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Dak Prescott Is the NFL’s Ultimate Rorschach Test

The Cowboys QB is in line for a big payday after being a bargain for three years. But whether he’s been a success—or is capable of more—depends on who’s judging him.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dak Prescott is about to get paid. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his eldest son, team CEO Stephen Jones, are likely going to give Prescott a contract extension worth more than $30 million annually by the end of this month. That figure would put him in the top six NFL players by average annual salary alongside Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Carson Wentz. All of those players have performed at an MVP level, won Super Bowls, or both.

Prescott has never performed like the most valuable player in the league, though he has long had the league’s most valuable contract. In three seasons as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys, Prescott has earned just $2.7 million, a huge discount even by the standards of rookie quarterback contracts. His cap hit as a rookie was $546,000, or one-third of 1 percent of the $159 million salary cap that year. The Cowboys securing a starting quarterback at that price makes a merely competent Dak the single best bargain in the NFL. But after three years of being cheap, Prescott is about to go from a rounding error to the team’s biggest expense. The days of being lauded for simply being competent will soon be over, and his new bar for success will be hard to define and even harder to reach.

Untangling Prescott’s achievements from his team’s is harder than any quarterback outside of Tom Brady. Prescott has earned the complete trust of the Jones family to be the face of the franchise and a leader in the locker room, but he has not earned the organization’s trust to be the focal point of the offense. He has exceeded all expectations as a fourth-round pick, but he’s still not good enough in the eyes of many Dallas fans. Now he’ll likely be getting one of the largest contracts in football in a make-or-break year for his head coach. If Prescott leads the Cowboys to a championship before he retires, he’ll likely be enshrined as a team legend. If he doesn’t, he could quickly become the avatar of disappointment for the fan base with the highest expectations in the NFL.

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
Dak Prescott
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

As a whole, Prescott’s career numbers look average; they float at the NFL’s sea level. But his numbers have risen and fallen dramatically. His 2018 season can be divided neatly into the periods before and after the Amari Cooper trade. Heading into last year, Dallas released Dez Bryant and lost Jason Witten to Monday Night Football, leaving rapper Cole Beasley, Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, and rookie third-rounder Michael Gallup at receiver with tight end Blake Jarwin and Geoff Swaim at tight end. It didn’t go well. Through seven games, Dallas ranked 28th in passing yards, 28th in net yards per attempt, 25th in points scored, and tied for 25th in passing touchdowns. Dallas started 3-4. Desperate to save their season, the Cowboys sent their 2018 first-round pick to Oakland for receiver Amari Cooper, and everything changed. Dallas finished 7-2, won the NFC East, and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs. Their turnaround is best told through Prescott’s numbers before and after the deal.

Dak Prescott 2018 Stats Before & After the Amari Cooper Trade

Statistics (Rank among QBs with 100 or more attempts in parentheses) B.C. (Before Cooper) A.C. (After Cooper)
Statistics (Rank among QBs with 100 or more attempts in parentheses) B.C. (Before Cooper) A.C. (After Cooper)
Games 7 9
Completion % 62.1 (26th) 71.3 (5th)
Passing Yards 1,417 (26th) 2,468 (7th)
Passing Yards Per Game 202.4 (29th) 274.2 (9th)
Passing Touchdowns 8 (t-23rd) 14 (t-12th)
Interceptions 4 (t-22nd) 4 (t-20th)
Yards Per Attempt 6.9 (27th) 7.7 (14th)
Sacks 23 (t-3rd) 33 (3rd)
Cowboys Record 3-4 (t-16th) 7-2 (t-3rd)

For the first seven games of the year, Prescott’s numbers were alongside Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and C.J. Beathard. For the final nine games, he was side by side with Tom Brady and Baker Mayfield. That Jekyll-and-Hyde performance matched Dallas’s year.

Starting poorly and finishing strong was the exact opposite of Prescott’s 2017. For the first half of that season, Prescott played with poise beyond his years. But midway through the season, running back Ezekiel Elliott was finally forced to serve his six-game suspension after an NFL investigation found evidence that he “engaged in physical violence” against a woman in 2016. Without Elliott, and with left tackle Tyron Smith suffering from back issues, Prescott endured the worst stretch of his career.

Dak Prescott 2017 Splits

First-Half Team Rank (First Half Stats) Second-Half Team Rank (Second Half Stats)
First-Half Team Rank (First Half Stats) Second-Half Team Rank (Second Half Stats)
8 8
t-13th (62.8) 14th (62.5)
17th (222) 30th (170.3)
tied-4th (16) t-30th (6)
tied-24th (4) t-6th (9)
13th (6.56) 23rd (5.36)
tied-28th (10) t-9 (22)
5th (226) t-27th (128)
18th (178) t-25th (154)
6th (48) 20th (-26)
5-3 4-4

We can connect the second half of his 2017 to the first half of his 2018 to create one abysmal 15-game stretch and slice Prescott’s three-year pro career into three distinct samples.

Games 1 through 24: The first 1.5 years of Prescott’s career, from Week 1 of 2016 to Week 9 of 2017. This was when Dallas’s offensive line and running game was in peak form.

Games 25 through 39: Beginning with Elliott’s suspension in Week 10 of 2017, when Dallas’s running game was at its weakest, and continuing through the receiver-by-committee approach through Week 7 of 2018, when Dallas’s pass-catching talent was rock bottom.

Games 40 through 48: The nine games after the Cooper trade.

Looking at Prescott’s splits through this lens makes the differences clear.

Dak Prescott Stats in Career Games 1-24 vs. Games 25-39 vs. Games 40-48

Stat Games 1-24 (Peak Cowboys Run Game) Games 25-39 (Elliott suspension to pre-Cooper Trade Game 40-48 (Post-Cooper Trade)
Stat Games 1-24 (Peak Cowboys Run Game) Games 25-39 (Elliott suspension to pre-Cooper Trade Game 40-48 (Post-Cooper Trade)
Games 24 15 9
Passing Yards 5,485 2,923 2,468
Passing yards/Game 228.5 194.9 274.2
Passing touchdowns 39 14 14
Interceptions 8 13 4
Passer Rating 102.4 80.3 103
Yards per Attempt 7.64 6.69 7.71
Sacks 35 45 33
Rushing Attempts 83 71 35
Rushing Yards 477 398 69
Rush Yards/Att 5.8 5.6 2
Rushing Touchdowns 10 4 4
Cowboys Record 18-6 7-8 7-2

A few key takeaways from these splits:

  • In the stretch beginning with Elliott’s suspension and ending with Cooper’s arrival, Dallas went 7-8. Outside of that stretch, the Cowboys went 25-8.
  • More than half of Prescott’s career interceptions came in that 15-game stretch.
  • Prescott threw 1.1 touchdowns for every interception in that 15-game stretch and 4.4 touchdowns for every interception outside of it—four times the touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Those numbers raise questions that divide the Cowboys fan base. Is Prescott an overachieving game manager who needs talent around him to succeed, or a player who has persevered despite the limitations of Jason Garrett’s coaching? Is he a quarterback who doesn’t lose games, or someone who just manages to avoid losing games? Is he Alex Smith or Russell Wilson? Does it even matter if his legacy depends on winning a Super Bowl?

Fans like players who win. Since Prescott entered the NFL in 2016, nobody has led more game-winning drives than Prescott, and the only player who has more wins than Prescott is Tom Brady. Yet Cowboys fans do not like Dak Prescott—at least not as universally compared to the way other fan bases rally around players who have had anywhere near his level of success. Prescott is certainly not the first non-elite quarterback to earn elite money (hello, Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Matt Stafford), and fans in every city harbor unrealistic expectations. But everything is bigger in Texas, and nothing in Texas is bigger than football.

”It’s at least split, and 50-50 are pro-Dak, but it might even be worse than that,” said Bob Sturm, a writer for The Athletic and a Dallas radio host. “It might be the majority of Cowboys fans think he is an average-to-below-average starting quarterback in this league, which is, I think, rather uncommon amongst NFL fan bases with their own quarterback. I think most people tend to overrate their own guy, and I think Cowboys fans—partly because of Staubach, Aikman, Romo, five Super Bowls, you name it—I think they have a very high bar for their quarterback.”

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
Dak Prescott
Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

ESPN Cowboys beat reporter Todd Archer believes the anti-Dak faction is far less than half of the fan base and that social media skews how we perceive public perception. But both Sturm and Archer agree that whatever portion of Cowboys fans are against Dak, they are loud. The amount of Cowboys fan sites with blogs imploring Cowboys faithfuls to accept Dak is an illuminating look into the Dallas sports psyche. This year alone has generated pieces titled “Why the Cowboys’ Players Believe in Dak Prescott Even If Some Fans Don’t,” “Dak Prescott’s résumé speaks for itself, but some still need convincing,” and “What will it take for you to finally love Dak Prescott?

Love in any medium is invisibly tethered to your previous relationships. For Cowboys fans, that means getting over their most recent heartbreak: Tony Romo.

“Everybody thinks [Romo] got robbed of his moment in 2014 on the Dez catch,” Archer said. “That was going to be his moment and that was their time to go make their Super Bowl run, and Romo was playing the best football of his life.”

Injuries limited Romo to just four games in 2015, but Dallas entered 2016 as a Super Bowl contender with Romo back and the addition of Elliott. But when Romo broke a bone in his back in August 2016, Prescott started in Week 1. The team played so well with Prescott filling in—starting 11-1—that Romo never got his job back, leading to an emotional press conference and his eventual retirement.

Dallas went 13-3 and finished with the no. 1 seed in the NFC, but was once again felled by Aaron Rodgers’s heroics in the playoffs even as the rookie Prescott went toe-to-toe with the two-time MVP.

“Romo fans have always felt like Dak benefitted from what was put in place for Romo, and it’s been hard for that segment of the fandom to accept Dak as the quarterback,” Archer said.

This frustration, exacerbated by the Giants and Eagles winning three titles in the last dozen years, gets taken out on Dak. Some Cowboys fans who just a few years ago may have pointed to Romo as the reason the team couldn’t win in the playoffs now see him as the would-be savior who was denied his opportunity.

“It’s a really odd situation internally amongst this fan base,” Sturm said. “The crazy thing is, if [Dak] does win a Super Bowl, I’m positive somebody will instantly hit us on Twitter with ‘Romo would have won two by now.’”

Romo is part of the reason Cowboys fans keep Prescott at arm’s length. But Cowboys fans have held their quarterbacks to nearly impossible standards since Roger Staubach retired 40 years ago.

“How many franchises could you have where the average 50-year-old Cowboy fan grew up on Staubach, went to Aikman, and then watched Romo?” Sturm said. “Danny White went to three straight NFC title games and he’s probably not a top-three quarterback of their lifetime.”

Even Aikman took his lumps before leading the Cowboys to three Super Bowls. Newy Scruggs, a sports radio host and television anchor in Dallas, said that playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys is akin to being the star player for the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Yankees. The past casts a big shadow on those currently in the limelight, and players must compete with history as much as they compete with their contemporaries..

“This fan base is always going to be interesting and funky,” Scruggs said. “People are tough on Cowboys quarterbacks.”

Unlike the Yankees or Lakers, the Cowboys have not even reached a conference championship in 23 years, making the shadow of the past darker and fans even tougher to please. It won’t get easier for Prescott once he signs an extension paying him more than $30 million per year. Even at $600,000 per year, Sturm noted that “[fans] were still grumbling about him.”

Fans can grumble, but there is little doubt among those who follow the team that Prescott’s extension is a matter of when, not if. Jerry Jones himself told a Dallas radio station so in November.

“He’s gonna get paid,” Archer said. “Once he gets paid, he goes from being the fourth-round pick with low expectations—that everything you get from him is gravy—to all of a sudden, ‘Hey, you’re getting $30 million, you better perform. You better be the guy who wins Super Bowls because that’s what $30 million quarterbacks get.’”

The grumbling will stop if and only if Prescott wins a Super Bowl. Cowboys fans are always thinking Super Bowl, but they’re right to dream about it in 2019. The offensive line will enter the year the strongest it has been in two years with center Travis Frederick returning after missing 2018. That will go a long way to curbing the 56 sacks Prescott ate in 2018, the third-highest total in the last 12 years. The full-strength offensive line could also put Elliott in position to have the best season of his career. (Elliott is meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday to discuss a shoving incident at a music festival in Las Vegas.) Cooper has said he is aiming for 2,000 receiving yards this season, which would shatter the NFL record. Adding wide receiver Randall Cobb in free agency gives Dallas the most talented no. 2 option it’s had in years. At its best, Dallas will combine the run-game dominance of 2016 with the passing attack the team finally sharpened at the end of last season for the first truly balanced offense the Cowboys have had in years.

Hopes are even higher on defense. DeMarcus Lawrence just signed a contract extension worth $21 million annually. Standout cornerback Byron Jones and linebacker Jaylon Smith would be in position for life-changing contract extensions with another strong season. Last year’s first-round pick, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, quickly became a fan favorite and nearly won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018. Dallas’s defensive core coalesced so quickly—from 25th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA in 2017 to ninth in 2018—that the team could be in the rare position of sporting a top-five offensive line and defense in the same season. There is an excellent case to be made that at 22-1 odds to win the Super Bowl, 10th highest among NFL teams, the Cowboys are one of the better values for 2019.

How you feel about that bet probably comes down to how you feel about Dak Prescott, head coach Jason Garrett, and new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who was the third-string quarterback the year before Prescott’s rookie season (quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna was also a Cowboys backup earlier this decade). Garrett has been conservative to a fault in his tenure, and the offenses under former coordinator Scott Linehan quickly went from successful to predictable. Dez Bryant said after he was released last season that the Cowboys offense struggled because players lined up in the same spots for the whole season and that the play-calling was “garbage-ass.”

The run-heavy style under Garrett is partially his preference, but also partially a top-down dictation from a front office nostalgic for the Emmit Smith–led rushing attacks of the mid-1990s that won three Super Bowls.

“They kind of see a giant offensive line and a running back as the centerpiece for a great offense, and I think the entire NFL disagrees with that of course,” Sturm said. “It really feels like the Jason Garrett offensive model is the opposite of what Doug Pederson and Sean McVay and Andy Reid believe in, and I think that perpetuates itself through Dak Prescott.”

NFL Pro Bowl
Dak Prescott
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Prescott may be capable of leading a passing-first offense, but so far Garrett hasn’t given him the chance. That could change in 2019. The Cowboys did not extend Garrett’s contract this offseason, a formality teams usually extend to coaches entering the final year of their deal to avoid making them a locker room lame duck. Dallas chose not to, and the implication is clear—if the team doesn’t reach the playoffs this year (or even if they do and don’t win a playoff game or two), Garrett is likely gone. Perhaps Garrett will give Moore the OK to take Dak’s training wheels off. If not, the next coach Dallas hires is likely to do so in 2020. But whoever the coach is after this year, they’ll likely find that the roster they are handed isn’t quite as good as the groups Dallas has assembled for the past four years.

Like Russell Wilson’s, Prescott’s supporting cast for the first four years of his career may be the best he ever gets. In Seattle, Wilson’s cheap deal as a mid-round pick enabled the Seahawks to keep a load of talented veterans, but extending him eventually forced out other star players. Prescott’s deal alone is not enough to eat Dallas’s budget. The salary cap is far too malleable to be constrained by any one player. But combined with a likely extension for Amari Cooper, which could surpass $20 million and possibly make him the highest-paid receiver in NFL history, the belt will be tight. Factor in that Jerry Jones wants to extend running back Ezekiel Elliott, who would likely become the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Dallas could soon be as deeply invested in skill positions as they were in the offensive line a few years ago, giving them their modern version of Aikman, Smith, and Michael Irvin.

As the way Dallas allocates its money changes, so too will its roster. For three years, the Cowboys have succeeded under Prescott by pouring money into their offensive line and skimping at quarterback, running back, and receiver. But once that relationship changes, their game plan may have to follow suit. Key players like Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, and La’El Collins will likely be able to get more money in free agency than the Cowboys can offer. More likely than not, the Cowboys will lean on Prescott more than they ever have in the first three years of his career. When Prescott has needed to step up, he has delivered. But he has rarely been asked to take on a serious passing load, and it’s never been Dallas’s Plan A. If Prescott rises to the challenge of leading a passing-oriented offense—great! Perhaps the Cowboys can win a Super Bowl and hand him the MVP trophy to boot, and he’ll be mentioned alongside Staubach and Aikman. But if he struggles as the talent around him dips, like during that 15-game stretch, he may start to receive the blame, especially if Garrett goes and Dallas doesn’t get any farther in the playoffs.

“The bar here is really, really high for quarterbacks and it always involves January,” Sturm said. “So for Romo it was always comparing him to history, not comparing him to ‘Is he actually good?’”

If Dallas doesn’t reach another NFC championship game a few years from now, when Dak’s career earnings zoom from $2.7 million to north of $100 million, he may lose a lot of sympathy. Cowboys fans may see him as a kind of quarterback purgatory—not good enough to win a Super Bowl but good enough to ensure the team won’t replace him. The Jones family loves the way Prescott has handled himself, from his immediate poise on the field to his leadership in the locker room to saying he believes in standing for the national anthem. The Joneses seem prepared to give Prescott the same faith that has kept Garrett around for a decade despite many fans wanting him gone five years ago. That loyalty will determine this era of Cowboys football.

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