Dak Prescott looked like a quarterback coming off a brutal compound fracture that ended his 2020 season in early October. He looked like a quarterback who missed most of training camp with a shoulder injury so uncommonly seen in football the Cowboys had to consult the Texas Rangers on how to go about treating it. Prescott was plodding when forced to move Thursday night. His throws hung in the air for a beat or two longer than we’re used to seeing. He did not look right physically. It didn’t matter. Prescott was brilliant.
In the end, Prescott’s brilliance didn’t matter, either. Not on the scoreboard, at least. Tom Brady did what Tom Brady usually does and led the Buccaneers on a game-winning drive, saving the defending champs from a Week 1 loss. Whatever. We’ve seen Tom do that before. This game was about Dak, even in defeat. In his first game action in 11 months, the Cowboys QB threw for 403 yards on 58 attempts. His completion percentage (72.4) was six percentage points higher than expected, according to Next Gen Stats. He threw for three touchdowns and just one interception, which came on what may have been his best throw of the night.
It wasn’t just Prescott’s first NFL game since last year’s season-ending injury. It was his first since signing a $160 million contract extension—the end result of drawn-out negotiations made unnecessarily complicated by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who seemed to be influenced by those in the NFL who questioned Prescott’s ability to carry the Cowboys offense even though he had been doing it since he entered the league as a fourth-round pick in 2016.
There were no such questions on Thursday night. Dallas (wisely) abandoned its ineffective run game early on and turned the game over to its quarterback. That’s not typically a wise strategy against a Todd Bowles–coached defense. That’s what the Bucs’ blitz-happy defensive coordinator wants. His stout run defense, anchored by an immovable defensive front, puts teams behind the chains. That inevitably leads to obvious passing situations, and that’s when Bowles strikes with complicated blitz patterns that overwhelm most pass protection units. It wasn’t a problem for Dak and the Cowboys offensive line. Bowles called a blitz on 37 percent of Prescott’s dropbacks, per Next Gen Stats. On those plays, he averaged 8.5 yards per attempt and threw all three of his touchdowns.
Dak Prescott excelled against Todd Bowles blitz-heavy defense (37% blitz rate) in his first game back from injury, despite heavy pressure.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 10, 2021
Prescott vs the Blitz
Pressured on 9 of 22 dropbacks (40.9%)
Averaged +0.32 EPA/dropback#DALvsTB | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/OAGzMaCMIn
And those results weren’t just a product of timely play calls from Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Prescott did a lot of work before the snap to make sure his pass protection was sound. Take the big third-down conversion on the Cowboys’ final drive, for example. Pre-snap motion helps clear the picture for Dak, and he sees that Bucs linebacker Devin White is going to add on to the rush. You can see him pointing it out to his right guard before the snap.
That’s exactly what ends up happening, and that pre-snap work provides Prescott enough time in the pocket to find CeeDee Lamb open for a big gain, which set up what would have been the game-winning field goal if not for Brady’s late-game heroics in the 31-29 Tampa Bay win.
Prescott did this all night. Those 22 blitz calls from Bowles did not result in a single sack. They did lead to a lot of big plays for the Cowboys, though.
Against more standard rushes, Prescott emulated Brady, picking out a good matchup before the snap and exploiting it with ruthless precision and efficiency after the snap. His average time-to-throw was 2.39 seconds on the night, per Next Gen Stats. During the 2020 season, only two quarterbacks got rid of the ball quicker on average. Prescott didn’t need much time to dissect a very good Tampa Bay secondary. He was in total control all night.
This wasn’t some new development. Prescott has been one of the NFL’s sharpest quarterbacks for some time now. For whatever reason, he’s never gotten enough credit for it. On this night, when his physical abilities were limited, it stood out more. And maybe his matching the league’s greatest quarterback play for play—and doing it in the way we’ve seen Brady do it for two decades now—will force people to finally recognize his mastery of the quarterback position.
Of course, all that know-how would have meant nothing if Prescott couldn’t make the throws. But even if a bum shoulder took a few miles per hour off his fastball, that was hardly a problem in Tampa outside of a couple of first-quarter ducks. Prescott got better as the game wore on. His arm looked stronger in the fourth quarter than it had in the first. And whatever he lacked in velocity, he made up for with touch and accuracy. Some of the touch throws he made Thursday looked straight out of a Philip Rivers highlight reel, including this perfectly weighted ball, which dropped right over the perfectly positioned Bucs defender and into Amari Cooper’s hands for a touchdown.
From the pre-snap work to the way he owned the pocket and all the high-level throws he made, Prescott did everything you expect a great quarterback to do … except for winning the game. But that was hardly his fault. Cowboys kicker Greg Zuerlein left a handful of points on the board, and Mike McCarthy managed the game as poorly as you’d expect. The quarterback did his part.
Prescott’s shoulder will get stronger. His mobility should return as he gets further away from that nasty ankle injury. Eventually, he won’t have to rely on the old-man game we saw against the Bucs. If it happens sooner rather than later, this Cowboys offense could be even better than it looks on paper. A raw but energetic defense might not be ready to do its part and help Dallas make it back to the postseason, but this team will be in every game it plays. That’s the benefit of having an elite quarterback on the roster. In Dak’s return, he proved he’s earned that label.