FRISCO, Texas -- To his right, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott saw a blur of blue jerseys as pass-rushers closed. His path to the left was also blocked, but he quickly stepped to a vacant middle. Eyes up, two hands on the ball, he turned his hips just so and let go of the football for a completion.
In his first five seasons with the Cowboys, this play from his first full practice on Aug. 25 was one Prescott has made hundreds of times. Going back to his days in Haughton, Louisiana, it is maybe one he has made thousands of times.
It was instinctive, like he never had a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle during a Week 5 game that ended his 2020 season. It was awareness, like he never had a latissimus strain in his right shoulder that prevented him from taking part in the majority of training camp and all four preseason games.
"Just kind of reactive, saw the throw, saw I needed to make it at that time and let it go," Prescott said. "At that point I knew ... That was maybe 100 or 100 plus percent that I used my arm and nothing came from it. Yeah, that was definitely one of the few plays that after the play happened, and after watching it back on film you say, 'Yeah, I'm ready. I'm good to go.'"
Dallas opens its season Thursday against the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). Prescott is the centerpiece to the Cowboys' success in 2021, but this will be his first game in 340 days, and it leads to the most obvious question:
Will Dak be Dak?
The Cowboys have no doubt.
"Why is that? I think just the way he prepares, the way he carries himself, the work he puts in," Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said.
"He's ready to roll," said Dallas right guard Zack Martin, whose absence Thursday could greatly affect Prescott's play. Martin tested positive for coronavirus and was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
It is impossible to know with certainty, of course, but Prescott says he has done all he could do physically and mentally. He is well aware of the returns of previous injured quarterbacks: Tom Brady in 2009 from a knee injury, Peyton Manning in 2012 from a neck injury, Andrew Luck in 2016 from a shoulder injury and Alex Smith from a leg injury in 2018.
Brady, playing for the New England Patriots, had 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions after missing 15 games the previous season. Manning threw 37 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions in his first season with the Denver Broncos. Luck, who played six seasons for the Indianapolis Colts, had 31 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions in his return.
"When you're at this position and you want to be great, you study what greats do. All of those guys you named answered their challenge, their personal challenge, their personal adversities, and they beat them," Prescott said. "On top of that, they kept going. They didn't sit there and boast on that proud moment of, 'Hey, I came back from that.' But yet, they wanted more and they wanted more. That's, I feel like, who I am and part of the personality I've tried to create through this whole challenge."
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Smith's story resonates the most with Prescott because of the similarities of their injuries, however, Smith nearly lost his leg because of serious infections that arose after surgery. It's an issue Prescott never had to face.
Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who had 17 surgeries before attempting his comeback in 2020, had six touchdown passes and eight interceptions and led the Washington Football Team to a 5-1 record in his six starts. Washington likely would not have won the NFC East last season without Smith.
Brady was 32 when he returned from his knee injury in 2009, and Prescott is 28. Since that season, Brady, now 44, has missed four games in the past 12 years, a remarkable run as he enters his 22nd NFL season.
"We kind of feel invincible at times, especially playing a really physical sport. I think the one thing about getting injured is that we're not invincible," Brady said this week.
"You have a different perspective when you come back. Sometimes, you're really disappointed when you lose games. It's more disappointing when you don't get to play in games. I'd rather play and lose than not play at all, as crazy as that sounds. If you're not playing, then it means you're at home and I remember that was a tough year just sitting and watching all my teammates. I made a pretty conscious decision that I was going to do everything I could at that point to stay as healthy as I could my entire career."
Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, whom Prescott replaced because of a back injury in 2016, knows the difficulties of returning from injury.
"That's going to be something that, can he overcome it? Sure. It might be a drive or two," Romo said of Prescott recently on an NFL on CBS conference call. "... I do think there will be a slight adjustment when the plays are difficult and everything doesn't go perfect. I think when you've played a little bit, that speed, it's hard to duplicate. But I think Dak will be fine. It's just a period of time trusting himself and slowly getting back."
'He doesn't slow down'
In order to understand why the Cowboys believe Prescott will be the next quarterback to return successfully, you have to know the path he took to get to this point and why doubt has never creeped into Prescott's mind.
Why would it? He has dealt with personal tragedies, including losing his mother, Peggy, to cancer while in college, and his brother, Jace, to suicide in 2020, with a maturity that defies his age.
Prescott was not a highly sought after recruit in high school, but he had a decorated career at Mississippi State, leading the school to its first No. 1 ranking in both college football polls in 2014. He was a fourth-round draft pick in 2016 and has the number 135 tattooed on his right wrist, signifying his draft status, but he has started every pro game he has played.
"He's the same guy every day," Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said. "It's so important that you have that from your leader -- not only to be successful, but to stay successful."
Prescott is 42-27 as the Cowboys' starter. He has been named to the Pro Bowl twice and could move inside the top five in team history in passing yards (17,634) and touchdown passes (106), provided he has a healthy season in 2021. He has directed the Cowboys to the playoffs twice in his four full seasons, but what everybody remembers is his most recent game.
It was a beautiful October day against the New York Giants with the sun gleaming through the AT&T Stadium doors. On first down from the New York 27-yard line, Prescott took the snap from Tyler Biadasz and quickly looked right to get the defense to think he was throwing a swing pass.
All along, however, it was a designed quarterback run. He was not touched for the first five yards and eluded a Giants defender for more yardage as he moved to his left.
Giants safety Logan Ryan closed in on Prescott, but the quarterback threw his right hand into Ryan's helmet, pushing him down. As Ryan fell, his right leg pinned Prescott's right ankle to the turf, the weight and torque causing the horrific injury.
Prescott tried to jam his contorted ankle back into place to no avail.
The stadium fell silent as the medical staff tended to Prescott. As he was carted off, he chewed on a towel, fending off the pain and emotions as tears streamed down his face.
Two surgeries followed. The first surgery took place on the night of the injury on Oct. 11, and the second, later that winter. The first surgery reset the dislocation and cleaned the area so there would be no infection. The second surgery dealt with potential long-term concerns with the ankle.
The minutes, hours, days and months all blurred together as Prescott went through rehab. He even spent part of a vacation working on strength exercises on a secluded beach less than a month before signing his four-year, $160 million contract in early March.
"When it comes to his work ethic, I don't think anybody can slow him down," said Dak's older brother, Tad, who recalled a workout before the 2020 season when Dak pushed himself too hard. "Before the season started last year, he went into a full body cramp because he felt like he didn't put enough work in during the day before. I remember our best friend telling him, 'Hey drink some water. You don't need to go to that throwing session.' And he was like, 'BS, I do.' He had a great throwing session but as soon as he got home he went into a full body cramp. I had to have some IVs for him because he doesn't slow down."
'I've got to be smart'
Prescott has been operating as if there have been no issues with his ankle since spring workouts.
Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore might not call as many quarterback runs, but nobody wants to take away a part of Prescott's game that has made him special. Since entering the league, Prescott's 24 rushing touchdowns are third most among quarterbacks, behind former Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots starter Cam Newton (28) and the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen (26).
"When I get into competition, that's just who I am, I don't necessarily think about some of those things," Prescott said. "But I've got to be smart. First down vs. third down are two completely different things, you know what I mean? Two yards to get the first down is different from just trying to make an impactful play that may excite some people. It's risk vs. reward."
Prescott showed how smart he could be on July 28 during the Cowboys' training camp in Oxnard, California.
After going through individual drills, he felt a pain in his side. It only bothered him after the release of a pass. Cowboys athletic trainer Jim Maurer diagnosed it as a latissimus strain, an injury more common in baseball pitchers than quarterbacks.
McCarthy said Prescott would need "a few days," but that time off turned into two weeks before the QB would throw any kind of pass, and two more weeks before he would take any team drills, fueling speculation about whether he would start Week 1.
Was Prescott more hurt than the Cowboys were letting on?
Could the quarterback have thrown too much by compensating for the ankle injury?
How can Prescott possibly be ready to play against the Buccaneers?
As he went through the mental reps while watching backups Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci, Prescott's patience was tested. He wanted to throw more and make up for lost time. But he has since gained more perspective.
"So much has happened to me in the past two years I wouldn't say I ever thought I was invincible, or didn't realize how vulnerable I was or how precious life is, to be honest with you," Prescott said. "I am thankful for every moment. When I talk about these small victories, that is just me being thankful for every moment that I have, not taking anything for granted. ... That is part of my mindset that allows me to be here."
On Aug. 25, Prescott got his wish.
"Everyone shut up now about [No.] 4?" read a text message from a Cowboys staff member about the consternation regarding the quarterback's health following Prescott's first full practice.
There would be no more limitations in a practice or a game.
"We're just playing ball at this point," Moore said.
For the first time in 340 days, Prescott is back.
"I don't know anybody that prepares as hard as Dak does," Tad Prescott said. "As far as his preparation, it's just another business week, but I'm sure as far as him getting back on the field, that will have a little extra emotion to it. Like he said, he had a thought process of, 'What if this sport was taken away from me?'
"This is something he truly loves and to be back with his guys, I know he's antsy, and more than anything, he's ready to get back out there."