Andy Dalton prepared as Cowboys begin life without Dak Prescott

FRISCO, Texas -- The text went out early the evening of Oct. 11, just like hundreds of other messages Andrew Hawkins, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton have shared since 2012.

The former Cincinnati Bengals teammates sent congratulatory messages to their quarterback, who took over for an injured Dak Prescott and helped direct the Dallas Cowboys to a 37-34 win against the New York Giants in Week 5.

"We were kids when we came into the league," Hawkins said. "No one expected much out of me, Mo, Marvin, Andy. A.J., he was the superstar. But people have kids, people get married, we get cut, lose jobs; we're true, genuine friends, which is unique. It's not just we're keeping up. We come to each other when we make big decisions, whether it's Mo going to Atlanta or Andy in free agency or whatever it is. We tap into each other because we trust each other. That's a testament to Andy and the type of leader he is."

Dalton's reaction to the text was not about the two late throws he made to Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup that set up the game-winning field goal. It wasn't about the excitement he felt about being back in game action again after a nine-year run as Cincinnati's starter.

Dalton's text reply was about Prescott.

"He might get pissed, but whatever," Hawkins said. "This is what he said: 'Thanks guys, I feel devastated for Dak, man. What a tough break. Praying for that guy. He'll bounce back, man. But thank you guys. I appreciate it.' His whole sentiment was about Dak."

Dalton will start his first game as Prescott's replacement on Monday Night Football (8:15 ET, ESPN) against the Arizona Cardinals at AT&T Stadium, but this is not something new for him, and it's a role he is well-prepared for given his experience leading those same teammates who sent him messages of congratulations.

The veteran has started 133 of 135 games in his pro career. He was named to the Pro Bowl three times. He helped the Bengals to the playoffs five times after the team made it to the playoffs just twice from 1991 to 2010. He has 204 touchdown passes and has thrown for 31,705 yards.

"My role was a little different the first five games being behind Dak, but now it's like getting back to basically how it was for me," Dalton said. "And so I know how to prepare; I've got a routine that I've been used to that I've done that I feel like has worked really well for me. It's not really a whole lot new that I'm trying to figure out. I've got the experience of doing this for a while."

When he walked into the huddle last week and replaced Prescott, he told his Cowboys teammates, "I came here to win. I came here to play. So, let's do it," according to Gallup.

To those who know Dalton best, he makes it easy to want to play for him and not just with him.

"He's a no-ego guy," Hawkins said. "He just wants to do his job. He's extremely even-keeled. He gave guys the freedom to be themselves because he never put himself above any of us. It didn't feel like he was the guy that we had to answer to. He didn't make it seem like he was more important than us even though we understood he was because he's the quarterback. It was like we were all invested the same way with each other, so that's what made guys want to play for him."

Dalton, a 2011 second-round pick by the Bengals, was just feeling his way through the NFL when he took over for starter Carson Palmer. In Cincinnati, Kyle Cook was Dalton's center for three years. He was watching the Cowboys' game when Prescott got hurt and called out to his wife when Dalton entered the game.

"He doesn't have an ego," Cook said, repeating Hawkins' statement. "He doesn't have this thing about him that some guys may have that make them unlikable. You could see from the beginning in getting to know him he was a personable guy. That goes a long way when talking about a locker room filled with a different cast of characters, different upbringings, different colleges, different ways of looking at things. Andy's got his head on straight."

'The standard is still high'

Dalton does not feel the need to be Prescott, who was leading the NFL in passing yards and had three straight games with 450 yards passing, on the field or in the locker room.

"Everybody's loved Dak; everybody's loved the way he's handled everything. So for me, I have to be myself, build on what Dak's done here and be me along the way," Dalton said. "Not trying to take anything away from Dak and everything he's done, but at the end of the day, I'm the one who's out there, and I've got to be the guy that's going to get everybody's attention and lead this group since Dak's not here. The standard is still high."

Dalton's consistency in approach was something Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy noticed in training camp.

"He knows exactly what to say, when to say it. Whether it's in protection meetings, just to the center, 'Hey, make sure, just make the declaration, let's don't make it rocket science,'" McCarthy said. "He has a very, very smart way of getting his point across in as few words as possible. I'm a believer in direct leadership. And Andy's a guy that everybody loves. How do you not? If you don't like Andy Dalton, then there's something wrong with you."

The last time the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback, their season disintegrated. In 2015, Tony Romo started and finished two games because of a twice-broken right collarbone. The Cowboys went 4-12 with Kellen Moore (0-2), Brandon Weeden (0-3) and Matt Cassel (1-6) starting 12 games.

Since 2010, the Cowboys are 6-18 in their past 24 games started by their backup quarterback. Only Stephen McGee had a winning record (1-0 in the 2010 season).

The emotions of losing Prescott lingered into the Cowboys' practice week. On Wednesday, they released a get-well video from teammates to Prescott. When he showed up at The Star team facility on Thursday, players were excited to see him. There is a "Win for Dak" theme that has permeated throughout the squad.

"Dak is our brother, and we love him. And we hate the way that it happened in the game [last week]," Cowboys cornerback Anthony Brown said. "We know how much this game means to him, and we know how much the team means to him, so we want to fight for him."

They now turn their eyes to Dalton, who will turn 33 in 10 days, and there is belief.

"I don't think anyone feels like they need to do extra. We just got to go out there and be ourselves," Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "We've got plenty of talent on this team, and Andy is plenty talented himself. He's been a starter in this league, and he could be a starter on other teams, so I don't think anyone has to press. I don't think anyone has to do anything out of the ordinary."

When Dalton joined the Cowboys as a free agent, he said his goal was to be a starter again. He never wanted it to come because of an injury to Prescott, but he is now presented with the chance to prove himself again.

"For me, I've just got to run this offense how it's supposed to be run," Dalton said. "I feel like I've just got to be me and let my play speak for itself. I feel like there's a lot of talent on this team, and my job is to distribute the ball to our guys, let them go make plays and just be me throughout the whole process of it all.

"I feel like we still have a lot of good football left, and I'm anxious to go show that the rest of the season."

Whatever happens Monday, there are sure to be text messages waiting for Dalton after the game.