ARLINGTON, Texas -- Roger Staubach had made a lot of smart reads in his Hall of Fame prime, and so on the phone one day during Dak Prescott's rookie season, his scouting report on Tony Romo's replacement sounded as credible as they come. Staubach praised Prescott's decision-making, his precision with the ball and his ability -- at age 23 -- to command the respect of his Dallas Cowboys teammates.
"I think we've got a wonderful quarterback for the future," Staubach said that day.
Wonderful? Two seasons later, it sort of depends on your definition of the word. Prescott had won two-thirds of his regular-season starts, or more than any quarterback in that period not named Tom Brady, and had led the Cowboys to two division titles. He also threw for three touchdown passes and more than 300 yards in his one playoff game, a loss to Green Bay defined by an Aaron Rodgers throw that even the great Staubach couldn't have made.
But in this pro-football day and age of video-game numbers, Prescott isn't most fans' idea of wonderful. Patrick Mahomes? Now that's more like it. Mahomes threw 50 touchdown passes for Kansas City this season, more than double the number Prescott threw for Dallas.
So the fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State will need to validate his standing as a long-term franchise-quarterback-to-be a different way. Like the way he did it against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday night, when the 235-pound Prescott showed complete disregard for his body and the fact that Russell Wilson entered AT&T Stadium as the better, more established player.
"He took it on his shoulders," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said.
Prescott went head over heels and landed on his shoulders in the process.
"He's a grown-ass man," Ezekiel Elliott said. "That's what it is. That's how he played today."
And that's why the Cowboys nailed down only their fourth playoff victory in the 23 years since they won their fifth Super Bowl title. Down 14-10 in the fourth quarter at the Seattle 10, Prescott reviewed the Seahawks' formation, walked up to the line and shouted the call to his teammates, and then kept the ball on a run that was initially ruled a touchdown before it was spotted 1 foot short of the end zone on review. Elliott, who would have 30 touches in this game, took care of the rest.
In the final minutes, facing a third-and-14 at the Seattle 17, Prescott again kept the ball and barreled up the middle of the field before he was clipped at the shins and sent into a frightening, airborne flip that had him crash-landing just before the goal line. The acrobatics made John Elway's helicopter ride in a bygone Super Bowl look tame by comparison. No, Prescott wasn't about to hand off again to Elliott. He took the next snap over right guard and effectively sealed the victory with 2:08 to play.
"He's just a rare guy," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who now has to get his team ready for either the New Orleans Saints or Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round. "His leadership, his toughness, just his way. His spirit, it's like none other. Somehow, some way, he was going to figure this thing out for us."
Garrett desperately needed to win this game, of course, and so did his boss, Jones. Dak Prescott needed it, too, and not because he is eligible for a big-bucks extension this offseason. Prescott needed to prove he could win a playoff game before he could ever persuade anyone that he was good enough to someday win a Super Bowl or two.
He threw a picture-perfect touchdown pass to a covered Michael Gallup in the second quarter, and he finished with a respectable stat line -- 22-of-33 for 226 yards and an interception in the end zone off a deflection that probably should've drawn a pass-interference call. But Prescott won't often dazzle and defeat strong opponents with numbers. Despite what he did to the defenseless Giants last Sunday (387 yards, four touchdowns, the decisive two-point conversion pass), Prescott is more likely to keep winning the way he has been winning all along.
Namely, by being a resourceful opportunist who can destroy defenses too fixated on out-wrestling the great Dallas line to get to the great Dallas back, Elliott.
"He had a very physical game," Jones said of Prescott. "I thought he played an outstanding game, not only just ... winning the game, but basically taking what was given him. And then, I thought when we stepped up and said, 'We've got to open it up and throw the ball,' I thought he was up to the task."
About a half-hour after this 24-22 victory was complete, former Dallas star Calvin Hill was standing in the middle of the locker room comparing Prescott's style to the playmaking approach used by Elway and Hill's former teammate, Staubach. "Roger wasn't as physical as Dak; he was more of a finesse runner," Hill said. "Those two runs Dak made to the goal line were sensational. I think he's a winner and just a mentally tough guy."
This was no easy test for Prescott and teammates, especially after Allen Hurns suffered a gruesome leg injury in the first quarter. The Seahawks had beaten the Cowboys in September, and their quarterback had seven winning regular seasons in seven tries behind him. Wilson entered the building as a Super Bowl winner with more postseason victories (eight) than all but four active quarterbacks.
Prescott made it work anyway, and afterward Elliott described him as legendary.
"I'm in a young career," Prescott said. "I'm three years in. For him to say that, I may have to tell him to not say that again, or to wait until later. ... It's a hell of a compliment."
And frankly, one that's a little off base. To be legendary in the NFL, you have to win multiple championships. On the way to living up to Elliott's chosen word, Prescott still has to get to Staubach's chosen word, "wonderful."
If the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys didn't land there Saturday night, he's now closer than he has ever been.