ARLINGTON, Texas -- The patriarch of one of America's great sports families, Calvin Hill, was standing outside the Dallas Cowboys locker room shaking his head in wonderment. He was comparing the rookie quarterback Dak Prescott to the 1971 version of Hill's old teammate, Roger Staubach, who won a Super Bowl that season after taking over as Tom Landry's guy.
"Roger was 29," said Hill, a four-time Pro Bowl running back, "and this kid is 23. Roger wasn't ready to play continually in his first year [in 1969]. Dak? I'm amazed at this young guy, amazed at his presence in the pocket."
Amazed at Prescott's ability to make something out of nothing against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, when the quarterback spun left out of trouble in overtime and found a wide open Jason Witten in the end zone for the Cowboys' sixth consecutive victory.
"Dak reminds me of Roger in terms of being able to extend the play," Hill said, "but he also reminds me some of [Tom] Brady in how he manages the game. I don't think Dak managed it well tonight, but [Jim] Schwartz is a really good defensive coordinator for Philadelphia. That front put so much pressure on Dak and yet he never lost his composure."
For a change, Prescott didn't play a clean ballgame. He made some throws against Philly that, frankly, looked like fourth-round throws. But this is good news for Dallas, and maybe even better news for the NFL. The Cowboys won even when Prescott walked into AT&T Stadium with his B-minus game, which means the Cowboys are for real as a Super Bowl contender.
And when the Dallas Cowboys are in the championship mix, the league benefits in a big way.
"It's like the Yankees," Hill said. "There's so much passion around the country for and against them. The Cowboys are back, we have two young stars in Dak and Ezekiel Elliott, and that's good for the National Football League."
Of course Hill is biased. He put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in the franchise's America's Team era, and he works as a Cowboys consultant in player development. But as the father of Grant, a two-time national basketball champ at Duke who lost his near-certain place among the NBA's all-time greats to injury, Hill knows a thing or three about winners, and how much sports needs marquee programs like the Blue Devils, the Yankees, and the Cowboys.
Hill was a student at Yale in the '60s when the Cowboys first started to win, when he would join his classmates in front of a frat house TV to watch Don Meredith and Bob Hayes. "Looking for Bullet Bob to catch a bomb," Hill said.
Those were the days, my friend. Into the '70s, football fans up and down the Eastern Seaboard would wait breathlessly for lesser 1 p.m. games to end to watch the Dallas Cowboys in the 4 p.m. national game or, better yet, the marquee game on Monday night.
"Now you've got NFL games on all the time," Hill said through a sigh. "Thursday night, Sunday, Sunday night, Monday night, and sometimes you have teams in these night games that nobody really follows except their own fans. We used to have national teams. The Redskins of George Allen and Joe Gibbs. Landry's Cowboys. It's been a long time for the Cowboys, but having a national team back is good for the sport."
The sport needs it now like never before. Ratings are down and uninspiring play is up. Peyton Manning has left the building, Aaron Rodgers isn't winning big, Russell Wilson isn't running, and Cam Newton and Andrew Luck are losing. Brady and the New England Patriots could use a little help, you know. They can't carry this business on their shoulder pads forever.
The Cowboys are arriving in the nick of time. They haven't won the big one in two decades; in fact, they've only won three playoff games in that period. But now they have a monster offensive line and a rookie running back, Elliott, who summons the memories of the signature Dallas backs before him, the likes of Hill, Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith.
They have Dez Bryant, who returned from injury Sunday night to catch the tying 22-yard touchdown pass from Prescott late in the fourth quarter and to finish with 113 big-play yards on four catches. They have old man Witten, who wasn't a factor against the Eagles until he needed to be in overtime.
They have the 135th player chosen in April's draft, Prescott, who did enough to beat the No. 2 player chosen in the draft, Carson Wentz. Prescott was smacked around by Philly before he reminded everyone why he should keep Tony Romo on the bench even when Romo's healthy enough to play.
In a recent conversation with ESPN The Magazine, the Dallas coach who started Romo in 2006, Bill Parcells, described the calls for Prescott to become the permanent starter "a rush to judgment." The Hall of Fame coach explained that a half-dozen games represented a painfully small sample size, and that Prescott first needed to stare down a late deficit, some real adversity.
"He hasn't thrown four interceptions yet," Parcells said, "and then had the press and the fans getting restless and the players looking at him sideways, and maybe his nose is broken too. That's when you find out about a quarterback."
Prescott survived his brutal end-zone interception near the end of the first half, and needed a 30-yard run by Chris Jones, the Dallas punter, of all people, to get through the night.
But the great ones -- or the great ones-to-be -- find ways to score more points than the other guys one way or another. When this 29-23 victory was complete, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called it "one of the best wins I've ever been a part of" and declared Prescott the starter for the next game against Cleveland.
"I know that Romo can make chicken salad out of chicken whatever," Jones said, "but so can Dak."
Calvin Hill, always cutting a dignified figure, put it like this:
"I think we're learning how to win."
The Dallas Cowboys are back in business, which is always good for the business of the NFL.