‘Ahead of the game’: How Cowboys QB Dak Prescott strengthened body, mind ahead of return from injury

Jori Epstein
USA TODAY

FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott found running back Ezekiel Elliott on a wheel route and handed off to running back Tony Pollard. He nailed Amari Cooper as the receiver cut underneath during a play-action period. Prescott connected with tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz on deeper routes in third-down situations.

“He’s throwing the ball with some pop,” Elliott said after the Aug. 25 practice when Prescott, it seemed, was finally cutting it loose. “Dak looks really good.”

Even better news, as Prescott awoke one and two days after: He was feeling good. No residual soreness or tightness. No disappointment about the injury gauntlet he has cycled through the last year.

Nearly 11 months have passed since Prescott suffered a season-ending compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. Roughly six weeks ago, during Prescott's first padded practice back, an MRI revealed a strain in the latissimus muscle of his throwing shoulder.

But after surgeries and physical therapy to heal his ankle, new pre-practice routines and maddeningly drawn-out weeks of rest for his shoulder — Prescott is back. He’s excited. And he’s ready to take the field Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET in Tampa for the NFL’s season opener as the Cowboys take on the defending champion Buccaneers.

“I’m definitely ready,” Prescott said from team headquarters after a recent Cowboys practice session. “I love it the way it is (and) wouldn’t want it any other way, to be honest. I love night games. Love playing on prime time. I think it’s just set for the perfect stage. Them coming off the Super Bowl title, and us, having fans back to full capacity, I think this is what the NFL and the world needs.

“From the shoulder to the leg to my mind, I’m ready to go.”

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Dallas Cowboys' Dak Prescott gestures as he stands on the field during warmups before a preseason NFL football game against the Houston Texans in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021.

‘I ain’t scared’

NFL fans anticipating Prescott’s much-heralded comeback may lock in on the quarterback's right ankle flexibility or throwing-motion fluidity as he takes his first snap against a talented Buccaneers defensive unit returning all starters from its Super Bowl-title team.

But Prescott is just as focused on sharpening his mind for the occasion, divorcing himself from the psychological barriers that injuries can produce.

“I ain’t scared. I put a little touch on that one, it worked out,” Prescott told teammates and coaches in one recent practice captured by HBO’s “Hard Knocks” footage. “Let’s be smooth, let’s run fast, let’s get in and out.

“I’m telling you: I’m playing quick mentally.”

Prescott’s quick return to processing the game results from several factors, some of which he suspects he worked through too much.

Prescott’s knowledge of the game has grown as he enters his sixth season. His chemistry with receivers and comfort in his offensive system deepen as head coach Mike McCarthy and coordinator Kellen Moore emphasize continuity, weapons like Cooper entering his fourth season in Dallas and the Prescott-Elliott duo sharing six.

Then enter the mental reps Prescott took during training camp, when the shoulder strain sidelined him from competitive 11-on-11 drills. Prescott kept his helmet on even during resistance-cord conditioning to ensure he could hear every play call through the quarterbacks’ headset. When he finally returned to full practice, Prescott didn’t feel as though the game were moving too quickly. Instead, he was processing faster than plays could unfold.

“I was playing ahead of the game in a sense because when I’m not out there, in your head, you’re going, ‘bam, bam, bam to checkdown, kill the run to that run, get to this get to that,’” Prescott said. “Obviously when you’re in there, you say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got to settle down and know the real speed of things. That (line)backer’s traveling, but I can make this throw behind him. That wasn’t a dirty window. I didn’t have to get to the checkdown that fast.’

“That’s just a process that I’ve already tightened up and will continue to do.”

Honing that process is key to ensuring Prescott can master timing with his receivers. In the five games Prescott played last season, he completed 68% of pass attempts for 1,856 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Prescott picked up four more scores via rushing (three) and receiving (one). His 371.2 passing yards per game average was prolific but Prescott does not seek to recapture the play style Dallas adopted in those matches. Playing catchup as the Cowboys fell into deep holes, Prescott’s slinging reflected early deficits and excess turnovers (in the first month of the season, Prescott and Elliott combined to lose five fumbles).

Prescott would prefer a smooth, high-functioning operation that produces a balanced run and pass attack early; a gradual lead; and the flexibility to run the ball often in the second half to give Dallas’ rebranding defense a breather.

“Obviously I have high expectations for myself. I plan to come out strong, starting fast,” Prescott said. “We want to win games and we weren’t being competitive early, which is why some of those numbers came about. I plan to come out better than I was last year, to be honest.”

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After four seasons in which Prescott cost the Cowboys between $450,000 and $2.1 million per year, Prescott played on a $31.4 million franchise tag in 2020 and this offseason signed a four-year extension worth $160 million with $126 million guaranteed. The Cowboys, after more than two years negotiating, did not wait for his ankle to clear rehabilitation before settling the matter. Prescott acknowledged the expectations from fans will be higher but insisted none would top those he holds himself.

Question his health, his value relative to his contract, his record the last four seasons after a 13-3 rookie campaign? Prescott welcomes the doubts.

“That’s why my fire burns, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve always been doubted. I’ve always been considered the underdog, from being the little brother to now in the NFL people find ways to doubt me.

“I just think it’s fun and I embrace those challenges.”

Beginning of challenge, not end

Throughout the offseason, Prescott’s definition of embracing challenge centered on his commitment to rehabilitation. How could he make incremental progress each day in his return from injury? What could he do — take a moment to reflect, read a book, work with his foundation to serve communities in Dallas — to “make myself a better person, better player” until he could return to the field?

The meticulous and methodical road back thus didn’t feel like a “blur,” Prescott said, as he infused each day with intention. But in retrospect, as he stands on the precipice of a meaningful football game with full medical clearance, Prescott says the process has “kind of flown by.”

He feels close, on several levels, to the Oct. 11 moment in which he sat on the westernmost 27-yard line of AT&T Stadium, trying to literally jam into place the bones that had punctured his skin and prompted his foot to awkwardly jut out. And yet, time has passed to heal both physical and psychological wounds; Prescott said he’s now able even to laugh with teammates about the freak injury that abruptly ended his season.

He knows that Washington quarterback Alex Smith returned from more severe complications due to a compound fracture; that Hall of Famer Peyton Manning missed an entire season rehabilitating from a herniated disc in his neck. Even Tom Brady, the 14-time Pro Bowler and seven-time Super Bowl champion whose team Prescott faces Thursday, missed 15 games of a season after tearing his ACL in the Patriots’ 2008 opener. Brady hasn’t missed a game due to injury in 12 seasons since.

“All of those guys 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.’ 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.

“I don’t think about the injury, I don’t think about the time I missed. … I’m just excited to get back to football and just play this game without those thoughts and without those emotions.

“Just getting back to doing what I love.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.