FRISCO, Texas — NFL coaches are often quick to downplay the importance of OTAs whenever it’s convenient. They talk about how they’re just testing stuff out, how it’s hard to read too much into anything that doesn’t include pads.
None of that applied during the first day of the Dallas Cowboys’ mandatory minicamp Tuesday, where the feistiest, most competitive two-minute drive of the day — one filled with trash talk, penalty flags and a handful of big throws by a star quarterback whose price tag will soon be too rich for some folks’ blood — started with an offensive setback.
“Hands to the face, No. 75,” Jason Garrett yelled, referring to right tackle Cam Fleming.
Yet Dak Prescott remained undeterred. No, it’s not September at the Superdome or November at Foxborough, but with Prescott entering a contract year — and Carson Wentz’s new four-year, $127 million deal likely setting the parameters for an extension — every moment counts for one of the league’s most polarizing quarterbacks, as the Cowboys continue to evaluate whether he’s worth that kind of cap-clogging salary.
So Prescott got to work. Two quick passes to Jason Witten got the offense out of the hole, while a defensive pass-interference penalty on an incomplete deep ball brought it closer to paydirt and royally ticked off linebacker Sean Lee (who started, um, emphatically complaining to the referee).
No matter. With the offense within 10 yards of the end zone, Prescott received the shotgun snap, performed a Fran Tarkenton pirouette to elude pressure and delivered a strike, while drifting to his left, to new receiver Randall Cobb for the “go-ahead” touchdown.
Cobb flipped the ball high into the air amid the cheers of his fellow offensive cohorts, while Prescott smiled and jogged, index finger pointed high in the air.
Prescott’s obsession with self-improvement continues as he attempts to make his doubters, of which there are still plenty despite his rise to stardom after being a fourth-rounder in 2016, eat their words. He’s coming off a season in which he completed 67.7 percent of his passes for 3,855 yards, 28 total touchdowns and eight interceptions, all while guiding the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a playoff victory.
“He definitely has a drive to be the best,” Cobb later told Yahoo Sports. “He wants to be the best, and pushes himself to be the best in every aspect of his game. I’m just here to help him out.”
And so is new quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, who has been working with Prescott for only a few months but has already been thoroughly won over by the 25-year-old’s attention to detail and desire to be coached hard.
“He wants to be the best,” Kitna said. “A lot of people say that, but I just feel like you can just watch somebody and [know]. I don’t really care about what they say ... you watch Jason Witten and you’re like, there’s a guy who wants to be the best tight end, still. Dak is similar, and he doesn’t need to be poked and prodded, but he wants to be poked and prodded and pushed.”
And the 6-foot-2, 238-pounder’s designated areas of self-improvement — which the two-time Pro Bowler picked out himself, Kitna added — are his footwork and delivery, which will improve his ball placement (a fair critique by detractors). Prescott has also been criticized for his tendency to hold the ball too long, which definitely showed up last season when he took 56 sacks, the second-most in the league.
Yet, when asked what the sweet spot is for Prescott as it relates to knowing when to run and when to throw, Kitna offered a surprising answer.
“I think he’s already there, to be honest with you,” Kitna said. “That’s why he’s unique! He can hang in there and get hit and make throws, or he can get out on the edge. He can run or throw on the run.”
So for Prescott, Kitna noted, the key is simply learning how to operate with more consistency in the pocket, which certainly doesn’t make him an outlier in the NFL.
“I think with any young quarterback — which I think we can forget [he is] just because he’s played every freaking game for three years — it’s [about] anticipation, having a great command of defenses and what defenses are doing,” Kitna said.
Prescott can get better in all those areas — and Kitna says he has, by the way — while still improving his overall ability to create.
It’s a burden that falls on Kitna and new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who takes over after Scott Linehan was fired in January due to his unimaginative scheme. There are things they can do to better utilize the dual-threat talents of Prescott, who has scored 18 rushing touchdowns and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in his three years as a starter.
“I’ve never met a defensive coordinator or defensive coach that’s like, ‘We love when a quarterback starts scrambling,’” Kitna said with a laugh. “Ever. It scares ’em to death because that’s where huge plays come from.
“I saw a study done one time that said in the NFL, about 60 percent of the plays happen as their supposed to and then the other 40 percent, something breaks down and you have to ad lib. So I think it’s very important, and sometimes, it’s just dirting the ball, sometimes just getting rid of it and let’s not have a disaster happen, and sometimes it’s getting out and making a play. And we’re working on it.”
Prescott’s “game-winning” touchdown pass to Cobb on Tuesday — which came on the run — offers proof of that.
“I’m new, so I’m just kinda feeling him out and getting to know him,” Cobb said, “but he can create. It’s about us on the backend being on the same page with him and, when he starts moving, having a relationship so we can make plays.”
Or at least the Cowboys have to hope so, given the amount of money they’ll have to pay him unless they want to move on and voluntarily re-enter the quarterback wilderness, which is the quickest way to the type of NFL irrelevance the Cowboys seem intent on avoiding at all costs.
“I think he already operates at a high level,” Kitna said. “So he’s trying to keep going and be elite.”
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