Since Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott arrived in Dallas three and a half years ago, the perception has been that the Cowboys offense runs through Elliott. The Ohio State product was the first-round draft choice, has been the league’s rushing champ twice, and in September became the highest-paid running back in the league. By contrast, Prescott was picked in the fourth round, has never led the league in any meaningful statistical category, and is paid a pittance compared to other QBs.
This season, though, the tides are changing. In the Cowboys’ 35-27 win over the Lions on Sunday, Prescott put up a sterling stat line, completing 29 of 46 passes for 444 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Elliott, on the other hand, had just 45 rushing yards on 16 carries (plus 28 receiving yards on two catches) and two touchdowns. And that type of split is becoming more common. Elliott is still Dallas’s premiere back, but now Prescott is the engine that’s making this machine run. He’s becoming one of the best passers in the league, and he’s quietly putting together a long-shot case for this year’s MVP award.
Prescott has taken huge strides in first-year coordinator Kellen Moore’s offense, notching career bests in yards per game (322.1), touchdown percentage (5.8 percent), yards per attempt (8.8), sack percentage (3.2 percent), and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.3). He leads the league with 3,221 passing yards and has thrown 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Dak has added another 193 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, to supplement all the damage he’s done through the air. He’s currently on pace to finish the year with an incredible 5,154 passing yards—that would be the seventh-highest total in a single season in league history.
The only real box score knock against Prescott is those nine interceptions, but he deserves some benefit of the doubt there: Two of his picks came on well-placed passes that were dropped by his receivers, and another two came on Hail Mary attempts at the end of fourth quarters.
Advanced stats make Prescott’s season look even better. He’s second in ESPN’s total quarterback rating, and the four passers surrounding him (Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Deshaun Watson) have all been in the MVP conversation this season. Prescott also came into Week 11 ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DYAR and DVOA metrics, again surrounded by a bevy of MVP-level passers. He’s third in Next Gen Stats’ completion percentage above expectation (among passers with at least 200 attempts), with a 6.3 percentage-point gap between his actual completion percentage and what he would be expected to tally. And he’s leading the no. 1 offense in the league by DVOA.
Dak’s jump in production begins with his dramatically improved accuracy. The fourth-year pro has made “bad throws”—defined as “throws that weren’t catchable with normal effort” by Pro Football Reference—on just 13.4 percent of his passes, the fifth-best mark in the league. These aren’t easy throws, either. Prescott has the third-highest average depth of target in the league (among qualified passers), tossing the ball 9.9 yards downfield on average. Only Matthew Stafford and Jameis Winston throw it farther.
Prescott’s also fitting the ball into tight windows. A whopping 18.4 percent of his passes have been made with a defender within a yard of the receiver, per Next Gen Stats. That’s the sixth-highest mark in the league among passers with at least 200 attempts. Prescott has been threading needles all season, like this touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on Sunday:
Dak is also able to bail out his offense with his legs. The league has only one Lamar Jackson, but Prescott can pull a rabbit out of his helmet when he needs to:
He’s not typically as flashy as in the above clip, but Prescott is frequently able to extend plays with his legs and buy time for his receivers. He’s tied for the third-longest time to throw in the league, per Next Gen Stats, taking an average of 2.9 seconds before letting it rip. And that’s despite having a roughly average pass-blocking offensive line. Yet Prescott is being sacked on a league-low 3.2 percent of his dropbacks—he’s shown great feel for when to hold on to the ball to make a play and when to let it fly.
Prescott has certainly taken the Cowboys offense to new heights this season, and he’s in line for a massive payday because of it. But a player doesn’t win MVP just by hitting all the analytics benchmarks, and Dak’s candidacy for the league’s top award is lacking in some crucial aspects.
Let’s start with the team’s 6-4 record. Contrary to popular belief, wins are team stats, not QB stats, but the MVP almost always comes from one of the league’s best teams. Since the turn of the century, only two league MVPs have come from teams that finished with fewer than 11 wins, and both were running backs (Adrian Peterson in 2012 and Marshall Faulk in 2000).
Wins are more important for quarterbacks than any other position group, and even the six that Prescott has gotten this year haven’t been very impressive. The Cowboys have beaten the Giants, Redskins, Dolphins, Eagles, Giants (again), and Lions. Counting the Giants just once, those teams have a combined record of 13-36-1 this season. The Cowboys’ losses, meanwhile, have come to the Saints, Packers, and Vikings (all apparent playoff teams) … and also the Jets. Dallas is still in a close race with Philadelphia for the division title, and for Prescott to win MVP, the Cowboys will need to win out—or at least come pretty damn close. With the Patriots, Bills, Bears, Rams, Eagles, and Redskins on deck, that’ll be an uphill climb.
The MVP award is also a narrative-driven prize, and Dak has yet to have an iconic moment this season. As Pro Football Focus’s Kevin Cole notes, the Cowboys haven’t had any dramatic come-from-behind victories. When they trail, they usually lose:
Dak Prescott leads the NFL in most advanced QB stats: QBR, EPA/play, CPOE. Yet, he's rarely in the top-3 of MVP lists.— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) November 12, 2019
The Cowboys have underperformed when trailing, which plays into the perception that Dak thrives only when everything is right around him pic.twitter.com/QMdOMFNeBE
Prescott has recorded zero game-winning drives this season. By contrast, Wilson has five. Wilson also has memorable wins in a Thursday Night Football victory over the Rams (in which he made the throw of the year) and his Monday Night Football win over the then-undefeated 49ers (please ignore his near-back-breaking interception in overtime).
Jackson has also had his share of big moments. He carved up the vaunted Patriots defense on Sunday Night Football and beat Wilson’s Seahawks in Seattle. Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson each have put up five-touchdown days, and Patrick Mahomes is already back to his usual dazzling level of play. If the Chiefs start winning again, he’ll be right back in the conversation. It’s not a great sign for Prescott that his most notable moment of the season came when a video of him dancing hit the internet:
Prescott will play the Patriots on Sunday, and an eye-popping performance in that matchup could get his MVP campaign off the ground. But if the Cowboys faceplant, it will just bring more skepticism about Dallas’s record and Prescott’s abilities.
Regardless, even though Dak isn’t the most likely candidate to win the award this year, he’s taken strides that should make every Cowboys fan excited. He’ll probably break Jerry Jones’s bank at the negotiating table this offseason, too. If his current level of play is an indication of what’s to come, Prescott will be in contention for MVP awards for a long time. And he’ll also be the long-term face of the Cowboys franchise.