Although the rain stopped just ahead of kickoff at Raymond James Stadium, there was still plenty of “Rayne” to come — enough that it nearly set off flash flood warnings in the Tampa area. Many had questions on if Dak Prescott would ever return to form after suffering a season-ending fractured ankle in 2020. Many had questions on if the two-time Pro Bowl quarterback was truly 100% heading into his Week 1 clash with Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road. After all, he missed much of camp practice and all of the preseason with a strained shoulder.
Everyone got their answers Thursday night, when Prescott effectively treated a top-5 NFL defense like they were junior varsity, losing to the tune of 31-29 only because of mistakes made at other positions. There are no moral victories in the NFL, but there is definitely room to point out positives a team can build on going forward, and the biggest silver lining for the Cowboys is in how Prescott threw for 403 yards and three touchdowns, with his lone turnover being an interception that was actually registered as a drop by CeeDee Lamb that turned into a tip drill for the Bucs. There’s a lot for the Cowboys to learn from watching the Week 1 film, but nothing regarding Prescott.
He’s back like he never left and came scathingly close to sending the Bucs into an early Super Bowl hangover — something he wants the Cowboys to use as a launching pad for what he predicted will be a “very, very special year”.
“I mean we came up short, bottom line,” Prescott told media after the nail-biter. “Obviously, we fought hard, we fought all the way to the end — that’s a good football team we were playing — they got us by a field goal right there. We have to be better situationally in the red zone. Defense did a great job giving us chances when we didn’t convert touchdowns or field goals by giving us the ball right back. They did an incredible job, and we’ll get better because of this one.
“Obviously, it was tough. It’s tough any time you don’t win and succeed this year’s expectations for this team, for myself. We came up short.”
But as far as physical limitations went, Prescott had none whatsoever, throwing 58 passes and completing 42 of them (a number that tap dances around 50 completions if not for drops). That wasn’t the game plan going in but instead an adaptation by offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to take advantage of what the Bucs defense was struggling to stop: a carpet bombing at the hands of Prescott.
“No, I didn’t plan on throwing it that many times and no, I never questioned my health, or being able to throw 50 times or how I’d feel out there,” Prescott added. “I know all the work that I’ve put in over the offseason, through training camp, just everything that I expected to go out there and leave it all out on the field and do whatever I need to do to help this team and give us a fighting chance.”
A fighting chance, indeed.
For if it weren’t for the gaudy (and completely meaningful) yardage he racked up, the Cowboys might’ve gotten walloped in the opener. Playing from behind for much of the game, they were forced to mostly abandon the run with Ezekiel Elliott and ask Prescott to shoot it out like an episode of “Gunsmoke.” He did just that while also mixing in a scramble or two and a couple of designed run plays, confirming what he (and CBS Sports’ reporting on the situation) have long said: he’s healthy.
“I don’t feel like I say things just to say them,” Prescott said. “So that’s just a credit to all the work that I’ve put in. I think when you invest that much work in rehab and prehab and everything that has gone into the last 11 months for me to get back onto the field — you’re not surprised by the way that I went out there. And I as said, ran the ball a couple of times and did things that I normally did 11 months ago.
“I feel like I’m a better player than I was when I left the field and I told you that was the expectations I had for myself and I’ll continue to try to get better game in and game out.”
But was he at least conscious of his ankle prior to being hit? Admittedly so, the operative word here being “conscious of” and not “concerned about”.
“Yeah, I think I got hit the first drive or so — getting hit as I made a pass and after that it was a wrap,” he said. “As I said, it’s one of those things I wouldn’t think about, anticipating that first hit or that moment, but once I did, I knew I was fine and it felt good to run it a couple of times and get down and just know that I’m fully healthy and, as I said, I’m the player that I expected to be.”
The team wasn’t what it can be, though, and that made the ultimate difference. Between drops and missed kicks (two field goals and a PAT), the Cowboys left a minimum of four points on the field and, at best, had a chance to hang 40 points on Brady and the Bucs. Plus, there were some woes in the red zone (particularly late in the game when a missed block by tight end Blake Jarwin kept Elliott out of the end zone). Prescott is never one to point blame at anyone other than himself, but you can bet he’s chomping at the bit to get on the practice field and get things cleaned up for the Cowboys’ coming battle with a Los Angeles Chargers defense that has several dynamic playmakers, e.g., Joey Bosa and Derwin James.
“Yeah, I mean we’ve got to be better at it, point, blank, period,” said Prescott of the red zone inefficiency Thursday night. “We can’t settle for field goals and we’ve got to score touchdowns especially with the talent we have — whether it’s running or throwing — we’ve got to find a way. We have to create some scheme, a little bit more scheme and we’ll go out there and execute better as well. We left some plays out there. I feel like I could have made a better throw on the seven giving CeeDee [Lamb] a chance.
“A couple of more plays … so I mean there’s opportunities. Obviously, rolling to my right, I feel like I could’ve gotten it to Zeke a little bit faster if I bounced it back quicker, so there’s plays that we left out there that could’ve resulted in touchdowns. It’s game one, it’s a long season, but we have to make sure that we get better from this one and allow this to propel us.”
And seeing his defense take the ball away four times only helps his case.
“We’re going to fight [on] both sides of the ball,” he said. “We played complementary football better than we have in my time here. We didn’t convert in the red zone, turn around, and one play later, they have an interception or they got a fumble. They’re stepping up and we’re playing together, that’s the great part about it. The energy on the sideline was never down.
“We’re trusting and believing in each other, making plays, and we’re holding each other accountable and we’re going to do that as the year goes on. This is just the beginning. Proud of the way that we fought, proud of the way we played — just we came up short.”
So when Prescott told Brady the following after the game concluded, he meant it.
“Yeah, I think I told everybody we’d see them again, and that’s just the confidence that I have in this group,” said Prescott. “The expectations I have is this is a playoff team that is going to make a big push this year, and we’ve got to continue to get better and we’ll make a step from tonight and we’ll find a way to get better tomorrow. That’s the process: we’re going to stick to it, and we’ve got a good team and good men and I’m excited about this season.”
After seeing what he was able to do after having not played in 333 days, the Cowboys are as well.
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