OXNARD, Calif. (AP) — Dak Prescott climbed the stairs to the VIP tent that once served as Tony Romo’s perch for interviews at training camp, facing a phalanx of cameras similar to the one his predecessor and the longtime Dallas starter used to see.
It’s Prescott’s job now, and the second-year star quarterback has the attention to prove it.
“Last year I came in and I was just trying to figure everything out,” Prescott said on the opening morning of camp in California.
“Everything I do (now) they’re watching. Not just you guys but my teammates, the coaches as well. But that’s fun to me. That’s something that I embrace.”
An afterthought this time a year ago as a fourth-round pick and third-teamer behind Romo and Kellen Moore, Prescott’s outlook first changed when Moore broke an ankle in a training camp practice. Then Romo went down with a back injury in the third preseason game.
Prescott answered with one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history, leading the Cowboys to the top seed in the NFC at 13-3 before a divisional playoff loss to Green Bay.
Romo was relegated to the backup job when he was healthy again, and is now preparing for his debut in the TV booth as the lead analyst for CBS after Dallas released him. The Cowboys went 1-11 without an injured Romo in a last-place 4-12 season the year before Prescott arrived.
“A lot more comfortable than I ever thought I would be this time last year or beyond not having Romo,” said owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who gave Romo the first $100 million contract in franchise history four years ago. “So that has everything to do with the year that Dak had and more importantly the way Dak is approaching this year.”
Last year, Prescott bristled at the idea of “vanilla defenses” when he was coming off two strong preseason showings — the week before Romo got hurt. This year, he figures to hear the term “sophomore slump.” He’ll shrug at that, too.
Prescott won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors over backfield mate and NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott because he led the Cowboys to a franchise-record 11 straight wins.
The former Mississippi State standout, the first drafted quarterback in seven years for Dallas, tied Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie record of 13 wins and set rookie marks in passer rating (104.9) and fewest interceptions (four, to go with 23 touchdowns).
“He’s got an insatiable appetite to want to be the best, to improve,” executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. “I can assure you there are 16 teams on our schedule this year that have watched every play that Dak ran and they are going to have all sorts of things that are going to challenge him. He knows that.”
Receiver Dez Bryant, a 2014 All-Pro when Romo led the Cowboys to just their second playoff win since their most recent Super Bowl 22 years ago, is growing weary of Romo questions, declaring the Cowboys are “Dak’s team.”
Bryant raves about Prescott’s leadership skills, illustrated when he coaxed Bryant and Elliott into film rooms for extra study during the offseason at the team’s new practice facility in suburban Frisco.
“I just like the way he handles his business,” Bryant said. “That’s why he’s a great football player, just because of who he is as a person. The thing that he’s got, you can’t teach. We respect that. We’re going to follow that.”
Prescott’s busy offseason included cheering with unbridled joy when the Mississippi State women’s basketball team ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak at the Final Four in Dallas.
He signed several endorsement deals and headlined youth camps in his hometown of Haughton, Louisiana, and the Dallas area. But with off-field issues dominating headlines for the Cowboys, Prescott quietly wrapped up the offseason by working out in Florida.
“There’s a lot that went on in the offseason, but it means absolutely nothing,” he said. “The only thing that matters is what I do and this team does next.”
And it’s his team, not Romo’s.