Do the Dallas Cowboys have a Dak Prescott problem?

Dak Prescott has gone from NFL Rookie of the Year to a question mark behind center

DALLAS — Dak Prescott took the NFL by storm when he was suddenly anointed the Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback following Tony Romo’s injury in the 2016-2017 preseason. The Cowboys finished the regular season 13-3, barely losing in the Divisional round of the playoffs to the Aaron Rodgers led Green Bay Packers. For the year, Prescott won the NFL Offensive Rookie Of the Year and put up borderline MVP caliber stats.

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However, flash forward a season and a few weeks and the Cowboys offense, along with Prescott, has been trending downward ever since that rookie year. The slump on offense has translated to the standings, as well. After that great 2016 season, the Cowboys have an overall record of just 10 wins and 9 losses.

During those 19 games, the Cowboys offense has struggled to get big chunks of yardage and put points on the scoreboard. It led to the release of the popular, if not polarizing, wide receiver Dez Bryant, and the additions of many new faces in the receiving core.

Yet, through this season’s first three games, the offense looks as bad as it has been since the early 2000’s in the dark days of the post-Aikman era. Is Dak Prescott to blame? After watching game film and compounding the numbers, let’s take a look at what stands out:

Dak Prescott has started 35 games for the Dallas Cowboys. In order to get an idea of his progression or regression, let’s break that down into thirds by looking at his first eleven games, his next twelve games, and his last twelve games. That gives us a pretty good sample size to work from for each section.

FIRST 12 GAMES

-Cowboys Record 10-1

-2,835 Passing yards

-67.94 completion %

-18 passing touchdowns

-2 Interceptions

-8.34 yards per pass attempt (average yards gained per pass attempt)

-108.6 rating

NEXT 12 GAMES

-Cowboys Record 7-5

-2,401 Passing yards

-64.3 completion %

-19 passing touchdowns

-6 interceptions

-7.27 yards per pass attempt

-98.3 rating

LAST 12 GAMES

-Cowboys Record 6-6

-2,253 Passing yards

-62.5 completion %

-10 passing touchdowns

-11 interceptions

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-6.39 yards per pass attempt

-78.1 rating

Every third of his career has seen his overall production decrease from the previous third. His passing yards, completion percentage, passing touchdowns per game, yards per pass attempt and rating all trend downward, while his interceptions trend upwards. Coincidentally, the Cowboys record has also trended downward in each third of his career.

With all that being said, the first two-thirds of his career were still very good. Those are the type of numbers that can be borderline MVP caliber in some years.

The last third of his career is what is most troubling. In addition to the numbers listed above for his last twelve games, he is also averaging 0.83 passing touchdowns and 0.91 interceptions per game during that span.

Prescott established himself in this league as a quarterback that takes care of the football and plays efficiently. When you are averaging more interceptions than touchdowns, and not completing passes at a high rate, it is hard to keep up that reputation. Not to mention, being at the bottom of the league in passing yards per attempt doesn’t pair well with that. For reference, Cam Newton is 20th in the league at around seven yards per pass attempt, while Dak is averaging a full yard less than that.

Prescott is a quarterback that doesn’t put up prolific passing stats, so taking care of the football and completing a high percentage of passes is paramount to his and his team’s success.

To analyze just how bad his numbers have been over his last twelve games (three-fourths of an NFL season. The last nine games of the 2017 season, and the first three of the 2018 season), let’s prorate them for a full 16 games, and see where they would have ranked during the 2017 season.

-Yards gained per pass attempt 6.39 (28th)

-Rating 78.1 (28th)

-Passing Yards 3,004 (23rd)

-Passing Yards per game 187.75 (27th)

-Passing Touchdowns 13.28 (26th)

-Interceptions 14.56 (4th most)

-Completion Percentage 62.5% (17th)

Some may be pointing to the fact that Ezekiel Elliot missed six of those twelve games and that Tyron Smith missed three. Those have to factor in to the poor numbers, right?

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During the six weeks that Elliot was suspended (Weeks 9-14 of last season) Dak Prescott threw for 1,146 passing yards (191 per game vs 187), had a completion percentage of 64% (instead of 62.5%), threw for five touchdowns, seven interceptions and had a rating of 76.6.

During that span, Prescott threw for more yards per game, had the same touchdown percentage per game (0.83%) and had a higher completion percentage. The only negatives were his interceptions per game rising from 0.91 to 1.16, thus lowering his overall passer rating to 76.6 instead of 78.1. What about the weeks left tackle Tyron Smith was out?

Smith missed Weeks 9, 10 and 16 last season. In those games, Dak averaged 166.6 passing yards per game, 0.33 passing touchdowns per game, 1.0 interception per game, had a 71% completion percentage and an overall rating of 65.9.

Missing Tyron Smith did have a noticeable impact on Prescott last season. However, if you take those three games out of the equation, it doesn’t improve his stats that drastically. His numbers would then look like this for the other nine games out of his last twelve:

-194.7 passing yards per game

-63.2 completion percentage

-9 passing touchdowns (1.0/game)

-8 interceptions (0.88/game)

-82.1 rating

Looking at 2018

Admittedly, we aren’t in 2017 anymore, and both Elliot and Tyron Smith are healthy and playing for Dallas. So, let’s take a look at how things have looked in the most recent and relevant trio of games for the 2018 season.

Watching the games live, it can seem as though Dak is under pressure quite a bit. Which leads one to think that the offensive line isn’t giving him time to throw the football. The reality is actually the opposite.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, through the first three weeks of the 2018 season, Dak has been given the 3rd most time to throw in the NFL at an average of 2.99 seconds per pass. This obviously makes it extremely difficult to put the blame on the offensive line, or not having time to survey the field and throw the football.

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A few more interesting notes from NFL Next Gen Stats for the 2018 season:

  • Dak is 25th in the NFL in “Intended Air Yards” at 7.1 (average air yards a passer throws on all attempts)
  • Dak is 15th in the NFL in “Aggressiveness” at 15.9% (% of pass attempts thrown into tight coverage)
  • Dak is 28th in the NFL in “Air Yards to the Sticks” at -2.4 (basically, Dak targets his receivers at an average of 2.4 yards behind the first down marker on all throws)
  • Dak is 29th in Passer Rating at 74.9
  • Dak is 20th in “Expected Completion Percentage” at 65.9% (Using a passer’s completion probability on every play, determining what their completion % is expected to be)
  • Dak is 29th in the NFL in “Completion Percentage Above Expectation” at -4.5 (the difference between his actual completion % compared to his Expected Completion %)
  • Dak is 25th in the NFL in Passing Touchdown with 2

A few efficiency notes from this season thanks to PlayerProfiler.com:

  • Dak is 29th in Adjusted Air Yards Per Attempt at 4.5
  • Dak is 27th in True Completion percentage at 64.3% (factors out throwaways and drops)
  • Dak is 25th in play action completion percentage at 59.1%
  • Dak is 35th in Red Zone completion percentage at 28.6%
  • Dak is 30th in Deep Ball completion percentage at 20%
  • Dak is 11th in Pressured Completion percentage at 25.9%

Perhaps the most important stat of them all is Production Premium, which “measures a player’s productivity across league-average situations and discounts non-standard situations such as two-minute drill and garbage time. Positive values indicate that a player is more efficient than the average full time player, while negative values indicate that a player is less efficient than his peers with similar opportunities.

Where does Dak Prescott rank through the season’s first three games in Production Premium? He ranks 26th overall out of all quarterbacks with a score of -24.6. Meaning he is one of the least efficient quarterbacks in the National Football League this season. Coincidentally, that is supposed to be his biggest strength. You can’t even be considered a bus driver quarterback at that point.

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What about the play calling and the receivers?

Admittedly, the Cowboys offensive play calling has seemed sub par. However, Dak has either not seen open receivers, chosen not to throw to open receivers, or thrown the ball poorly to open receivers multiple times each game.

Going back and watching the film has been pretty eye opening. Going into it, it is assumed that poor play calling would stand out. On the contrary, there have been plenty of big play and scoring opportunities created by the plays that were called.

Dak is simply not taking advantage of those. It is hard to get a major read on the effectiveness of the play calling as a whole with that being the issue.

So, what is wrong with Dak and how is it impacting the offense?

By looking at the numbers and watching the films of the games, a few things stand out.

First, Dak seems to be extremely reluctant to throw the ball 20+ yards down the field. In 2017, Prescott ranked 25th out of all quarterbacks by averaging only 2.9 passes per game that were 20 yards in the air or more down the field.

Through this season’s first three games of this season, Dak has only thrown a total of five passes farther than 20 yards in the air, ranking him 31th out of all quarterbacks. By not challenging opposing defenses down the field, it allows them to play single man-to-man coverage on the outside receivers and bring more defenders in to focus on the run.

Trepidation in testing defenses also allows them to have more defenders in the 0-15 yard range to muddy up his passing lanes on short to intermediate throws. This has a tremendous impact on the flow of the offense. It also allows defensive coordinators to blitz more often with the knowledge that they won’t get beaten deep, thus creating more pressure on Dak himself.

Second, Dak is very uncomfortable in the pocket. Whenever he starts to feel a little pressure, he pulls the ball down to run to another spot. This allows opposing defenses to rattle him quickly. He needs to learn how to slide around in the pocket and give himself more time to throw, while keeping the ball in a throwing position and his eyes downfield.

For a good example of this, here's a look at every time Dak has been sacked so far this season:

Far too often Dak doesn’t see wide-open receivers because he is only surveying half or a third of the field due to feeling pressure. As mentioned above, the offensive play calling has appeared poor, but there have been at least a dozen plays through three games where he isn’t seeing receivers who are open for big gains or touchdowns.

Third, his footwork and mechanics have suffered as a result of him being rattled by any pocket pressure, thus diminishing his throwing accuracy. Improper footwork and arm mechanics have hurt him on a surprising number of throws.

Part of being a good quarterback isn’t just throwing a catchable ball, it is also throwing it in a place that allows your receiver to keep running smoothly with it after the reception is made. Dak has had a major problem with that over the last 19 games, and it was evident last year as each Cowboy receiver averaged a career low in yards after the catch.

Lastly, Dak is playing like a “see it, throw it” quarterback instead of reading the defense and anticipating. Basically, he is waiting until he actually sees separation between a receiver and a defender before he starts throwing the ball. A quarterback at this level is supposed to time his throw to hit the receiver once he is coming out of his break, so that the ball reaches the receiver as that separation occurs.

Good quarterbacks anticipate separation, Dak has been waiting for it to happen. When you pair that with his reluctance to throw the ball down the field, it makes it almost impossible for the offense to move the ball consistently. It is also part of the reason he is getting pressured and sacked so often, and why the Dallas receivers don’t have many yards after the catch.

Dak merely has not been anticipating throwing windows, or surveying the whole field to take advantage of what the defense is giving him. (Subsequently, it is also a major reason why Dez Bryant saw his numbers decline his last two seasons in Dallas. He is not the type of receiver that is going to create a lot of separation between himself and the defender.)

The Verdict

Dak Prescott is a great leader and seems to be a wonderful human being. He has the physical tools to play quarterback and has had success in this league. Unfortunately, as teams have studied film on his tendencies, his play has become a huge drawback on the Cowboys offense.

No, the offensive line hasn’t been perfect, but they have provided him with more time than most. The play calling is suspect, but it has provided opportunities for the offense to score. The receivers don’t have a true star, but they have talent and they are getting open. The bottom line is that Prescott is being given the opportunities to succeed, he just isn’t.

From here, Prescott needs to clean up his mechanics, learn how to slide in the pocket, read defenses quicker, see more of the field and take more chances on passes 20 yards and beyond. If he doesn’t do those things, this Cowboys offense will not be successful, nor will their team as a whole. If he can somehow improve on those things, he could have a long and fruitful career.

For now though, the unfortunate truth is that, more often than not, Dak Prescott is hurting this Cowboys offense.

Do you feel like it's already time for the Cowboys to look for a new QB or is that writing Dak off too early? Share your thoughts with Blake on Twitter @blakegibbs.