FRISCO, Texas -- Leaders send messages. The Cowboys’ quarterback had a clear message for his teammates Thursday.
Dak Prescott told them on the field, he said, and then he told us, in the locker room. His team in a tailspin, his offense sputtering, Prescott abandoned discretion when asked why they’d fallen from 3-0 to 3-3.
“I think it’s a mental thing. I think it’s some ways guys are preparing. Maybe they need to prepare a little bit more, here and there,” Prescott said.
This is the sort of leadership, pointed and steely, that championship football demands. When players hold each other accountable they thrive. It was so for the Eagles in 2017, and they’ve struggled to match that level of accountability since.
You’re seeing it from Prescott in Dallas now, a more distilled and potent version of the Prescott who, as a fourth-round rookie, took the franchise by its neck in 2016 and has since guided it to two NFC East titles.
Will you ever see it from Carson Wentz in Philadelphia? Because now might be a good time for a dose of it.
When the 3-3 Eagles visit Sunday night, they will find a Cowboys team whose botched assignments, dumb penalties, and dropped passes -- according to profootballfocus.com the Cowboys, at 16, have dropped only one fewer ball than the Eagles, at 17 -- have put their coach’s job in peril. Jason Garrett abbreviated practice Thursday for the second consecutive day because of a landslide of Cowboys injuries that have slowed or sidelined seven of the team’s top 23 players. The Cowboys haven’t scored a first-half touchdown during their losing streak. It’s a Texas-sized mess.
It’s a mess of their own making, said Prescott. The team is too deep to be derailed by injuries. There are no excuses for penalties and drops. He spent this week demanding better focus; demanding that they prepare more like running back Ezekiel Elliott, tight end Jason Witten, and, of course, him.
“I always practice hard. More individuals need to do that,” Prescott said. “Just from the outlook of it, just from my eye, I think they do.”
He hasn’t just let his work ethic do the talking.
"I definitely do it verbally. It’s something I’m always doing at practice. Pushing the tempo. Talking to guys."
And what does he say?
" ‘How much does this mean to you?’ " Prescott said. “We’re 3-3, in a spot with a chance to play a big-time game, play a division rival, somebody we’re very familiar with, and we know they’re familiar with us. If you can’t bring your best for this game, and if you can’t prepare your best each and every day, something’s wrong with you.”
He sent the message to everyone -- even big-time teammates nursing themselves back to health.
Amari Cooper’s locker is eight feet from Prescott’s. Cooper missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a thigh injury that he aggravated in the first quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Jets. Immediately after Prescott’s high-decibel proclamation, Cooper announced that he expected to practice the next day. Now let’s see how Randall Cobb’s achy back feels Friday. Or the hamstrings of cornerbacks Byron Jones and Anthony Brown.
Prescott noticed that offensive tackles Tryon Smith and La’el Collins, who missed Sunday’s game, participated in lineman drills Thursday, and Prescott made no secret whom he hopes to see protecting his flanks Sunday night:
“They looked good enough to me," he quipped.
"If you can’t bring your best for this game, and if you can’t prepare your best each and every day, something’s wrong with you.”
This man-up rhetoric is exactly the opposite of a typical Wentz “Kumbaya” oration. There is no question who runs this Cowboys team.
And when the Cowboys play the Eagles, Prescott knows that Prescott plays Wentz. Both were drafted in 2016, both became starters immediately, both are successful already, and both have unlimited ceilings.
“It’s something that’s always fun. Every matchup, we can look back and say, ‘What’s our record against each other?’ " Prescott said. "Something that will always be cool to track."
Wentz has outplayed Prescott in their four relevant head-to-head meetings -- Wentz’s passer rating is 101.9, Prescott’s is 81.2 -- but Prescott leads the series between them, 3-1. (Prescott made a cameo in the meaningless finale in 2016 and Wentz was hurt for the meaningless finale in 2017.) The Cowboys swept the Eagles last season, and, in the second meeting, Prescott hit career highs with 42 completions, 54 attempts and 455 passing yards.
Prescott remembers each encounter vividly. Precisely.
“First time I was a rookie; second time I played, like, two series; second year, first time, we were what we were, and they beat the [heck] out of me; last year, I did pretty well,” he told me.
Through it all Prescott has owned the locker room. He’s owned the team. He might not have Wentz’s arm strength, but he owns a different sort of power.
“Probably his No. 1 trait is his mental toughness,” Garrett said. “He’s always got a great look in his eye. Always got a bounce in his step.”
And he’s always got grit in his craw. The Jets sacked him just once Sunday, but he got nailed eight times in all. As Witten watched the Jets game on the flight back to Texas, he couldn’t believe the beating Prescott had taken. When he finished, he walked over to where Prescott sat.
“Hey man,” Witten asked, “how you feeling?”
Prescott felt angry. He felt resolute. He felt, like Witten, the losing streak stemmed less from personnel absences and deficiencies than from the Cowboys’ smelling themselves after their fast start.
“You’d better respect the guy you’re going against,” Witten said Thursday.
The Cowboys respect their quarterback.
“Dak doesn’t flinch,” Witten said.
Not on the field. Not at practice. Not in the meeting rooms, and not in the locker room.
“It starts with preparation. Allowing the way we practice to carry over to the game. We’ve got to make it harder at practice -- which we’ve done,” Prescott said. So, he liked what he saw this week?
“One hundred percent.”