FRISCO, Texas — The last time the Dallas Cowboys played in CenturyLink Field in Seattle, their season appeared over before it could even begin.
On the third play of their third preseason game in 2016, Tony Romo grabbed his back after taking a hit from Cliff Avril as the quarterback was sliding. After the game, Romo said he was fine and was encouraged that his surgically repaired back could withstand such a hit. The next day he was diagnosed with a compression fracture of his back that would keep him out at least the first six games of the season.
It was not the news the Cowboys wanted to hear. In 2015, Romo started and finished just two games because of a twice-broken left collarbone. The Cowboys went 3-1 in the games Romo started, but they won just one more game the rest of the season.
“We went through the year before when Romo went down and then he gets hurt here, I mean, people would be lying to you if there wasn’t a panic for a little bit,” right guard Zack Martin said. “Initially, there’s that thought that, ‘Oh, man, are we going through 2015 again?’”
The Cowboys did not suffer through another miserable season. Instead, they were one of the NFL’s biggest surprises, finishing with an NFC-best 13-3 record, although their Super Bowl dreams were quashed by the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Cowboys’ regular-season return to Seattle on Sunday has rekindled the moment they had to turn to quarterback Dak Prescott full time, even if they did not know it then. But that game was also the coming-out party for running back Ezekiel Elliott.
A pregame visit to a marijuana dispensary did him no favors with owner and general manager Jerry Jones, but Elliott ran seven times for 48 yards.
“You know, it was just exciting. It was my first time suiting up as a pro,” Elliott said. “I had been hurt all camp with a little tweaked hammy, so it was like my first time getting to go full speed and just was a lot of energy up there.”
Elliott’s teammates remember more how he ran and who he ran against, twice taking on safety Kam Chancellor.
“Going after the big dog,” receiver Cole Beasley called it. “Twice. That’s the biggest thing that sticks out. [He’s] supposed to be one of the biggest, baddest safeties in the league, and he just went after him, straight up, as a rookie.”
After the game, Elliott said Chancellor and the Seattle defense were doing a lot of trash-talking to him, trying to intimidate the rookie. Elliott decided to talk back.
“Normally, I don’t talk,” Elliott said after the game, “but they were being chippy, man, and I’m not soft.”
Said Martin, “The carries that he did get, putting his head down, getting extra yards, that’s how he runs. He’s continued to run like that throughout his career and he’s continued to.”
While Elliott carried super-sized expectations as the fourth overall pick of the draft, Prescott carried none as a fourth-round pick. He only became Romo’s backup the first week of camp after Kellen Moore suffered a broken elbow.
He impressed in his first preseason action against the Los Angeles Rams with two touchdown passes, completing 10 of 12 passes. This time he was facing one of the fiercest defenses in the league in Seattle. It was third-and-8 on his first snap after taking over for Romo, and he hit Beasley for a 12-yard completion.
On his second drive, he threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten. He finished the game, completing 17 of 23 passes for 116 yards.
“I’m thinking Tony is OK. I’m thinking about my teammate, a guy that I’ve grown close to the last few months, that he’s fine,” Prescott said. “He was going to come back. I think he tried to come back into that game, and they didn’t let him. Nothing in my mind said I was going to end up being the starter.”
But he was the starter, won 11 of his first 12 games and has started every game since.
“I guess this week kind of makes you think a little bit [about the preseason game],” Prescott said. “I’m just thinking about being in Seattle. I’m thinking about the environment, the 12s. Going into that game, I guess my first somewhat real action in the [third preseason game]. Just feeling that environment, getting what the NFL is like, I can only imagine what going back now will be like when it really counts.”