When he returned to One Buc Place for the start of offseason workouts last spring, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston realized almost cheap soccer jerseys immediately that coach Dirk Koetter had taken the training wheels off him.
The offense he was now being asked to run was more elaborate than the one he operated in the year before and a lot of the pre- and post-snap duties Koetter refused to place on his shoulders as a rookie were now his to carry out.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott can expect to have a similar set of new challenges handed to him when he returns to Dallas to begin preparing for his second season in the NFL as well.
It’s part of the natural order for young quarterbacks.
If a quarterback starts or plays at all as a rookie, he almost always runs the most basic, fundamental version of the scheme his coordinator has put together and he’s seldom if ever asked to be the foundation of that attack.
That’s how it was for Winston and that’s how it was for Prescott, who last year led a Cowboys offense that not only ran the ball more than any team in the league (499 times) but ran it as well as any team in the league (149.8 yards per game).
As a result, Prescott’s role in the Cowboys attack was simple. Coming out of a spread-oriented system at Mississippi State he was asked to make mostly safe, smart throws, but he really wasn’t asked to make that many of them.
Prescott finished the year averaging just 28.7 passes per game, 34th in the league, but who can argue with the results. He completed 67.8-percent of those throws passes and threw only four interceptions.
Given those numbers and the fact the Cowboys scored 421 points, fifth most in the league, you have to wonder if they shouldn’t just leave well enough alone and run the same simplified scheme again in 2017.
That is a possibility, but it’s highly unlikely. With a year to study what it was that made the Cowboys so potent and in particular what Prescott did so well opposing defenses are sure to adjust and find something to counter with.
The Cowboys will have to counter back, then, and part of their counter attack may be to lean more on Prescott, whose second-season challenges will go beyond doing more in the pre- and even post-snap phase of the job.
In fact, that part of the job should be the easiest for Prescott. Like Winston, Prescott is a very smart quarterback, one who seems to have an innate ability to understand complex offensive and defensive schemes and to work off of them.
He’s one of those guys who virtually lives at the training facility and loves the film review portion of the game as much as he does the actual playing portion. For him, the mental side has always come easy.
It’s the physical side where Prescott needs work and where his greatest challenges lie going forward. Like Winston, Prescott has a lot of unrefined mechanical issues within his game that have to be corrected.
Just as he did in college he still tends to throw before his feet are settled, he still tends to hold the ball a little too long when he does settle his feet and he too often overshoots with the deep ball.
Inside the pocket, Prescott still has a tendency to feel the rush before it’s actually there and bolt the pocket unnecessarily. And he’s really still learning how to operate under center and how to drop back from there cleanly.
None of which should come as any great revelation. After all, there’s a reason why Prescott was given a fourth-round draft grade and a reason why Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones was so slow to embrace Prescott as his starter last year.
The truth of the matter is the Cowboys didn’t draft Prescott with the intention of starting him this soon. They drafted him with the idea of developing him over a period of time, but when Tony Romo went down that time frame has accelerated.
So too has the need for Prescott to become the Cowboys leader in the locker room been accelerated. That’s another challenge Prescott faces going into his second season. Like Winston, though, it’s another challenge he seems naturally suited to conquer.
Like Winton during his rookie season, Prescott quickly won over the veterans inside his locker room last year with his work ethic, his poise and the natural way in which he rallied the team when the time was necessary for him to do so.
But there’s more to being a leader than shouting out rally cries and just as Winston has displayed a knack for doing just the right thing, so too has Prescott shown an ability to take actions that seem to hit just the right note.
For example, when Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith’s mother died last year, Prescott sent Smith flowers. When wide receiver Dez Bryant’s father died the day before a game, Prescott was there to console him. When Troy Aikman’s birthday came around last year, Prescott remembered with a text.
Little things. Some might say somewhat meaningless things. But that’s how you win a team’s support, and chances are Prescott will need that support. With Romo on the way out this is Prescott’s team now. He has become the face of the franchise, and what a franchise.
The Cowboys star is shining brighter now than it has shone in a while, and it’s largely because of Prescott, but what if Prescott hits a rough patch? What if the Cowboys hit a rough patch, lose a few games, even take a step backward, which could easily happen?
The spotlight always shines on the Dallas star and it will shine brightest on its young star quarterback, who did face some adversity last year but nothing like he’ll face if he begins to falter or the Cowboys begin to struggle and lose.
Dealing with that is a challenge that every quarterback has had to face and all indications are Prescott is ready to take on that challenge as well. There’s no way of knowing for sure, though, until he actually faces it. Then we’ll find out just what kind of a quarterback Dak Prescott really is.
It’s one thing to be able to play the position. Prescott proved last year he can do that. Now he has to prove he can grow both as a player a leader and more importantly as the face of the franchise. It’s a lot to throw at a kid just two years out of college, but like Winston, that’s the challenge he now faces.