The Cowboys offense had yet to put points on the board with about a minute left in the first half of their Monday night tilt against the Arizona Cardinals. It was looking a lot like their 25-point loss in Denver the previous week on the offensive side of the ball. The Dallas offensive line wasn’t opening up the necessary holes for Ezekiel Elliott to run through. And Elliott’s play suffered early, being tackled near the line of scrimmage on all of his rushes except for a 30-yard run he broke off on their third drive of the game.
More concerning, Dak Prescott didn’t look all that good throwing the ball at that point. Most of his passes were safe and of the short variety. His incompletions were a result of inaccuracy. An issue that’s plagued him early this season, preventing him from capitalizing on his receivers getting open. Coming out of the draft his ball placement was something that evaluators felt needed some refinement and to his credit, he did improve in his rookie season. However, with an offensive line going through a transition period at LG and RT and without a strong running game to complement his style, Prescott has faced more pressure and unfavorable downs, resulting in a loss of accuracy.
There was some talk all week about how the Denver Broncos exposed Prescott’s weaknesses. I originally chalked it up to Denver being an elite defense with the personnel to match Dallas’s skill positions and the crowd noise making it difficult to communicate. But midway through Week 3, Prescott wasn’t playing all that well while having to make up for a lack of a running game. Another poor performance would be alarming, especially for someone who personally thinks Prescott is a good quarterback and thought he could overcome some of the challenges presented to him if the offensive line and running game weren’t as strong as they were a season ago. Of course, I didn’t expect the running game to be this futile, but my initial opinion seemed to be off, as early in the season as it may be.
But then this happened.
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To start the drive the Cowboys were given excellent field position starting at the Arizona 33. After a 5-yard holding penalty and a 13-yard pass play to Noah Brown the Cowboys finally scored a touchdown on a read option play that was kept by Prescott to tie the game at 7.
This drive and play was a particularly important turning point in the game. On the drive, offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was highlighting Prescott’s strengths by calling the play action bootleg. Play action helps Prescott and the offense as a whole get on schedule as defenses are always aware of the Dallas rushing attack. Secondly, this touchdown rallied the Cowboys as a team. It’s difficult not to get a little fired up when your quarterback flips into the end zone while challenging two defenders on a bum ankle.
After the game I listened to Louis Riddick, a person I truly admire in the evaluation community, speak about Prescott and his football character. I immediately thought back to the zone read touchdown that Prescott scored late in the first half and all of the plays leading up to that point. The Cowboys offense looked terrible. They couldn’t block, run, or pass effectively enough to move the ball. Yet, there they were at halftime, tied 7-7. A lot of that has to do with the defense playing well and giving the offense excellent field position. I agree. However, the leadership qualities Prescott exhibits cannot be ignored. To paraphrase Riddick’s comments- Prescott has an innate ability for being a quarterback. He exudes leadership that permeates throughout the rest of the team. Sometimes playing quarterback isn’t about who has the most talent, but about who’s working the hardest. In the team facility that holds a lot of weight.
Intangibles are impossible to measure. And, well, yeah – that’s why they’re called intangibles. But they do matter and they probably matter more for the quarterback position than any other position. There is something to be said about a resilient quarterback. A player who perseveres and is able to make the plays when they matter the most. This can also be described as competitive or mental toughness, which I’d argue falls into the football character category.
Prescott may be inaccurate at times, but he isn’t going to force the ball to risk a turnover. He’ll live to die another day. This is a mature trait for a second-year quarterback and one that helps keep his team in games when they don’t have their A game from the get go. But when an important play is needed he’s extremely reliable.
For example, Dallas faced a critical 3rd and 3 from the Arizona 43 with 13:17 remaining in the 4th quarter tied at 14. The Cowboys were dreadful all night on third down up until this point. This was mainly because the offense wasn’t on schedule and faced 3rd and 10+ situations, but this was still a crucial play despite the lesser amount of yards needed.
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Prescott motioned Cole Beasley (#11) closer to the line prior to the snap. When the ball is snapped Beasley runs a pivot route, running inside and then breaking to the outside. Prescott has good protection initially, but Frostee Rucker (#92) is running free as he tries to step up and throw. Prescott is able to deliver a good pass to Beasley, who falls forward for the first down. This play seems like a relatively easy one, but within the context of all that happened during this game up until this point, converting this third down displayed competitive toughness.
When a player has football character, intangibles, toughness, or any other term you use to describe the immeasurable aspect of quarterbacking – his traits begin to play up relative to his true talent level. This is a result of working hard in practice and then an extreme focus on the task at hand.
Moving forward the Dallas Cowboys offense has to get in a rhythm earlier than it did against their first three opponents. The team has only scored 3 first quarter points through their first three games, which is odd for an offense that was ranked eighth in first quarter points a season ago. Part of that is the quality of defenses the Cowboys are facing, but it also has to do with getting your quarterback into a rhythm. Dallas’s best first quarter thus far came in its season opener against the New York Giants. On their first drive Prescott did rollout on a play action pass and completed it to Beasley. The drive later stalled after Brice Butler had a drop and Prescott missed Dez Bryant along the sideline, forcing Dallas to punt.
Prescott is at his best on play action plays and when he’s on the move. Play action rollouts, bootlegs, and waggles allow the second-year signal caller to make easier reads as he only has half the field to work with. These play calls also allow him to become a more accurate passer. As Doug Farrar notes, Prescott completed 75% of his play action passes for 1,115 yards, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions in 2016. And I can’t confirm this with a velocity measure, but I believe he also has more velocity on throws outside the pocket as well.
To set up Prescott’s game-tying touchdown run against Arizona, the Dallas offense called for a play action bootleg to Noah Brown.
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With 6:35 left in the 4th quarter, leading 21-17, Linehan called for another play action bootleg. This was an excellent play call as teams would expect Dallas to run on first down to start the drive, especially with the lead. Prescott rolled outside the pocket and delivered a pass to Butler (#19) against one-on-one coverage downfield against safety Tyrann Mathieu (#32) for a 53-yard gain.
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This was the second time Prescott hit Butler on a pass for more than 35 yards down the field. The other was a 37-yard touchdown earlier in the 4th quarter where Prescott broke contain after faking the play action to Elliott. With Prescott outside the pocket, Butler improvised and ran toward the corner of the end zone and scored on a contested catch touchdown.
You can’t only live on play action passes and plays outside the pocket, but they can help Prescott get into a rhythm as he drops back more throughout the game. Prescott is stylistically similar to Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins in that he’s very effective running play action and on play action rollouts. These plays are expected to build a quarterback’s confidence to make more difficult throws later in games. Prescott can win from the pocket as he proved in 2016. Through three games in 2017 he needs to be more consistent moving forward.
Dallas opened up its season against three difficult opponents and came out 2-1. Prescott wasn’t his best, but he battled with the help of his teammates. He may not be the most gifted passer, but he has innate abilities when it comes to quarterbacking. Letting his football character play out and playing to his strengths should still be a recipe for success moving forward while waiting for the Cowboys offensive line and running game to get back up to speed.