As the Dallas Cowboys have raced out to an 11-1 start and become the first team in the NFL to clinch a playoff spot, everyone has been stunned by the emergence of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. He is almost certainly the biggest story in the league. He has shown a pro-level arm, added a new dimension to the offense with his running skills, and his poise has become a cliche. But something that is not talked about enough is that he may be one of the smartest rookies ever to come out of college.
Coming out of a spread offense, he generated a lot of doubt about how well he could adapt to the pro game. But he has not only made the transition, he has done so at a staggering speed. Thrust into the starting role, he has absorbed the playbook and become one of the highest-rated and most efficient quarterbacks this season. He moved under center after playing strictly from the shotgun in college, and looks like he has been doing that all his life. As the year has progressed, he has shown that Scott Linehan is not at all constrained from using the full playbook. He reads coverages and finds the open player not just like a veteran, but with the skills of a Pro Bowl quality player. Most impressively, he has only thrown two interceptions in his first twelve games. All the discussions from preseason about how he would have a much harder time once he no longer faced vanilla defenses seem laughable now. As Rick Gosselin outlined in a very good analysis of the value of staying away from bad plays, that protection of the ball may be the most significant contribution he brings to the table, denying the opponent the opportunity to get game-changing, cheap points.
If (Marcus) Mariota were having a season like Dak Prescott, the Titans probably would be running away with the AFC South. Prescott has thrown only two interceptions and lost four fumbles. That's six turnovers and none for points. Mariota has 12 turnovers, and almost half of them have been deposited in his own end zone.
That superb avoidance of mistakes takes more than a strong arm or quick release. It requires reading the defense and knowing where the ball needs to go. And he is not staying out of trouble with dink and dunk passing, either. He ranks second in the NFL in yards per attempt with 8.31, trailing only Matt Ryan of the Falcons. That kind of accuracy and decision making takes not only an extensive understanding of his own offense and what is being presented to him by the other team, but the ability to make those decisions in fractions of a second, while large, aggressive men are trying their best to do him serous bodily harm. That often mentioned poise of his grows out of his intelligence. He knows what he is doing, and that feeds his confidence. There are some veteran quarterbacks who have seen a lot of success in the league (cough) Eli Manning for example (cough) who are often simply far inferior to Prescott in this facet of their game.
Prescott is also making more and more audibles, another bit of evidence for how well he knows the offense as well as the faith the coaches have in him. It also shows that he is still learning and growing as a quarterback, which bodes very well for the future. Dak is already being talked about as the MVP of the league, with exactly three-quarters of a season under his belt. It is dizzying to think what he might be in four or five years. On Sunday, the New York Giants are going to see first hand how much he has improved since they hung the one and only loss on the team this season.
Every bit of data shows that he possesses a simply incredible level of intelligence, and utilizes it with speed under pressure. Admittedly, he does have the advantage of that renowned offensive line to protect him and the league’s leading rusher to alleviate some of the pressure of moving the ball, but that speaks more to the overall success of the team than serving as any negative about Prescott’s accomplishments. Undoubtedly Prescott wound up in the best possible situation imaginable for a quarterback due to the superb talent surrounding him on the field, and he likely would not have nearly as much success if he had been forced into becoming the starter for some other team. But the talent for the Cowboys was somewhat similar last season, and Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore did not do anything at all with it.
It is early to be making these kinds of comparisons, but it is also hard to argue against the idea that Prescott is as far along or farther than other quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning were twelve games into their careers. That has to be attributed largely to the intelligence he possesses. That has just not been brought up as much as it seems it should have been so far. Everything we have seen says that Dak is simply a football genius.
And he still has a lot of room to grow. The largest flaw he has demonstrated goes back to those fumbles he has lost, which show that he still is getting a feel for when pressure is about to get to him. But given the way he has shown steady progress all season with the other aspects of his game, there is every reason to believe he will get better with that, and the other things he still needs to improve. Rapid learning is just one other trait of highly intelligent people. And that, more than anything else, is exactly why Dak Prescott has his team at the top of the NFL.