their first training camp. On and on and on.
“What you try to do is encourage them to use their experiences up to this point in life. In Zeke's case, playing at Ohio State. In Dak's case, playing at Mississippi State. And use them in your experiences you are about to embark on. I encourage everybody to do that. We all have to do that in life. Some guys are experienced [in] the playoffs. They will use those experiences. Those who aren't will use different experiences.”
Garrett has not told his players -- rookie or otherwise -- what to expect in the playoffs. That would go outside his day-to-day mantra. But players know the intensity grows, just as it grew from the preseason to the regular season, and from nondivision game to division game.
Prescott said he will treat a playoff game the same way he treated a regular-season game.
“I feel like pressure comes from what you put on yourself,” Prescott said. “I have great teammates, great coaches that allow me to just go out there and be myself and play the game of football that I love, and have fun while doing it. So no matter what the game’s for, what the game means, they’ll be around me and allow me to do that.”
Even as the fourth overall, pick Elliott over-delivered as a rookie. As a fourth-round pick, Prescott has wildly exceeded expectations.
They haven’t played a playoff game yet, but they know playoff success matters more than what they accomplished in the regular season.
“It means everything,” Prescott said. “It’s about how you finish, not how you start. At the end of the day, the quarterback position and the team is defined by how they do in the postseason. We’ve got to move forward and get better doing it.”