OXNARD, Calif. -- Dak Prescott wasn't throwing, but he was no bystander.
Dressed out in full pads as if he might jump into a drill at any moment, the Dallas Cowboys' star quarterback stood behind backup Garrett Gilbert before each snap with the first-team offense. He spoke with coaches after play calls. His eyes scanned the defense. When the horn blew to signal the end of a period in Saturday's spirited joint practice with the Los Angeles Rams, Prescott jogged out to tap teammates' hands and helmets with words of encouragement. Later, he crossed fields to spend time observing the revamped Dallas defense.
This is what the Cowboys paid for back in March -- and paid handsomely, signing Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract that included $126 million in guarantees less than five months into his rehabilitation from a fractured and dislocated right ankle. It's not just Prescott the player, though there's plenty to like there, too, with the ankle fully healed and only a muscle strain in his throwing shoulder keeping him out of team drills as a precaution the past couple weeks. It's the way Prescott has led by example that won over teammates and everyone else in the building since he arrived as a fourth-round pick in 2016, starting every game until that gruesome injury on Oct. 11.
"First off, I've never played this game to get paid," Prescott told me recently, leaning on a fence next to coach Mike McCarthy near the Cowboys' training camp field. "That's never been a motivation factor to anything that I do. For me, it's just about doing what I love, and doing it with the right attitude and with a positive mindset each and every day, no matter what it is. And I'll never ask a teammate to do something that I wouldn't do. So, whether it's (getting) hurt and trying to stay engaged or whether it's picking up a piece of candy" -- more on that in a bit -- "I just think it's important for me to be consistent day in and day out."
The 2020 season didn't go as planned for much of anyone at The Star. Not for McCarthy, who didn't have players in the building all offseason because of COVID-19 restrictions at a time when he was supposed to be enacting a culture shift. He watched his defense struggle mightily amidst an ill-fated scheme overhaul and lost most of his offensive line to injuries even before his QB joined them on the way to a 6-10 finish. And certainly not for Prescott, who was off to a torrid start statistically -- completing a career-high 68 percent of his passes and on pace to throw for over 6,000 yards while playing in perpetual catch-up mode -- before his season ended on a scramble in Week 5.
But one year later, with health and some altered form of normality returning, in addition to a new approach and some new parts on defense, there's a decidedly upbeat feel around the Cowboys, including Prescott and McCarthy, whose relationship is just starting to blossom out of all the adversity of the past year. Owner Jerry Jones set the bar high at an emotional camp-opening press conference, saying he'd "do anything known to man" to end the franchise's 25-year Super Bowl drought and adding: "I think we got a way to make it work big for this season."
Prescott says there is no hurdle remaining with the ankle. ("The team reps that I've had, I don't think about it," he said. "It's not like it's bothering me or hurts me.") And he's similarly unconcerned about the shoulder, which was sore on certain throws in practice on July 28, leading to a more than weeklong shutdown before he progressed to soft toss in recent days. The Cowboys announced on Wednesday that the QB is planning to have another MRI soon, and Prescott told reporters he expects to return to team drills in Monday's practice -- no surprise given his colorful response to the Cowboys' management of his reps early in camp as documented on Tuesday's premiere of HBO's Hard Knocks. He left open the possibility of playing in Dallas' Aug. 21 preseason game against the Texans, too.
Asked what level of doubt he has that the shoulder will be 100 percent by the Sept. 9 opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and throughout the 2021 season, Prescott said: "There's no doubt, and that's the purpose of taking it slow and being cautious, that the moment I kick back and I get going again that it's not going to be lingering, there's not going to be problems and that's playing safe and being cautious with it. I'm just trying to play it smart and make sure I'm out there.
"Last year was a tough year, and I never want to miss that much football again. If I can do anything to help it and to be out there with my teammates, I'm going to do exactly that."
'A NATURAL LEADERSHIP MOMENT'
Selflessness was one of many lessons Prescott learned from his late mother, Peggy, who raised Dak and his two older brothers as a single mother. (Peggy died after a more than yearlong battle with colon cancer in 2013, when Dak was a 20-year-old sophomore at Mississippi State.)
"It goes a long way," Prescott said. "Putting others before yourself and just being an example to others if you can -- I just know I've just seen in my life, it affects people and I've seen how it impacted (people), and I won't stop now just because they wrote me a nice check."
That came across in the first meeting McCarthy had with Prescott over lunch after taking the Cowboys job last year -- a relatively rare face-to-face interaction prior to training camp in 2020, with COVID shutdowns wiping out the offseason program and Prescott absent from virtual team activities throughout the spring while waiting out contract negotiations that didn't end up yielding a deal at the time, leaving Prescott to play the season on the franchise tag.
The Cowboys' first "team dynamic" exercise of the McCarthy era during the COVID-relocated 2020 training camp back in Frisco, Texas, was a wild game-show activity that, because of mandatory social distancing, took up most of the Cowboys' practice field, which ended up littered with pizza, candy and other debris.
"When the event was over, Dak started picking up all the candy, all the garbage," McCarthy said. "Then Zeke (Elliott) was right there with him. And then next thing you know, five more guys started helping, then there was 10, there was 15. ... The players, they cleaned it up in about 10 minutes. I thought, that's a natural leadership moment."
Prescott had a good relationship with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, a holdover from previous coach Jason Garrett's staff who continues to call the plays. But Prescott and McCarthy -- who has long prided himself on his close relationships with his quarterbacks, most notably Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers during his 13 seasons, nine playoff trips and a Super Bowl win with the Green Bay Packers -- admit they didn't know much about each other at this time a year ago. ("It was definitely a weird start," McCarthy said.)
Still, Prescott was playing some of his best football in 2020, until he took off running to his left against the New York Giants and ended up crumpling into the ground, his right foot dangling sideways as he desperately tried to twist it back into place. The severity of the injury quickly became evident, so graphic it has since been scrambled out of replays on some TV networks.
"As a head coach, I've stood over some really nasty injuries, and that was definitely top of the list," McCarthy said. "But ... the response in the stadium and from the Giants sideline to everybody -- I've never seen anything like that. I think that speaks volumes about how everybody feels about Dak Prescott."
Arms folded as he peered down at medical personnel attending to Prescott, McCarthy was clearly distraught. Garrett, now the Giants' offensive coordinator, came onto the field as well. Players from both teams offered encouragement to Prescott, who was driven off once doctors stabilized the leg. Tears rolled down his face. He extended one fist briefly to acknowledge the cheering crowd before disappearing into the tunnel. Emergency surgery was completed that night.
Prescott's most vivid memory from that day is "probably just the moment that I got on the cart. I think that's when all the emotions just started hitting me -- that my season was done. I've never missed that much time in the game of football and just to know that I was going to be leaving the field, not going to be out there with my teammates, my brothers, and that just hurt. But just the embrace I got -- from coach, from my teammates, telling me it was going to be OK from the other sideline -- and just that drive off the field was something I'll never forget."
Given the situation -- a season-ending injury, extensive rehab ahead, no contract for 2021, intense COVID protocols in the building, a team that started three other QBs, playoff hopes alive until a loss in the Week 17 rematch with the Giants only because nobody else in the NFC East was winning either -- plenty of players, much less superstars, would've dropped off the grid. But within days, Prescott was back in the building, undergoing daily COVID testing to stay around his teammates, even seeking out McCarthy to express ideas and thoughts about the offense.
"Football's always been my life," Prescott said. "My mom used to say I eat, sleep and breathe football. ... I was trying to fix my ankle and get back up on the field. That's all I knew for the most part, is to get back in there, help my teammates out. I just knew that I could give them support, I could pick 'em up, I could just be there for whatever they need and just be that mental support at the time when I knew I couldn't obviously be out there on the field. So it was just important for me to get around, and I knew it was good for my well-being too, is just getting back into something that I love."
Prescott has been outspoken about mental health since his brother, Jace, committed suicide in April 2020. And many athletes struggle mentally during rehab, suddenly immobilized and their entire lives seemingly on hold. Asked how much of the decision to stay engaged was about keeping his mind in a positive place, Prescott said: "Yeah, maybe 90 percent or more. A lot of it was to help the teammates out and that's all I know. But at the same time, I knew it was important for me to keep my mind rolling, stay engaged to the game, be there as much as I could. I knew that'd help me get through those challenging parts when I wasn't able to rehab and I was just sitting with my leg up."
'I'LL BE READY WHEN IT REALLY MATTERS'
Prescott underwent a second procedure on the ankle in early December to strengthen his deltoid ligament, clean out the ankle and make it more structurally sound. He had to take about a week off from rehab to let the wound heal, but it improved the stability and integrity of the ankle, with hopes of accelerating his overall recovery. By early February, Prescott was walking without issue and doing weight-bearing exercises, and the Cowboys were confident enough in Prescott's progress that they had plans in place to try to sign him to a long-term contract before the franchise tag window closed on March 9. (They ended up applying a second tag as a procedural matter before the deal was signed, all but ensuring Prescott won't be tagged again in his career.)
Even after the 2020 season ended, Prescott remained at The Star on a daily basis for rehab and kept talking with McCarthy. In addition to their normal daily interaction on the field and in meetings, the two stay connected via text, though Prescott, 28, notes with a smile the 57-year-old McCarthy (a self-described "old-school communicator") often will respond to a text with a phone call instead. After years of coaching changes, particularly on the offensive side, Prescott offered praise for the accountability and consistent approach of the Cowboys' current coaching staff -- "that's what you need in a championship team," he said -- which McCarthy echoed about the QB.
"He's the same man every day," McCarthy said. "Going through the contract situation -- as a head coach you have to learn that you have to separate the business from the football. For Dak to be as young as he is, it was never an issue. ... He's been very easy to connect with."
In an offseason where so many star quarterbacks -- including Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson -- in one way or another expressed a desire for changes or a fresh start, Prescott gave McCarthy and others every indication throughout the process that he remained all in.
"This organization has done so much for me and just the support obviously through that injury -- from coach, the coaching staff, my teammates -- and I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan," Prescott said. "I never in a million years thought that I'd be playing somewhere else. I knew it was important for me to control what I could control, take care of my injury, rehab the right way and stay positive and I knew something good would come from it."
Said McCarthy: "The thing I remember most about when Dak first went through the injury -- unfortunate for the team, but it was definitely a blessing in disguise -- was there was a number of other starters in that training room. It was amazing to walk in there in between meetings and swing in there every day and to see every table full, and I think it helped everybody. I think it definitely helped Dak, and then Zack (Martin) got hurt and the other guys, Tyron (Smith) was in there and LC (La'el Collins). It was the most impressive training room I've ever walked into, unfortunately. But I think a lot of those guys got a lot out of that, going through it at the same time."
Starting tight end Blake Jarwin, who tore his ACL in the season opener against the Rams, was a fixture in that room, too.
What were the conversations like?
"We all just wanted to be healthy obviously and wanted to help our team," Prescott said. "But just the facts of, 'Hey, when we get healthy, we've got to remember these times. We've got to remember this, and can't take anything for granted, whether it's walkthrough, whether it's a practice, whether it's hanging out at lunch eating with the guys, because that's something we were missing.' So, as we're a year later and that whole training room's out and we're hitting this field, we think about those moments. And sometimes, I make a conscious effort to go dap those guys up and remind them, it's just good to be back out here and doing what we love."
Again, that's the leadership the Cowboys believe they'll see from Prescott under center again sooner than later.
"I think the longer you do this job, the more you worry," McCarthy said. "And frankly, I'm respectful of protecting Dak from himself. It's go-go-go all the time and this (shoulder) is just something we don't want it to turn into a serious deal. We're close. We're getting there and he's doing it the right way."
The way Prescott got hurt back in October won't influence how the Cowboys play offense either, McCarthy said. (In fact, they've spent more time this offseason on both offense and defense working on the scramble drill and want to build off that aspect of Prescott's game.)
If this were Week 1, and not still the early stages of the preseason, there's little question Dallas would already have No. 4 under center on a Cowboys team with high hopes. Even that joint practice with the Rams had Prescott wanting to do more than simply shadow the other QBs.
"I felt like I could go out here, especially when you had the crowd going and the excitement, your adrenaline's rolling and you hate missing a day like this," Prescott said. "But I feel great and I'll be ready when it really matters."
'AS GOOD AS WE WANT TO BE'
The last hole on Prescott's résumé, as it is for so many young quarterbacks, is postseason success. Over five seasons, the Cowboys are 42-27 with Prescott as their starting quarterback -- including nine comebacks and 15 game-winning drives he has led -- but have only one playoff win, in a wild-card game against Seattle in January 2019.
The Cowboys continue to proceed with caution on Prescott and a handful of other veterans, but they're relatively healthy overall. They've rebooted their defense again under energetic coordinator (and former Falcons coach) Dan Quinn. They used their first-round draft pick on linebacker Micah Parsons, who was all over the tape from last week's preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. And there's no question they have a ton of firepower with Prescott set to rejoin Elliott and the receiving trio of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup.
Looking at that group, how good can these Cowboys be?
"We can be great," Prescott said. "We can be as good as we want to be. We're going to set our goals and we're going to go out there and accomplish them. But as I said, we've got to hold each other accountable, teammates first, and then hold our coaches accountable and I know they'll hold us accountable and we can go accomplish exactly what we want to do."