The NFL has increasingly become a passing league. The rules favor the air game (excepting a lingering confusion about what is and is not a catch) because it presumably makes for a more exciting and watchable product. But this year, ratings are down across the board for NFL broadcasts, and despite a variety of excuses being handed out, the most likely reason seems to be that the games this year have been more bad than good. And that appears to be related to one primary factor: Quarterback play is generally bad, and when teams can’t pass the ball, they are dead in the water.
There have been some passers who have exceeded expectations, such as Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, and of course the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, but there are also several stalwarts who are struggling this season. Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Joe Flacco and others are either having down years statistically, losing games because of other issues, or both. With the departure of Peyton Manning, the list of truly dependable passers has shrunk - and one of the best remaining, Tony Romo, is still working his way back from injury, while Tom Brady, who is generally considered the top quarterback in football, has only been back from suspension for one game.
It has long been a trope that there are only about half as many truly qualified NFL quarterbacks as there are teams, so finding one of the rare successful QBs is key to success in the league. Yet there is another part of this equation, and that is building a successful roster around them. There are two basic ways to go with that: Build a strong supporting cast on offense to help the passer out, or put a dominant defense together to thwart the opponent. In the former case, a team can succeed with a quarterback that is not really good, as long as he is the proverbial “game manager” who does not make mistakes to cost the team the game. Dominant defenses have gotten Super Bowl rings for players like Eli Manning, Flacco, and also accounted for Peyton Manning’s second piece of jewelry. Some teams like the Kansas City Chiefs have done both, bringing them a good bit of success with Alex Smith as their quarterback, a player whose tendency to throw the ball short of the required distance to make a first down is so pronounced that the analysts at Football Outsiders have named a statistic measuring that after him.
The season is still young, but with all teams now having played at least four games, there is enough data to start rating things, and the same guys at Football Outsiders have one of the most exhaustive rankings of quarterbacks you can find. They provide an excellent chart that lets you compare their favored rating, Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) with other ratings such as ESPN’s proprietary Quarterback Rating (QBR). And according to them, the second-best quarterback in the NFL, right behind Matt Ryan (who is having a career year) is Dak Prescott. That is whether you use the DYAR number or the QBR. The rookie is simply at the top of the league right now.
There are still some who keep predicting that Prescott is going to hit the rookie wall, but there is absolutely no sign that is imminent or likely. The one word that almost everyone uses to describe him is “poise”.
But having a very proficient quarterback is not enough. Rivers and Andrew Luck are prime exhibits for this. If you don’t have a team that can support them, either on offense or with a shut-down defense, the best quarterback cannot get the team to wins all by himself. Dallas fans saw that for years with Romo. While many still deny his contributions, for most of his seasons as the starter he had to try and lift the rest of the team up. The Cowboys have been mediocre for years - and Romo was at times all that kept them from descending into the nether reaches of the standings.
In 2014, however, Romo finally had an offense with enough talent around him to succeed, and we all saw what they could do. The lack of similar ability on defense was what really did them in during the playoffs, and then the lack of depth led to the collapse of 2015. This year is an entirely different story. Not only have the Cowboys put together a four-game winning streak with Romo out, they have won two games with Bryant on the sidelines as well. Prescott deserves all the praise he has gotten, but he has been aided tremendously by the dominant offensive line, a receiving corps that has stepped up in Bryant’s absence, and that other stellar rookie, running back Ezekiel Elliott.
It has been said that Elliott came to the perfect situation in Dallas, with that talented offensive line and a potent passing game, but swapping Prescott in for Romo certainly hasn’t limited his early success. The reality is that the situation in Dallas is one of synergy. The running game makes it easier on the quarterback, and an efficient, effective quarterback and receiving corps makes it better for the ground game. What may be most important for the Cowboys is that they have returned to an old-fashioned approach, that of having a balanced offense. So far this season, the Cowboys are averaging 397 yards per game, second in the NFL. That is composed of 241.8 yards per game passing and 155.2 rushing, by far the most balanced of any team in the league. And if you just look at the last three games, after Elliott really hit his stride, the numbers are much closer, 235.7 passing yards and 191 rushing per game. That is something you just don’t see in the NFL today. As Micah Peters put it in an enjoyable read (for Cowboys fans) at The Ringer:
But, at the risk of sounding 75 years older than I actually am, a quarterback that can manage a game and take control of it if he has to, receivers that can help stretch the field, a bullying offensive line, and a running back that can reliably hit holes for big gains are still good for four wins out of a possible five. Ticking the boxes and hitting the procedural notes still works, and can be exciting in its own way.
A great deal has been made of the way Prescott has stormed onto the NFL stage, but it may be more about the way the team was structured when he got here.
I felt that Lynch, Goff, Wentz and Prescott all had a very high probability of success with Dallas. Brissett was a down the road shot. https://t.co/kaOy019vGV— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) October 13, 2016
Too often, NFL teams go all in to draft their quarterback without putting an adequate team on the field around him. Luck, Marcus Mariota, and Jameis Winston are all suffering from this problem. But the Cowboys not only sought to find a good quarterback (and wound up with their third choice, it must be remembered), they had already built a very potent offense to plug him into. The use of four recent first-round draft picks to build the line and then add a hugely talented runner is now paying off by elevating Prescott’s game, just as he is elevating the rest of the team.
Now the Cowboys find themselves disproving the old adage that when you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have any. The expectation is that Romo will be reinstated as the starter when he is fully recovered from his injury, and although many are decrying the idea of moving away from Prescott and his hot hand, a more logical analysis shows that the potential for the team to have even better success with Romo is not only possible, it is likely. This is the same formula he worked with in 2014, and the line and running back corps are both better. So is the defense, particularly the secondary.
Call it a holistic approach to football, but the Cowboys have been building the whole team to function together, not searching for a “silver bullet” to fix their situation. It has taken years to do, and the staff, particularly Jerry and Stephen Jones, have to get credit for not panicking after 2015. They did not blow up the coaching staff, but focused on fixing the depth issues and adding key talent, particularly Elliott. Now, it has all come together. It seems like it came out of nowhere, but it actually is the result of all those years of putting the team together.
And now the Cowboys have a quarterback of the future that has already shown he can succeed in their system, plus the savvy and talented veteran waiting to get back on the field. While so many NFL teams are struggling at the position, the Cowboys have a depth that is only equaled or perhaps exceeded by the New England Patriots with Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. It is a far deeper thing than just a sudden emergence of a fairly unknown rookie. It is having a plan in place, and then getting a little lucky and hitting on the pieces you added to make it work.