Dak Prescott is the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. A year ago that sentence might have given some people in Dallas anxiety. After all, Prescott was a fourth round rookie quarterback who was replacing the then franchise quarterback Tony Romo after a preseason injury. Yet, after one of the league’s best rookie seasons for a quarterback ever and a 13-3 record, there is nothing but confidence coming out of Dallas these days.
However, around the league there is some skepticism about Prescott being able to duplicate last season’s success. Those who hold that belief have a compelling argument. There was an entire offseason for defensive coordinators to study Prescott’s tape. That, plus losing two members of the NFL’s best offensive line in Ronald Leary and Doug Free, along with the possibility of Ezekiel Elliott being suspended for the first six games of the season could impact the sophomore signal caller’s play negatively. With all of that going against Prescott, it’s not all too hard to believe he could have a sophomore slump in 2017.
But I’m in the opposite camp. I think Prescott will improve in 2017 from an individual standpoint. He’ll be more experienced in how he goes about preparing and the offense will be tailored to his strengths instead of Romo’s. He also doesn’t resemble recent quarterbacks who have suffered slumps.
For comparison, two quarterbacks that had success in their first year as a starter before NFL defenses caught up to them were Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick. I compared the three quarterbacks statistically in their first year as a starter using their passing and rushing numbers. I decided to include Kaepernick’s 2012 and 2013 season because he became the starter midway through 2012.
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Prescott was clearly the most effective passer in the group completing a higher percentage of his passes and having the highest adjusted net yardage per attempt.
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The good news for Prescott is that these players also heavily relied on running the ball to be effective players, while Prescott didn’t. Griffin III and Kaepernick had a higher volume of carries than Prescott their first go around in the league. This was strategic as their offensive coordinators called designed runs for their athletic quarterbacks who weren’t polished passers. Yet in Dallas, Scott Linehan didn’t rely on his quarterback running the ball often and only designed runs occasionally. A lot of Prescott’s runs were after he decided nothing was open downfield, which is a different type of mental processing than when a run play is called as the quarterback needs to go through his progressions before tucking it and running. This allowed Prescott to develop as a passer and now he has all these reps throwing the ball and less hits taken as well. Stylistically, Prescott probably falls closer to Kirk Cousins than Kaepernick on a quarterback spectrum. The way he runs play action and how he is able to distribute the ball to the playmakers around him are his strengths. I think his ceiling is higher than Cousins, but in terms of style they’re similar.
The NFL caught up to Griffin III and Kaepernick by containing them in the pocket and forcing them to throw the ball. Despite not being a “running quarterback”, Prescott is an effective passer on the move outside the pocket. To combat Prescott’s ability on the move, defenses might play their defensive ends wider and try to contain Prescott more within the pocket.
Last season I wrote about the Dallas Cowboys Third Down Problems which mainly revolved around Prescott’s struggles. The Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants showed Prescott a lot of complicated looks and coverages while blanketing Dallas’s receivers downfield. Those teams did a good job containing Prescott when he tried to get outside the pocket. The second play example in that piece explains that Prescott holds onto the ball too long before he tucks it and runs. New York was able to contain Prescott and get the sack, knocking Dallas out of field goal range.
I’m unable to say whether or not employing this strategy against Prescott in 2017 will be successful. All I can do is point to what his coaches have to say on the potential of a sophomore slump and extrapolate.
When asked about the potential of a sophomore slump, Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Coach, Wade Wilson told USA Today that, “He is just so dialed in. He’s so motivated. His intangibles are off the hook. I don’t even think it’s a concern for him.”
He later spoke about how Prescott responded when he didn’t have his A game.
“He didn’t have his fastball in Minnesota (a 17-15 win on Dec. 1), and he ran on third down and converted, found a way to win at the end of the game. Even the playoff game, Green Bay’s kicking our ass and we’re down big (21-3) — he didn’t blink. We’re back, and then we’re right there (tied at 31) at the end. It should’ve been an overtime game.”
There are excellent points made there by Wilson. Prescott is a hard worker and has the intangibles to keep his team in the game when he’s not at his best, which is a coveted trait for a quarterback. And because Prescott is working hard to improve his own game, opposing teams will also need to account for Prescott’s adjustments. That includes both mechanically and how much more aggressive he’ll be throwing the ball down the field.
According to Doug Farrar, early in the season Prescott was eight of 19 with two touchdowns on passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air. As the season progressed, Prescott threw the ball down the field at a higher rate and was more successful at it. In the second half he completed 11 of 35 attempts for five touchdowns. An increase of attempts due to having the trust of his coaching staff says Farrar.
Additionally, Prescott completed 60.6% of his 104 passes in the 11-20 yard range throwing for six touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was also successful on passes 21-30 yards down the field, completing 12 of 29 passes – 41.4% – for five touchdowns and no interceptions. If this is any indication of what’s to come in 2017, Prescott will be throwing the ball down the field more due to his coach’s confidence in him this season. This should significantly benefit Dez Bryant too, as the two already seem to have developed quite the rapport with each other this offseason and preseason. A usual caveat with throwing the ball down the field more is an increase in interceptions, but that is to be expected when you throw only four in a season. Overall, the Dallas offense will live with Prescott efficiently hitting on the intermediate routes and timely deep passes.
Prescott can avoid having a down second season while not having the same team success in 2017. It will be difficult for Dallas to have the same success the team had last year with the schedule they play. This is not new for Prescott, however. There are potential parallels from his junior and senior seasons at Mississippi State with his rookie and sophomore season in the NFL. As a junior Prescott led the Bulldogs to 10-3 record and had them ranked number one overall in October. He also finished eighth in Heisman voting. As a senior Prescott improved as a player – mainly his passing ability, but the season never reached the high mark that was achieved in 2014.
Prescott will be tested right away as the Cowboys open the season against difficult opponents. They’ll face the Giants, Denver Broncos, and Arizona Cardinals in their first three contests. All having very good defenses. It will be a challenge for the Cowboys offense. To be successful Prescott is going to have to make adjustments at the line to protect against the blitz and get the ball out on time. Something he had trouble with against Minnesota and New York during Dallas’s two-week offensive drought last season.
Losing two-fifths of his offensive line and Elliott to suspension might hurt Prescott, but he’s not only a product of good talent around him. As Doug Farrar points out , Prescott is a special player when he’s the last man standing. Prescott is a special player and special players figure out ways to learn and improve.