It gets harder every week to explain away Dak Prescott. Following a 31–26 win over Washington on Thanksgiving — Dallas’s fifth 30-point outburst of the 2016 season — the Cowboys are now 10–1. They sit 2.5 games up in the NFC East, and their offense (no. 1 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and third in points per game) has started to resemble a weekly recreation of the explosion scene from Independence Day. With Prescott making the types of throws that he did on Thursday — the third-down, emotionally devastating variety — Dallas is a perfectly built instrument of destruction.
The typical refrain from Dak doubters to this point has been that the Cowboys offense hums mostly because of its other pieces: the league’s best offensive line and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott combining to create the most bone-crushing ground game in recent memory. We’ve reached a point, though, where it’s impossible to ignore the numbers that Prescott is producing. Through 11 games, he’s 231-of-340 for 2,835 yards with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. That puts him on pace for what would inarguably be the best statistical rookie passing season of all time, and outings like Thursday’s are what make that increasingly easier to believe.
For first-year quarterbacks with at least 250 pass attempts, Prescott ranks no. 1 in completion percentage (67.9), interception rate (0.6), QB rating (108.6), and adjusted yards per attempt (9.1). Only Ben Roethlisberger averaged more yards per attempt (8.9, on just 295 passes, in 2004) than Prescott’s 8.3, and only Andrew Luck averaged more yards per game (273.4 to 257.7). If Prescott continues at his current pace, he’ll finish in the top three among first-year QBs for touchdowns and yards, right up there with Luck and Russell Wilson — except with better efficiency numbers.
There are some who might still try to make the argument: Any quarterback would rack up gaudy stats in the Dallas offense. But we already know that’s not true. While the Cowboys didn’t have Elliott a season ago, they had the same five guys up front, mauling front sevens and turning Darren McFadden into a productive NFL running back. With Tony Romo injured and Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore truly putting the “any quarterback” theory to the test, Dallas finished a putrid 31st in offensive DVOA.
What the Cowboys have shown in 2016 is that offenses aren’t simply collections of units with individual values that can be judged regardless of context. Plenty of NFL pundits roasted Dallas on draft day when the franchise spent the no. 4 overall pick on Elliott. The analysts’ reasoning was that a solid if unspectacular back — such as Alfred Morris — would still produce behind the Cowboys offensive line. That’s probably fair. So is the idea that Prescott’s numbers are partially inflated because he plays with the Dallas supporting cast. But the reason this offense has turned into the football equivalent of the Death Star is that every facet — Prescott, Elliott, the line, and the Dez Bryant–led receiving corps — benefits from the others.
The conversation around Prescott is reminiscent of the one that surrounded Wilson during his rookie season in 2012. Wilson put up ridiculous numbers for a Seahawks team that went 11–5 and finished fourth in offensive DVOA, but the knock against him was that his offensive impact was marginalized; it was Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle running game that were constantly mowing opponents down. That line of thinking did have merit. The Seahawks used play-action on 35 percent of their 2012 dropbacks, according to Football Outsiders, and averaged an absurd 8.6 yards per play on those throws. Their ground game formed the basis of the offense, and its brutal efficiency helped fuel the passing attack.
What that interpretation ignored was how much Wilson’s talent, with both his arm and his legs, added to Seattle’s rushing success. Zone-read plays made up a considerable chunk of the Seahawks playbook that season, and with Wilson emerging as a regular threat to run, the hat-on-hat math often tilted in Seattle’s favor.
Wilson’s impact wasn’t downplayed because of what he couldn’t do. It was downplayed because of what he wasn’t asked to do — namely, carry an offense by himself. Watching the Colts’ Luck do his best Sisyphus impression every year makes it easy to recognize his greatness, and Wilson has fallen into a similar category this fall. But that’s the point: It took Lynch’s retirement after last season and a bottom-rung Seahawks offensive line this season for some to understand just how great Wilson could be. A quarterback’s situation will always influence the way he’s perceived, but the blank canvas provided by a terrible line or receiving corps shouldn’t be a requirement for identifying QB excellence.
There’s no denying that Prescott has more help than just about every other quarterback in football this season. Still, Thursday’s win provided a powerful example of where that begins and where that ends. Washington’s Kirk Cousins may not have the benefit of the Cowboys’ terrific ground game, but he has a group of pass catchers that’s as good as it gets. On paper, Cousins had an excellent performance in defeat: 41-of-53 for 449 yards with three touchdowns and no picks. One of those scores came on a 67-yarder that he could have punted to DeSean Jackson. Another came on Jordan Reed’s ridiculous full-extension reception in the back of the end zone. And 33 of Cousins’s yards came on a Reed catch down the right sideline that looked like it was CGI’d.
Just like with Prescott, Cousins shouldn’t be penalized for having great playmakers around him. But the difference between his day (and season) and Prescott’s is that Prescott was able to elevate the rest of his offense — rather than just keeping it afloat — in the game’s most critical moments.
Watch Prescott’s third-and-14 throw to Cole Beasley in the second quarter and then try to argue that the quarterback is merely the product of Dallas’s offense. And that wasn’t his only standout play in accounting for 234 total yards on the afternoon.
His final strike to Bryant came on a third-and-9, on the run, with Washington’s Su’a Cravens spying the quarterback and bearing down on him. Prescott’s touchdown run earlier in the fourth quarter happened on a designed rollout that forced safety Duke Ihenacho to choose between covering tight end Jason Witten and keeping Prescott out of the end zone. Much like using read plays near the goal line, the Cowboys can employ designed rollouts — which are only possible because of Prescott’s mobility — to shift the math in their favor when the field shrinks.
The more Dallas thrives, the more it becomes clear: Those are the kind of plays that are helping Prescott put together the greatest first-year QB season ever. He has been given every chance to succeed, but he’s used his unique skill set to do the same for the Cowboys offense. Prescott’s numbers may be amplified thanks to the help around him, but his breakout campaign isn’t a mirage. The man himself has had plenty to do with it.