The Dak Prescott roller coaster has its highs and its lows.
Last week, Prescott hit the highest highs of his career. He threw for 305 yards and four touchdowns—and punched in another score on the ground—to lead the Dallas Cowboys past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-14, and into the divisional round of the postseason. He was so effective that it didn’t even matter that Dallas kicker Brett Maher missed four straight extra points and that the quarterback on the other sideline was Tom Brady—the Cowboys just ran away with it.
But on Sunday came the lows. Against the San Francisco 49ers, the Cowboys and Prescott sputtered. Dak threw for 206 yards and a touchdown, but also two backbreaking first-half interceptions … and easily could have had a few more turnovers on some sloppy throws. Those interceptions were essentially the difference in the game: One gave the 49ers a short field that quickly turned into a field goal, and the Niners turned the other into a long drive that also resulted in a field goal. San Francisco ultimately won the game 19-12.
Both interceptions came on brutal throws. On the first, it was as if Prescott didn’t even see Deommodore Lenoir:
On the second, Prescott just badly missed CeeDee Lamb and found 49ers linebacker Fred Warner:
Even some of Prescott’s biggest plays on Sunday came on horrific passes:
This is the Dak Prescott experience: One week, he can absolutely dissect a (still pretty solid) Tampa Bay defense. The next, he looks completely lost against the (admittedly absolutely ferocious) 49ers. One week, he’s arguably as good as any quarterback. The next, Dallas fans are questioning whether Prescott is just Kirk Cousins with a shinier coat of paint.
The Dak Prescott roller coaster doesn’t just exist on the field. In the last few seasons he’s become one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. Earlier this year, when Prescott missed Weeks 2 through 6 with a thumb injury, there was a contingent of NFL hot-take artists who insisted that Dallas might be better off with Cooper Rush at quarterback. (It wasn’t.) Then, when Prescott came back and the team quickly jumped to the top of the league’s offensive leaderboards, those questions about Prescott dissipated … for a while.
The Prescott ride took another dive as the calendar turned to December and he threw 11 interceptions in the team’s final seven games. Prescott ended up tying for the league lead in picks—despite missing five games—creating a whole new set of questions about the Cowboys QB.
Yet it seemed Prescott had answered those questions in that win over Tampa. Just six days—and multiple ugly throws and decisions—later, the opposite is true. The roller coaster heads into the offseason at a nadir.
How are Cowboys fans supposed to make sense of all this? If the idea is that Prescott’s biggest fault is taking too many risks and throwing too many interceptions, they may want to look to the rest of his career. Prescott has been above the league average in interception rate in five of his seven seasons as a starter—and in one of those down seasons (2017), he was only just below average. Before this season, critics of Prescott may have said the opposite—that the quarterback was too risk-averse, and as a result did not make enough big plays like the league’s other star QBs.
Despite all the picks this season, that criticism still has some truth to it. Per Pro Football Focus, Prescott finished the 2022 regular season tied for 13th in turnover-worthy plays (with 18) and tied for 11th in turnover-worthy play percentage (4.4, minimum 166 dropbacks). Here’s what it looks like on the field when a player ties for the lead in interceptions but is average in turnover-worthy plays:
Exhibit A of why we keep track of turnover-worthy plays for QBs ⬇️— PFF (@PFF) December 30, 2022
If anything, Prescott’s problem this season was that he didn’t make enough big plays. PFF also charts big-time throws, which they define as “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window.” Prescott was tied for 17th in big-time throw percentage. He was 21st in PFF’s offensive grades, 12th in ESPN’s QBR, 11th in Next Gen Stats’ completion percentage over expectation, and eighth in expected points added per play. Cut through all those numbers—all those highs and lows—and you get this: Dak Prescott was somewhat above average this season.
But Prescott has been much better than above average before. In 2019, he was an early MVP candidate. In 2020, he was on pace to smash league passing records before getting injured. Those highs didn’t last—and now we’re back on the roller coaster.
There’s one other aspect to all of this: Prescott’s contract. Once upon a time, he cost the Cowboys next to nothing as a fourth-round pick who surprised the team as a rookie and took Tony Romo’s starting job when Romo got injured. Dallas rode that cheap contract as far as it could, and after many ups and downs on the coaster—some that still feel all too similar to today’s peaks and valleys—the Cowboys ultimately paid their quarterback handsomely in 2021.
Prescott carried a $19.7 million cap hit this season, per Spotrac. Next season that number jumps to $49.1 million. The season after that, it’ll be $52.1 million. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has jumped onto this aspect of the ride, implying in September that some of Dallas’s roster holes are in part the by-product of the team not having as much money to spend following Prescott’s contract extension. There’s some truth in that line of thinking. (The Cowboys traded receiver Amari Cooper in a cost-saving move last offseason, and the receiving corps was a question all season.)
The reality is that Prescott can’t be merely above average at that salary if the Cowboys are to ever break through and advance out of the divisional round. He has to be much better. A week ago, he was exactly that. On Sunday, he crashed down to earth.
Some Cowboys fans will surely be done with Prescott after Sunday night. Dallas is still looking to advance to its first conference championship game since 1995—after four failed playoff appearances with Prescott at QB, they could be convinced that Prescott isn’t the player to get them there. Others will preach more patience—noting Prescott’s injury this season and the times he’s lit the league on fire before. If he can just be consistent, Prescott can be one of the best quarterbacks in a QB-weak NFC.
What exactly happens next isn’t clear. The only thing that seems certain for the Cowboys and Prescott is that there are bound to be plenty more highs and lows.