Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A promising Cowboys season ends in the divisional round, and Dak Prescott’s uneven performance has raised questions about his capacity to lead this team to a Super Bowl. Well, it happened again. The 49ers sent Dallas and its quarterback home early last weekend, and the 19-12 affair capped off an up-and-down season for Prescott, in which we saw him put together some of the best, and worst, performances of his seven-year career.
Let’s talk about his most recent one, which came against San Francisco’s top-ranked defense. It wasn’t good. Not at all. Sure, there were some nice throws mixed in, but for the most part, Prescott was downright bad. His eyes were either in the wrong spot at the wrong time, or his feet were scattered, or he was late making decisions—on some plays, it was all of the above. More significantly, he threw two costly interceptions. The first led directly to a 49ers field goal, and the second cost Dallas at least three points. In a one-score game, those points mattered, and the Cowboys’ $160 million franchise quarterback threw them away.
Now Dallas heads into another offseason desperate to transform what is certainly a talented roster into one that can truly contend for a title. To do that, there are plenty of questions Jerry Jones and Co. will have to address: Is Mike McCarthy getting the most out of a talented roster? How will they replace coordinators Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore if they leave for head coaching jobs? And how will they find enough money to improve a receiving corps that has regressed significantly over the last calendar year? But perhaps the biggest questions are around Prescott: whether he’s worth the $49.1 million he’s owed in 2023, and whether he’s capable of leading this team to a Super Bowl.
Jones, for his part, seems confident that Dak is the person for the job:
Jerry Jones called his confidence in Dak "strong as ever."— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 23, 2023
"I thought we would win it because I’ve got such confidence in Dak. I’ll line up there 5 times w/ a like situation& if we’ve got him at QB, I’ll take my chances.
"Tonight didn’t change my mind about the edge with him."
But the wider public sentiment is much more mixed after Prescott’s stinker against the 49ers. That’s how quickly things can flip on an NFL quarterback: One week he’s fileting a pretty good Buccaneers defense in one of the most efficient displays of quarterbacking in recent postseason history, and the next he’s getting hit with Kirk Cousins comparisons—and it’s hard to say they’re undeserved.
Prescott has been inconsistent of late. That sterling performance in Tampa was bookended by the dud in San Francisco and an even worse showing in the regular-season finale against Washington. In three consecutive weeks, we saw the worst performance of Dak’s 2023 regular season, then the best game of his playoff career, and then the worst game of his playoff career. And that roller coaster ride is pretty emblematic of what we saw from him all year.
Dak was mostly a good, efficient quarterback in 2022. But his lows were really freaking low, and there were far too many of them. He threw 15 interceptions and lost his team at least 10 expected points in two games—the rest of the NFL combined for 69 such games, per TruMedia. And he had what we could consider five bad games—three of which just happened to come when the Cowboys had a huge audience. The first was in a 19-3 Week 1 loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday Night Football, which he’d later avenge. The second was a midseason loss to Green Bay in which he threw a pair of interceptions. He played poorly in a game against the lowly Texans but eventually led a late comeback to pull out a close win. And then there were the two aforementioned games against Washington and San Francisco. (He also threw two interceptions in a high-profile Week 15 game against the Jaguars, and one of them was a game-ending pick-six in overtime, but he was otherwise great in the game and an alternate angle revealed the game-losing play was hardly Prescott’s fault.)
Sometimes the narrative doesn't fit the film. pic.twitter.com/9w0UGNJwzR— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 19, 2022
Outside of the games mentioned above, though, Prescott was pretty damn good. He averaged at least 0.16 EPA per dropback, and the Cowboys scored at least 24 points in each contest. Dallas won all of those games, with Dak churning out master-class performances against fellow NFC playoff teams in Philadelphia, Minnesota, and New York. In those three contests, he completed 77.8 percent of his passes with a 94.4 percent accuracy rate. He averaged 8.6 yards and 0.39 EPA per dropback with a 57 percent success rate. All five of those numbers would have led the entire NFL over the course of the season. In other words, in the biggest regular-season games of the year against playoff competition, Prescott played like a top-tier quarterback.
And while it may feel like Prescott has been especially inconsistent this season, if you compare his numbers to those of other elite quarterbacks in the league, he’s been just as consistent as everyone not named Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.
Bad games for the top quarterbacks, 2023 season (via TruMedia)
|Quarterback||Games played||Games w/ negative EPA||Record|
|Quarterback||Games played||Games w/ negative EPA||Record|
|Patrick Mahomes||17||0 (LOL)||N/A|
He finished in the top 10 in yards per dropback, accuracy rate, EPA per dropback, and success rate, per TruMedia. And he’s been even better when you widen the scope and look at his last four seasons. Since 2019, Prescott ranks in the top four in all of those metrics, save for accuracy rate (ninth).
Over that time—and even before it—Prescott has led some of the best offenses the Cowboys have ever seen, which is an awfully high bar to clear for one of the league’s most storied franchises. By DVOA, the 2019 offense was even better than the 1993 unit led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin. The 2016 offense, which Dak led as a rookie, was the fifth-best of the DVOA era, which dates back to 1981.
I could keep throwing numbers at you, but I think you get the point. The Cowboys have a super productive quarterback who has won a lot of games. He’s also got the tape to match! It can be hard to fully appreciate what Prescott is doing out there because he doesn’t have the most aesthetically exciting game. In a time when Mahomes is throwing no-look flip passes, and Allen is doing stuff like this, a quarterback changing the protection and then finding his third read under pressure isn’t going to stand out. But that’s how Prescott wins. Like a lot of great quarterbacks, Dak wins with his mind before and after the snap. Outside of maybe Tom Brady, there isn’t anyone better at setting protections before the snap, and the Cowboys coaching staff asks Prescott to do that a lot. They also often ask him to throw into tight windows. Like, an excessive amount. Per Next Gen Stats, no full-time starter threw into a tight window more often than the Cowboys quarterback this season, with just under a fifth of his attempts aimed toward a receiver with less than a yard of separation from the closest defender. In Kellen Moore’s scheme, Prescott is required to make those throws with sharp timing.
a handful of Dak throws against the Colts showing off his accuracy and ability to quickly progress from the pocket.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 7, 2022
make sure to watch the endzone angle on the throw to Noah Brown (clip 3). Moves off of the murky Slant-Flat side to get to Brown. pic.twitter.com/OVnjCCRAUC
The comparisons to Cousins make some sense at a superficial level. Prescott may put up great numbers and win a bunch of games every year, but he hasn’t done a lot of winning in January. He’s never even been past the divisional round. But that’s where the comparison ends. When you put Dak’s film up against that of Kirk or any other middling quarterback, there are few similarities—and plenty of stark differences. Prescott is a daring pocket passer who isn’t afraid of pressure or taking a chance downfield. He’s definitely not going to check the ball down on fourth-and-8 with the season on the line. And he’s not going to throw it away on fourth down, either. That’s what separates him from the Kirks and Derek Carrs of the NFL, along with his comprehensive skill set, which puts no constraints on his offense, and a mind for football that ensures his play caller has a big margin for error. If Dallas isn’t in the right play or protection initially, Dak will make sure that changes before the ball is snapped. That’s his way of elevating the players (and coaches) around him.
I don’t want to make it seem as if Dak is some untalented passer who can only win with his mind. The dude is a good athlete. He led a spread option offense at Mississippi State before entering the league. He’s rushed for 26 touchdowns throughout his career—only Cam Newton, Josh Allen, and Jalen Hurts have more since 2016. And while his arm isn’t as strong as Allen’s or Justin Herbert’s, it’s capable of some fairly impressive throws.
what an incredible throw from Dak on 3rd & 30.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 27, 2022
ball doesn't even get *that* much arc and the camera just keeps panning. pic.twitter.com/W3rh7BxxXd
Like all quarterbacks though, Dak needs players around him who can contribute. And contrary to popular belief, the team around him in 2022 wasn’t all that good.
The Cowboys' top pass-catchers in total target EPA in after CeeDee Lamb were TY Hilton and Jake Ferguson. pic.twitter.com/zKW6sFWBZp— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) January 24, 2023
Outside of CeeDee Lamb, Prescott didn’t have much to work with. Tony Pollard is a Pro Bowl running back, but he didn’t get more than 15 touches in a game until Week 10. Michael Gallup never looked right after returning from an ACL injury that ended his 2021 season. Tight end Dalton Schultz took a step back. And the supposedly sturdy offensive line was actually pretty bad, according to a few advanced metrics.
Final Official Pass Protection Rankings as measured by three independent data sources— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) January 10, 2023
-- 3 teams lapping the field (GB, PHI, BAL)
-- MIA/CIN ended up being somewhat disappointing given their investments in OL pic.twitter.com/KdWJddivjc
That hasn’t always been the case, of course. Dallas has mostly put good teams around Prescott throughout his seven-year career, and the fact that he hasn’t been able to lead those teams on a deep postseason run has skeptics wondering whether he’s capable of doing so at all. But, really, any talk about Prescott’s postseason failures is either based on recency bias or the team’s failure to take advantage of his good performances. Since his rookie season in 2016, only seven quarterbacks with at least 100 dropbacks have averaged more EPA per dropback in the playoffs. Prescott ranks 10th in success rate and 11th in yards per dropback. In the fourth quarter or in overtime over that same span, Prescott leads all quarterbacks in EPA per dropback, per RBSDM.com. And two of his best performances, against Green Bay in 2016 and Los Angeles in 2018, came in Cowboys losses. In that first game, Prescott matched Aaron Rodgers throw for throw as a rookie and came within a last-second field goal of forcing overtime.
It’s freaking hard to win in the playoffs. It’s even harder to get to a conference title game, and harder still to get to a Super Bowl. Prescott has been in the NFL for six relatively healthy seasons. In his conference alone, he’s had to go against Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Sean McVay’s Rams teams, and Kyle Shanahan’s loaded 49ers teams. One quarterback can win a Super Bowl every season. Only two can make it to the NFC title game. That Dak hasn’t led Dallas to that stage of the postseason yet isn’t some grand failure. It’s just a matter of numbers.
Besides, Dak is only 29 years old. At that age, Peyton Manning had three playoff wins to his name and wasn’t far removed from a 41-0 loss to the Jets in a game in which the Colts started two Hall of Famers alongside him. One of the best quarterbacks in NFL history—the very best, to some—couldn’t muster a single point with that supporting cast … and that was just a wild card game! Drew Brees didn’t win his second playoff game until 31, so Dak already has two years on him. Meanwhile, Prescott and Rodgers have the same number of playoff wins over the last five years.
I’m not saying that Prescott will eventually win a Super Bowl and go down as one of the best to ever do it. But he’s been one of the best to do it over the better part of a decade, and guys like that are hard to find. Maybe Dak’s price tag is a little too high—the Cowboys could shave $22 million off of his 2023 cap hit with a restructure, for what it’s worth—but the odds of Dallas finding a better quarterback, without having the draft capital to get one at the top of the first round, are much slimmer than the odds of Jones and company pulling enough strings this offseason to build a team that can win with Prescott.
Whatever moves Dallas does or doesn’t make this offseason, or whatever other Dak-related concerns are levied, this much is clear: It doesn’t matter how well Prescott plays going forward; the only way he’s going to end this talk is by winning playoff games. After all, he’s cleared every other bar already.