We’re not talking about Dak Prescott enough.
Eagles signal-caller Carson Wentz has deservedly stolen some attention in the NFC East, throwing 23 touchdowns and just five picks to lead Philly to an 8-1 record. Deshaun Watson’s white-hot start, in which he threw 19 scores in seven games to revive a flat-lining Houston offense, served as a Texas-sized distraction, too. Add in the seemingly never-ending series of holds and reinstatements of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension, Jerry Jones’s apparent plan to block Roger Goodell’s extension, and the fact that the Cowboys just haven’t been quite as dominant as they were last year, and Prescott’s incredible play this season has flown under the radar.
Some had wondered whether a second-year regression for last year’s AP Offensive Rookie of the Year—the so-called sophomore slump—was coming. As teams spent the offseason game-planning to take away Prescott’s biggest strengths—his legs, his best throws, and his favorite plays—it was fair to wonder whether he’d struggle to live up to what was probably the best performance we’ve ever seen from a rookie quarterback. But that decline quietly never came; Prescott has adapted to the new looks teams have thrown at him and has proved he’s here to stay as one of the league’s young superstars at the position. He’s second in the NFL in Total QBR; he’s completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 1,818 yards and 16 touchdowns (tied with Tom Brady for fifth in the NFL) and just four picks at 7.0 yards per attempt. And he’s guided Dallas through its slow start to a 5-3 record at the midway point.
But now, with Elliott set to serve at least the first four games of his six-game suspension, Prescott will face his biggest challenge yet: Running the Cowboys’ offense without the help of the team’s All-Pro back. One of the knocks on Prescott—and one of the reasons, perhaps, that he’s still so underrated—is that he fell into an ideal situation in Dallas, with a dominant ground game to lean on and one of the best offensive lines in the league to protect him. He’s rarely asked to throw the ball all over the gridiron 45 or 50 times a game like some quarterbacks—his total pass attempts and total passing yardage this year rank right in the middle of the pack, league-wide—and he’s relied on Elliott to do a lot of heavy lifting. But while the team will surely miss Elliott’s big-play ability during his suspension, Prescott is capable of carrying this offense.
Prescott’s got that savoir faire; when you flip on the tape, the first thing that stands out is his incredible poise. That’s never been an easy trait to define or measure, but a couple of things coaches have said about Prescott this year help illustrate what that means. Now, in a lot of cases, you’re probably best dismissing coach speak as over-complimentary and/or flat-out wrong—like this week, for instance, when Bill Belichick called the Broncos offense under Brock Osweiler “very explosive”—but Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was absolutely right when he said that, in reference to his quarterback, “some guys just have a feel for the game. They feel very comfortable on the field. When things become challenging or they face adversity on a given play they seem to know how to handle it.”
There’s a certain unflappability about Prescott. He never looks panicked, both before the play and in the pocket. Saints head coach Sean Payton said something similar this summer. “When the game starts and you’re watching the game, you feel calm watching him play,” he said, “and that’s a good trait because you trust him.”
But it takes more than poise to play quarterback in the NFL. Prescott has a strong, accurate arm to throw the ball downfield. He rarely turns it over—with just four interceptions on 259 attempts, his 1.5 percent interception rate ranks sixth in the NFL. He can make plays outside the pocket like Russell Wilson, he’s efficient in the pocket like Tom Brady, and he can take the ball himself up the gut or off the edge like he’s Cam Newton.
His talent as a scrambler makes him devastating in the red zone, as we saw when he escaped pressure against the Chiefs last week to score a touchdown just before the half:
That type of play is demoralizing for a defense. Just when you think you’ve got him boxed in, everyone’s covered downfield, and you’re about to get a big sack to stonewall a Cowboys’ drive, he does something like this to pick up big yardage.
Prescott, who leads all quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns since he came into the league (with 10, one more than Cam Newton), is one of the most dangerous quarterbacks on designed runs. The Cowboys have a package of plays, from quarterback draws to read-options, where he’s either the primary or secondary ball-carrier, and the Dallas offense does an excellent job of blocking for him downfield. Prescott is a natural when it comes to working off those blocks to pick up extra yards, too, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s built like a tank to absorb hits when he does look to dive into the end zone.
Prescott’s mobility makes him a real pain in the ass to gameplan for, but it’s his arm that makes him one of the best players in the game. As Ringer colleague and former NFL executive Mike Lombardi wrote back in May, it’s accuracy that really matters the most at the quarterback position. As Lombardi relates, Brett Favre believed strongly that “for a quarterback to become great, he has to pass the keyhole test.” There are varying degrees of accuracy: Every NFL passer has to have the ability to accurately throw the ball through a door opening. It’s better if they can hit the doorknob. And the best can put the ball right through the keyhole. A few passes that Prescott’s made this year make me believe that the second-year pro is on track to join the ranks of the elite (if he hasn’t already). In fact, as NFL.com’s Matt Harmon points out, Prescott’s completed 48.9 percent of his tight-window throws (defined as less than 1 yard of separation) this year, best in the NFL.
Against the Cardinals in Week 3, Prescott got outside the pocket to launch the ball deep downfield on two occasions. Both times, he scrambled and threw off of one foot, putting the ball in the exact spot that only his receiver could catch it. The first went for a touchdown, the second for a huge gain.
The legendary Bill Walsh used to say that most important thing a quarterback could do was throw a “catchable” ball. That means the best quarterbacks combine touch—the right amount of velocity and loft under the football—and ball placement, or the ability to put the ball in the spot that makes it easiest for his receivers to come down with the pass. That catchable ball is a hallmark of Prescott’s game, and he can throw them to every level. On short passes, he does a great job of hitting his outlet receivers in stride so they can pick up yards after the catch:
And on longer throws, he combines the right mix of speed and trajectory to give his pass-catchers a great chance to come down with the ball. Against the Redskins, he lofted a pass toward the sideline, over the Washington defender, allowing Dez Bryant to come down with it easily; then, against the 49ers, he threw a back-shoulder throw to Bryant that zipped in past the defender and right to his receiver’s outstretched hands. In that same game, he hit Jason Witten in the back of the end zone with a cloud-soft floater—it gently landed in Witten’s one free hand and he reeled it in for the score.
On throws 20-plus yards downfield, Prescott is 10 of 22 with three touchdowns, no picks, and a 131.6 passer rating, per Pro Football Focus, second behind Alex Smith. A full 63.5 percent of his total passing yards have come before the catch—third-most behind Jameis Winston and Russell Wilson. That means the Cowboys have asked him to attack the intermediate and deeper zones of the field aggressively, and he’s answered the call. A big reason he’s been able to do that—and this is something that separates him from a lot of young quarterbacks—is his ability to go through his progressions, see how the defense is reacting in real-time, reset in the pocket with subtle strafes and step-ups, and deliver a pass to the open man. On these next two plays, the first against the Niners and the second against the Rams, you can see Prescott move through his options while simultaneously keeping himself clean in a changing pocket—then on both, he delivers an accurate, catchable pass.
Prescott did land in a great spot in Dallas, but it’s tough to overstate just how spectacular the former fourth-round pick has been in his short career. He’s not dinking and dunking and managing the game; he’s making tight-window throws on third down, escaping pressure, getting outside the pocket to keep plays alive, and generally making life a living hell for opposing defenses game in and game out. Including playoffs, the former Bulldog signal-caller has accounted for 52 touchdowns (42 through the air, 10 on the ground) in his first season-and-a-half as the team’s starter, joining Newton as one of just two players in the Super Bowl era to throw 35-plus touchdowns and run for 10-plus scores in their first two years in the league. Only two quarterbacks in league history have had a better passer rating (102.4) through the first 24 games of their career—and they’re both enshrined in Canton (Kurt Warner and Dan Marino).
When the Cowboys face off with the defending NFC Champion Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday, we’ll get our first glimpse of what Prescott can do without Elliott out there next to him. The second-year running back clearly makes the Cowboys better, and Dallas will face a very tough test without one of their most important players. The pressure is now going to be squarely on Prescott’s shoulders—especially as Dallas fights for a wild-card slot. But the Cowboys are in good hands with their new franchise passer: Prescott’s combination of poise, mobility, accuracy, and escapability gives Dallas a shot at the postseason even without the team’s star running back.