Tom Brady won the game. Dak Prescott won the night.

·NFL columnist
·5-min read

Win the quarterback question. That’s really the only thing the Dallas Cowboys had to do Thursday night.

Yes, beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have been a chef’s kiss to start the season, worth a few dozen Jerry Jones fist-pumps and a plutonium-fueled start for the hype train. Alas, it was undone by special teams miscues that seem all too familiar, not to mention an unflagged offensive pass interference late in the fourth quarter that paid off for the Buccaneers in a 31-29 win over the Cowboys, a game that was promising for both teams, really.

But if Cowboys fans are waking up Friday wringing their hands about the kicker or moaning about the officiating, they’re letting some overcooked green beans ruin the filet mignon. Because that’s what Dak Prescott was serving up: an exquisite start that’s actually more of a superb continuation. It stretches back to last season, when he was absolutely cranking on offense and carrying a depleted Dallas roster, right up to the point that he broke his ankle.

All of which set up the quarterback question that has spanned the Past year: Is that Dak — the one who looked capable of being an MVP candidate — going to be the Dak for the Cowboys? Is he capable of throwing for 400 yards and multiple touchdowns every game, while having virtually the entire offense streamlined through his still-mending arm? And more to the point, is he worthy of being counted among the elites in his play and his pay?

On one very big night and atop one very big stage, Prescott provided a resounding affirmation. Yes. He. Can.

The scoreboard said Dallas lost to Tampa Bay on Thursday. But the excellent performance from Dak Prescott (4) was what mattered most for the Cowboys. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)
The scoreboard said Dallas lost to Tampa Bay on Thursday. But the excellent performance from Dak Prescott (4) was what mattered most for the Cowboys. (AP Photo/Mark LoMoglio)

Forget one loss in a regular season that is longer than it has ever been. Barring catastrophic injury, nobody ever gets to the end of a season and points back to Week 1 as the moment that undercut greater things. If teams were being honest, they’d tell you the first quarter of a season — and not even the first game — is largely a grand experiment where learning and jelling is every bit as important as the number of wins stacked in the process.

Week 1 is simply the first attempt at ironing the curls out of a team’s question marks. It’s no different for these Cowboys. And to be blunt, there’s still no bigger question in Dallas than the quarterback who is coming off two ankle surgeries and some weird preseason arm issue — just as he’s stepping under the microscope that is now lensed through a $40 million annual salary.

So what was really important on Thursday night was Dallas being able to win that aforementioned quarterback question. And not just win it, but annihilate it in an opener that pulled in monster national television ratings, in front of all the (justifiable) Tom Brady sycophants and a universe of Cowboys haters. After all, if you’re going to showcase a quality argument, you might as well do it in front of a jury that numbers in the millions.

Dallas did exactly that. More to the point, Prescott did it, completing 42 of 58 passes for 403 yards and three touchdowns, against one interception that arguably was the fault of his wide receiver. And also commanding an 11-play, 60-yard drive that ended with a field goal and 29-28 lead that should have been protected and closed out by the defense.

It wasn’t, of course. Partially because Tom Brady is Tom Brady — continually answering his own big quarterback question by defying the laws of nature and looking like he might play until he’s 50. That, plus a helpful no-call on Chris Godwin's seeming offensive pass interference were enough to undo Dallas and Prescott in the win column. Lest anyone forget, it still takes a lot to beat Brady in any given situation. You can’t have a kicker misfiring. Or register zero sacks. And maybe don’t leave him around 90 seconds to work with when the game is still in the balance.

None of those were Prescott problems. He was in charge of the filet mignon, and someone else undermined him with the overcooked green beans. But even in the loss, the evidence Prescott offered was undeniable. He didn’t always look healthy the few times he took off running, and his arm strength seemed to be off. But he also made huge plays when he had to, showed zero signs of hearing footsteps in the pocket, and led the fight from the front all night long.

Sure, the stats were great. They have been for a while. Check out his past four complete games. The numbers are insane. But it was much more convincing to watch how Prescott operated and controlled the offense and responded whenever it looked like the Buccaneers might pull away. He looked like a guy who belongs on the upper plateau of quarterbacks. Not just on paper, but on grass, too.

And if you didn’t catch it on the broadcast, Prescott sent a message to Brady that speaks volumes about where he’s at mentally. As the two parted ways after meeting at midfield, Prescott turned back to Brady.

“We’ll see y’all again,” Prescott said.

That could only happen in the postseason — an eternity away from this one little season-opening loss. In between, Prescott will have all the time in the world to keep winning the quarterback question, a stretch that he intends to anchor with enough wins to get another crack at Brady in January.

It’s a cocky suggestion, but Prescott looks more capable than ever of backing it up. And that’s the only win that Dallas needed on Thursday.

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