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There Is a Quarterback Controversy in Dallas

Is Dak Prescott the best rookie signal-caller in NFL history?

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Rookie fourth-round quarterbacks have never done this before. They’re not supposed to put up these kind of stats. They’re not supposed to make these types of throws. But week after week, Dak Prescott marches on with his cool demeanor, precision downfield passing, and efficient, deadly running.

On Monday night, in a game that meant nothing to the Cowboys but everything for a Lions team fighting for its playoff life, Prescott put together his most impressive performance to date. The 23-year-old completed 15 of 20 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Cowboys to their 13th win of the season in a 42–21 blowout at home. Prescott, who mercilessly picked on a depleted Lions secondary with laser beams up the seam and perfectly placed back-shoulder throws, was the best player on the field. And while his backfield mate Ezekiel Elliott came into this week as the Vegas favorite for the MVP award, the Mississippi State product has been nearly as impressive.

Fifteen games into the season, the only quarterback controversy concerning Dallas is whether Prescott is the greatest rookie signal-caller the league has ever seen.

With one game to go, Prescott’s 23 touchdown passes ties him with Andrew Luck for third on the all-time rookie list, now behind just Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson (26). His completion percentage (68.1) is the best for a rookie passer ever (minimum 150 attempts). His interception percentage (picks per throw) is less than 1 percent (0.89), which is the lowest ever for a rookie, and his 23–4 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best of all time. His passer rating (105.6) is the highest ever (post-merger) for a rookie, and let’s not forget his ability to run: His six rushing touchdowns are tied for fourth-most ever.

No matter how you slice it, Prescott’s season stacks up against all of the best rookie performances. Manning still co-owns the rookie-touchdowns record with Wilson, sure, but he also threw 28 picks, completed just 56.7 percent of his passes, and compiled a 71.2 passer rating in 1998. (Also, his team won just three games.) Luck’s high-volume passing as a rookie will always be hard to match — he did throw for a rookie-record 4,374 yards for the Colts in 2012 — but he completed just 54.1 percent of his 627 passes (almost 200 more than Prescott’s 451 attempts this season) and threw 18 picks. Cam Newton’s rookie year was unbelievable in its own way: His 4,051 passing yards and 21 touchdowns — plus 706 rush yards and 14 rushing touchdowns — in 2011 is insane, but Newton completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw 17 picks.

While we can pick apart the best raw-number rookie years, Prescott compares favorably to some of the the most efficient rookie passers, too. In 2012, Wilson and Robert Griffin III both put on a show. Wilson finished with 3,118 yards, 26 touchdowns, and just 10 picks. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes at 7.93 yards per attempt to finish with an even 100.0 passer rating, and he added 489 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. Griffin, meanwhile, threw for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He completed 65.7 percent of his passes at 8.14 yards per attempt, registering a 102.4 passer rating while running for 815 yards and seven touchdowns. Prescott’s 3,630 passing yards, 23 touchdowns, 105.6 passer rating, and 68.1 completion percentage all outpace both Griffin and Wilson. His 8.05 yards per attempt fall just short of Griffin’s, but his four picks are fewer than both his predecessors’.

Of course, with an incredible offensive line, one of the best running backs in the league, and the diverse and dangerous receiving trio of Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley, Prescott has one of the best supporting casts in the NFL. And it’s the kind of group most top picks don’t get to work with because teams don’t get top picks unless they’re, well, bad. But Prescott’s not just a statistical product of a great infrastructure. Throughout the year, he’s made plenty of big-time throws and has consistently demonstrated both pinpoint accuracy and a near-perfect touch. We saw all of that on display against Detroit.

In the first quarter, when Prescott sees cover-three coverage, he audibles out of the original play call on third-and-14 and throws a dart up the seam to Brice Butler for a touchdown.

Late in the second, he steps up to hit Dez Bryant in the corner of the end zone. Prescott looks to his right long enough to affect Detroit’s deep safety before coming back to his left to challenge the Lions’ one-on-one coverage. He drops the throw into a bucket close to 30 yards downfield, and Bryant reels it in for a score.

Midway through the third quarter, Prescott shows off that amazing touch in dropping the ball past the defender’s outstretched arms and right in stride to receiver Terrance Williams.

Then, in the fourth quarter, Prescott again finds Bryant in the end zone — this time with a precise back-shoulder pass. Again, he manipulates the defense by first looking to his left before coming back to his right and exploiting man coverage on the outside.

No matter the teammates, not many quarterbacks in the NFL — let alone a rookie fourth-rounder — can consistently make throws that require a marriage of timing, touch, and awareness. But Prescott’s been making these plays all year. It’s one thing to limit Elliott and the Cowboys’ run game, but when you also have to stop Prescott from converting on key third downs and throwing dimes to Bryant in the end zone, opposing defense start to get into "cross our fingers and hope" territory. Through 16 weeks, the Cowboys quarterback has been a revelation — unlike anything we’ve seen in NFL history. And just in case you were starting to sleep on Dallas’s Super Bowl chances, Monday night was Prescott’s wake-up call.