Ezekiel Elliott wasted no time when asked if the Dallas Cowboys’ lack of playoff experience could affect them.
“No,” said Elliott, among five rookies on the 53-man roster.
“Cause we’re competitors, that’s what we love to do,” Elliott said. “We go out there and compete. We’ve done it all season. I mean, we’ve played in big games all season, every game in this league is a big one.
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“Every time they play the Dallas Cowboys, especially when you’re winning, you’ve got a target on your back and you’re going to get the team’s best. I think the season has prepared us for this.”
Yes, the Cowboys are a confident group going into the playoffs. And they should be after clinching the top-seed with two weeks to go in what became a 13-3 campaign.
Still, 19 of 53 players have yet to play an NFL playoff game and the inexperience is a question worth asking on a team that is led by a pair of rookies in Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. After all, a rookie quarterback has yet to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
The Cowboys are hopeful Prescott can become the first to accomplish that, as well as win it. For his part, Prescott showed the same poise and calmness as he has had all season when asked about the playoff pressure earlier this week.
He said he understands the magnitude of the situation for a Dallas fan base that hasn’t seen a championship team since the 1995 season.
“I’m aware, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” Prescott said. “That was ’95, this is ’16, well ’17 now, so it’s a brand-new team. The team is created every year for its own legacy. We’re trying to make a good one here.”
That starts with postseason success and there aren’t many inside the locker room who have experienced it.
Reserve interior lineman Joe Looney and defensive end Benson Mayowa are the only players who have been on Super Bowl teams. Looney was with San Francisco when they went in 2012, and Mayowa was with Seattle in 2013, although both were inactive for the game.
“It’s a great experience to get there and be a part of it,” Looney said. “I think every NFL player is hungry to get there.”
Jason Witten and Tony Romo are the longest-tenured players, each in their 14th season. Witten has played in seven playoff games, and Romo in six. They’ve never reached the NFC Championship.
Linebacker Justin Durant, in his 10th season, has played in three playoff games. Running back Darren McFadden, in his eighth season, is going to the playoffs for the first time.
“It definitely feels great, man,” McFadden said. “It’s been a long nine years for me. Just to be there? I’m happy and blessed. ... I tell these young guys, it’s not easy to do.
“I’ve been here nine years and it’s definitely hard to get there.”
The most accomplished postseason player might be third-string quarterback Mark Sanchez, who quarterbacked the New York Jets to the AFC Championship as a rookie in 2009 and again in 2010.
Sanchez said he feels confident that Prescott and the others will be able to handle the moment.
“With everything else huge on the outside, the field’s the same size, the ball’s the same size, same rules, same playbook, everything,” Sanchez said. “Just eliminating all those distractions. … We’ll help him as much as we can, but he’s going to do great.”
The lack of experience on the surface might be more of a misnomer than anything. There is a different vibe to this year’s Cowboys team than in previous seasons, thanks to Elliott and Prescott. Both are used to having success and playing on the big stage.
Elliott played in a New Year’s Six bowl in each of his three seasons at Ohio State, including winning a national championship as a sophomore in 2014.
Prescott became Mississippi State’s starting quarterback during the 2013 season and led them to a Liberty Bowl victory. The next season he guided the Bulldogs to their first No. 1 ranking and an Orange Bowl berth.
In his final season, a year ago, Prescott led them to nine wins and a bowl victory.
“I just think experience is experience,” coach Jason Garrett said. “Some guys have some experience, some guys don’t. My experience in life is you use your experiences to help you with new experiences.
“For rookies in particular. Every experience they have up until this point is the first time they have done it. It was first rookie minicamp. It was their first OTA. It was their first minicamp. It was their first training camp. On and on and on,” Garrett said.
“What you try to do is encourage them to use their experiences up to this point in life. In Zeke’s case, playing at Ohio State. In Dak’s case, playing at Mississippi State. And use them in your experiences you are about to embark on.”