Last week, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones generated headlines for comments he made about Dak Prescott on a Dallas-area radio show. In his meandering monologue, Jones referenced Patrick Mahomes, then Russell Wilson, and then mentioned a play on which Prescott threw an interception. Jones seemed to imply that Mahomes and Wilson—plus former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who he threw in at the end—could have made the play that Prescott didn’t.
Immediately, the Dallas segment of the sports media world spiraled into a debate about whether Jones had actually criticized Prescott or not. Some NFL media members even went back and forth on the issue. Here’s the full quote, if you want to decide for yourself:
“Obviously with their quarterback [Mahomes], who I think is at the highest level right now because of his, frankly, as much as just his natural ability to make plays, his mobility. And this guy’s very quick and elusive and can get in and out of situations with his feet and buy time. The quarterback we played Sunday [Russell Wilson] is of that kind of nature. He’s very, has great ability to get in and out and then make the play, that play Dak made at the end of the game that got intercepted. Well the result of Dak’s ability that let him get that ball off was really great and outstanding. Well, these guys do that, have that ability a lot.
“They are very quick-footed and they are very, they have the unique ability to possibly take their eyes away from the field for a minute and then immediately focus back and see, [Tony] Romo had that. And so he can turn his back on it and turn around and hand-eye and get it done quick. And so those are things that show up and that’s what’s showing up with these guys. They’re buying time with their feet, or buying time with their instincts and their feet.”
These comments wouldn’t normally have sparked much interest, but the Cowboys are a year and a half into contract negotiations with Prescott. The former fourth-round pick was first eligible for an extension after the 2018 season, but the two sides have never been able to agree on a long-term deal. The Cowboys’ contingent has seemed to be the one dragging its feet, as Prescott’s performance has proved he’s worthy of a market-setting extension. Prescott is playing on the franchise tag in 2020, earning $31.4 million.
Regardless, by Sunday afternoon, the question of Jones’s intent was in the rearview mirror. The Cowboys played the Browns that day and got trounced, losing 49-38. Prescott threw for more than 500 yards, but Dallas dropped to 1-3 and prompted more takes from football’s intelligentsia:
Dak threw for 500 and they were never in the game. That’s why stats are for losers— Booger (@ESPNBooger) October 4, 2020
All of this noise obscures a basic fact: The Cowboys need Prescott more than ever—and the quarterback is delivering with arguably his most impressive season yet.
Prescott could shatter records this year. Through four games, Prescott leads all quarterbacks with 1,690 passing yards. That’s a whopping 364 more than the next leading passer, Josh Allen, and is the most in NFL history through four games. If Prescott were to keep that pace all season, he’d finish with 6,760 passing yards. The record is 5,477, set by Peyton Manning in 2013. Prescott will certainly regress some as the season continues, but even to be on pace to break the record by more than 1,000 yards is mind-boggling. There’s a very good chance Dak will finish 2020 as the all-time single-season passing yards champ, and he might become the first 6,000-yard passer ever.
Prescott’s also attempted 201 passes this season, which is an average of more than 50 per game. That’s also tops in the league by a wide margin and puts him on pace to shatter another record (Matthew Stafford’s 727 attempts in 2012).
There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg problem with Prescott’s volume stats. Is Prescott putting up big numbers because he’s one of the league’s best passers, or is it because the Cowboys have found themselves down by double digits in three of the four games they’ve played this season? Surely it’s a bit of both—the Cowboys’ atrocious defense has needed plenty of bailing out this season (more on that unit in a minute). But Prescott’s incredibly high usage hasn’t come with a decline in efficiency. His adjusted net yards per attempt is 7.98, which would be a career high. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes this season, putting him on pace for another career high, and his touchdown percentage of 4.5 is nearly in line with his career average. He’s thrown just three interceptions, and his interception percentage of 1.5 is down from 1.8 last year. Pro Football Focus has graded him as the eighth-best QB in the league this season, and ESPN’s QBR metric has him at eighth. His completion percentage is 3.4 points higher than Next Gen Stats’ tracking data expects, the 14th-highest mark in the league (minimum 50 attempts).
The Cowboys may be 1-3, but Prescott’s 450-yard passing day against Atlanta helped secure that one win with a miraculous Dallas comeback. In Week 4, he nearly did the same. While ESPN’s Booger McFarland might think that a 500-yard passing game in a loss proves that “stats are for losers,” Prescott threw for touchdowns on three consecutive drives in the fourth quarter to cut a 41-14 deficit to 41-38. With a league-average quarterback under center, Dallas wouldn’t have had even that slim chance of winning. Similarly, in Week 3 against the Seahawks, Prescott threw a 42-yard touchdown to Cedrick Wilson and a 43-yard touchdown to Michael Gallup on back-to-back drives in the third and fourth quarters to cut a 15-point deficit to two (the team failed to convert a two-point attempt). A subsequent field goal gave Dallas a one-point lead with four minutes to go before Wilson rallied the Seahawks.
So why is Dallas 1-3? The short answer is defense and turnovers. The Cowboys defense ranks 24th in DVOA. They’ve allowed 146 points (last in the league) and 1,722 yards (third to last), including 690 yards on the ground (second to last). Dallas has generated just two turnovers this season (tied for 29th in the league). Meanwhile the Cowboys have coughed the ball up nine times, six of which have been fumbles—which is tied for most in the NFL. (To be fair, three of those lost fumbles are from Prescott, who has lost every fumble he’s had this year. Last season, he had six total fumbles, four of which were lost.)
The defense has been hurt by injuries. Linebacker Sean Lee hasn’t played after undergoing surgery for a hernia in mid-September. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie aggravated a hamstring injury in Week 2 and was placed on injured reserve. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch was placed on injured reserve after breaking his collarbone in Week 1. Cornerback Anthony Brown hurt his ribs in practice the following week, and has missed the past three games. Lee, Awuzie, and Brown—along with defensive end Randy Gregory, who hasn’t played since 2018 due to suspensions for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy—could return in October. And while Vander Esch will likely be out a bit longer, the Pro Bowler could still come back this season.
The other good news for the Cowboys is that they don’t need to do much to make the postseason. While a 1-3 record would spell doom for many squads, the NFC East is a dumpster fire, with the 1-2-1 Eagles currently in first place. FiveThirtyEight gives Dallas a 58 percent chance to make the postseason. Football Outsiders pegs those odds at 51 percent.
In the meantime, Prescott is keeping the team afloat. The Cowboys have needed Prescott more than ever in 2020, and the quarterback is more than delivering.