Massarotti: Cowboys Ripe For Picking

By Tony Massarotti

So the following came shuttling through my Twitter feed courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, validating what many of us have long wondered: “The Dallas Cowboys are the third team in the Super Bowl era to enter the postseason with rookies leading the team in passing and rushing, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. The other two instances were the 2012 Indianapolis Colts and the 2012 Washington Redskins. Neither team won a playoff game that season.”

Which brings me to this:

The Cowboys are ripe for the picking.

There is usually at least one, folks, and by that I mean there is one favorite that bites the dust in the playoffs, no matter the trend of the last few years, no matter the point spread. Divisional weekend feels like a logical place to start. The Cowboys finished the regular season with a 13-3 record during a resurgence behind rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott — in that order. And now they will host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in a game that should leave all of Big D with big, sweaty palms.

Forget the fact that Aaron Rodgers is Mercury hot, having thrown 22 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last eight games, the last seven of which have been victories. And forget that Dallas ranks a poor 24th in defensive passer rating, an important metric in the modern NFL. This game is about Elliott and Prescott — not necessarily in that order this time — and the unfortunate reality that rookies (especially at quarterback) don’t often win in the NFL playoffs.

Remember Ben Roethlisberger? The Steelers went 13-0 (15-1 overall) with him as their starting quarterback in 2004 to earn the top seed in the AFC. Then the playoffs started, and Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in two games, including three in an AFC Championship Game loss to New England (who else?), turning into a black-and-yellow pumpkin.

In his last five games of that season, in fact, Roethlisberger threw 10 picks. TEN. And while the Steelers did win the Super Bowl the very next year, well, the point is that most everyone needs a practice round when it comes to the NFL playoffs.

When you get right down to it, this really is more about Prescott than anything else, though Dallas is a run-first team. Still, if and when Prescott is required to lead the Cowboys to victory this postseason — and almost every NFL quarterback faces that in a successful postseason — the question remains as to whether he actually can. Prescott is a good player, not a great one — at least not yet — but we said the same thing about Andrew Luck in 2012. And we said the same thing about Robert Griffin III.

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Which brings us back to that ESPN tweet.

In 2012, Luck was the No. 1 overall selection of the Colts, who rebounded from a 2-14 season to finish first in the AFC South. Then the playoffs started and Luck got smothered (no touchdowns, one interception, three sacks and a 59.8 rating) by the Baltimore Ravens in his very first game. Griffin suffered a far more ignominious debut, throwing for just 84 yards (and a 77.5 rating) before suffering an injury. RGIII, in particular, has since gone the way of the dodo, wiped from the face of the football earth. (In this case, that’s called Cleveland.)

So what happens Sunday? Of course, nobody knows. But current Dallas backup Tony Romo did not win a playoff game until 2009, as we all know, and he has won only one other since. Now it’s Prescott’s turn to try. And should he fail, well, the Cowboys and their insufferable fans will be left to wonder whether America’s team is ultimately made of paper-mache.

In January, when the weather gets cold, all you have to do is squeeze it a little. And it busts.

Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.

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