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How one preseason play shaped Cowboys' feelings for Dak Prescott

FRISCO, Texas -- Jerry Jones likes to tell the story of Dak Prescott's first touchdown pass in the preseason against the Los Angeles Rams as a precursor to the success of the Dallas Cowboys' rookie quarterback.

As impressed as Jones was with the throw to Dez Bryant, what caught the eye of Michael Irvin, who was sitting in the suite with Jones that night at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was how his teammates on the sideline reacted to Prescott.

But the more telling play came 12 days later at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Prescott's performance against the Rams -- 10-of-12 for 139 yards and two touchdowns -- showed the Cowboys that their fourth-round pick was ready to be Tony Romo's backup. His first play in the Cowboys' third preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks showed Prescott was capable of more.

On the third play of that game, Romo was awkwardly crunched to the ground by Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril while running away from trouble. Just as Romo was going into a slide, Avril hit the quarterback from behind. After the game, Romo expressed confidence that his twice surgically repaired back could withstand such a hit without an issue. The next day he was diagnosed with a compression fracture of his L1 vertebra.

As the team’s medical staff examined Romo, with coach Jason Garrett anxiously looking on as the Cowboys got ready for their next play, Prescott jogged onto the field in the most unfriendly of circumstances.

CenturyLink Field is the loudest stadium in the NFL, even in the preseason. It was third-and-8 from the Dallas 38. The Seahawks have had one of the best defenses in the league -- complete with a catchy nickname for their secondary, the Legion of Boom -- for years.

With three receivers to his right, Prescott signaled for Terrance Williams to go in motion. Twice he lifted his leg to call for the shotgun snap from Travis Frederick. As he spun the ball in his hands to find the laces, Prescott looked at tight end Jason Witten, who was covered down the seam.

Prescott bounced four times on his feet before finding Cole Beasley for a 12-yard completion and a first down.

“I think that was the first moment people realized, ‘Hey, this guy can play,’” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “It was third down, too. Crowd’s going nuts. And he comes in and just sticks one in there like it was nothing.”

The Cowboys’ drive eventually stalled, but Prescott delivered in a big moment. On the next drive, he threw a touchdown pass to Witten and finished the first half completing 15 of 19 passes for 106 yards.

That the Cowboys lost 27-17 didn’t matter. All that mattered was Romo’s back injury -- and Prescott’s future.

In 2015, the Cowboys went 1-11 without Romo, who twice suffered a broken collarbone. They lost their incumbent backup quarterback, Kellen Moore, in the first week of training camp to a broken ankle. There was an empty feeling when Romo was hurt at Seattle, even if nobody wants to remember it that way now after Prescott’s stellar regular-season showing.

“The coming in with the obvious cloud of disappointment -- that, everybody felt. In other words, it wasn’t just a physical thing. It was a mental letdown," Jones said. "Everybody knew that we had had some back problems with Tony after that play. We didn’t know the degree. We didn’t know about the compression fracture. But we did know that we had a little something.

"For him [Prescott] to come in under those circumstances was very telling. His preseason was about as successful as I think you could ever draw up.”

Prescott went on to set Cowboys rookie records for wins (13, which also tied the most by a rookie in NFL history), touchdown passes (23), yards (3,667), completions (311) and attempts (459). He set a franchise quarterback record with six rushing touchdowns and had just four passes intercepted all season. He was named to the Pro Bowl and will be in the mix for the offensive rookie of the year and most valuable player awards. Most importantly, he has the Cowboys playing at home in the playoffs, starting with Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers.

How far the Cowboys go in the postseason is uncertain, but on that Aug. 25 night in Seattle, they knew they had found something.

“At that time, yes [it was impressive],” center Travis Frederick said. “Looking back, that’s who Dak is. That’s who he is as a player. Doesn’t matter what the circumstance is, he finds somebody on the field to be open. He’s not a guy who’s predetermining where the ball has to go. He really sees things and tries to execute the offense to the best of his ability.”