Romo vs Dak: How offense performed in 2014 vs 2016

DALLAS - The Metroplex could reasonably spend the Dallas Cowboys’ bye week discussing Ezekiel Elliott’s record-setting pace, or the fact that the team actually hit on a sixth-round keeper in Anthony Brown (at least it appears so six weeks in). That won’t be the case. The debate that’s swept the entire nation by storm is likely to continue no thanks to a dominant five-game winning streak. That’s right: “Dak Prescott or Tony Romo?” has only just begun.

If the choice were visualized, the early returns on the rookie play-caller have only trended upwards since Week 2. Opinions have wavered so much so that you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone favoring the potential Hall of Fame quarterback at this time. Even the owner has flinched in his stance. It took only seven days for “Tony is our No. 1 quarterback” to suddenly morph into “What we’re going to do is, wait until the next card is played.”

Earlier this week, the debate even went as far as comparing Prescott to Tom Brady. As Peter King mentioned at theMMQB, “comparing the first six starts of Brady, in relief of [Drew] Bledsoe, and Prescott, relieving Romo, shows how hard it will be for Dallas to yank a healthy Prescott.”

Maybe that’s true. Maybe the beginning of Prescott’s career is a mirror-image of Brady’s, inevitably seeing the former, much like the latter, overtake his predecessor sooner than expected. That, however, infers Prescott become the next Tom Brady, an incorrect (and, quite frankly, preposterous) assessment at this time. In fact, comparing Prescott to Romo on a one-for-one basis is an odd juxtaposition, since the offense this season is doing things that the 2014 Cowboys could only dream of.

Therein lies the point, and why Prescott has to stay under center.

You don’t have to look far to see why Dallas was so successful two seasons ago. With Romo and DeMarco Murray fully healthy, the Cowboys finished second in both third-down conversion (47.09 percent) and red zone touchdown percentage (64.91 percent). (Obviously, if a team consistently moves the chains and scores inside the 20-yard-line, positive results should follow.)

Through the first six weeks of 2014, however, Dallas had scored on 61.1 percent of their red zone trips. This season, the Cowboys have converted 64.1 percent of their red zone possessions into touchdowns. They also currently rank second in the league in third down conversion rate (46.5 percent) and have faced shorter third downs (6.1, compared to 6.5 in 2014) due in part to Prescott’s knowledge of the offense. 

In terms of yards per play, Dallas finished tied for third with the New Orleans Saints (6.0) in 2014. For reference, the Cowboys are averaging 6.1 YPP this season. Although both totals are similar, the Cowboys are averaging a higher (albeit incremental) mark this season than what they were pacing for six-weeks into their 2014 campaign (6.0 at that time, as well). It might also shock some to know that Prescott is averaging more yards per passing attempt (7.8) than Romo was at this time two seasons ago (7.6).

Both offenses are clearly efficient. What sets them apart, though, and what continues to work in the rookie’s favor is what the offense is capable of doing with Prescott under center. Not once did OC Scott Linehan call for an empty shotgun package or zone read over the last three seasons. As great as Romo is, he clearly has his limitations (especially following four surgeries). But that play-calling, specifically empty personnel, have become a catalyst and the backbone of the 2016 Cowboys.

In 2014, Dallas’ base personnel was S11 (shotgun, one running back, one tight end). They ran 365 individual plays from it, 271 more than the next closest, and averaged 7.2 yards per passing attempt. This season, Dallas has averaged 7.1 YPA from S11.

Unlike 2014, however, Prescott’s athleticism has allowed Linehan to sprinkle in S11e, spreading a running back out-wide rather than keeping him in the backfield to protect the quarterback. This significant caveat has added an extra element to the Cowboys’ offense, seeing them average 12.3 yards per carry and 6.2 YPA in 29 uses of it.

12 (one running back, two tight ends) has also peaked with Prescott under center, as the coaching staff has continued to peel the onion and unveil layers upon layers that had ceased to exist until now. Through the first four weeks, for example, Dallas had always passed to either Jason Witten or Geoff Swaim when faking a handoff and rolling Prescott out to the flats.

This version of the naked bootleg was used so much that eventually it became just another memory to opposing defenses. Of course, when Dallas went back to S12 personnel and showed naked bootleg against Cincinnati in Week 5, the Bengals’ defense followed Jason Witten into the flats, only to see Elliott take the ball and score from 60-yards out. That play literally doesn’t happen with Romo at quarterback.

As you can tell, it’s not as simple as “Dak Prescott or Tony Romo?”. Both quarterbacks have their pros and cons. Through six weeks, the 2016 Cowboys have been slightly more efficient than their 2014 counterpart using a myriad of personnel that’s progressed from week to week.

Some would argue “slightly” over the course of six games isn’t more valuable than a season’s worth of evidence, but just imagine the outcome of 2014 had Dez Bryant been slightly further downfield in Lambeau or, on the other hand, if Brandon Pettigrew had bumped into Anthony Hitchens only slightly more during Wild Card weekend. The coaching staff has also shown their confidence in Prescott, furthering the playbook to the likes that 2014 couldn’t even fathom.

In a vacuum, Prescott might not be better than Romo. All that matters, though, is that this offense is better than anything the Cowboys have shown in the last decade.

So, Romo or Dak? Who would you keep behind center once Romo is healthy? Let John know on Twitter @notJDaigle.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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