clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dak Prescott Took More Snaps Under Center Than You May Have Thought In Cowboys Game

With Dak Prescott at quarterback, the Cowboys did not line up in the shotgun as often as many observers may have expected.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Confirmation bias is a tendency to selectively notice or look for information that confirms one’s beliefs and presuppositions, and not notice or avoid information that would contradict one's prior beliefs. In the NFL, confirmation bias runs rampant. Countless articles and months of airtime are filled with presuppositions (what you see is what you want to see) backed, at best, by some anecdotal evidence but never any sound statistical backing.

One of those presuppositions is about Dak Prescott and the shotgun. In college, Prescott played almost exclusively out of the shotgun, which is why many observers to believed and continue to believe that he’ll struggle with the transition to the NFL where he'll be asked to take snaps from under center.

Never mind that reports stated Prescott had transitioned well to taking snaps under center, as Gil Brandt of NFL.com wrote in early June.

Dak Prescott's progression. The Cowboys knew Prescott would be a work in progress, but I'm not sure they expected it to come this quickly. Credit should go to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson for getting Prescott up to speed so quickly. Prescott wasn't getting first- or second-team snaps, but when he did get in there he looked like someone who had taken the ball from under center all of his life. He made several good sight adjustments in passing drills and his mechanics were very sound. He also showed natural leadership qualities; players gravitate toward him and seem to genuinely like him.

And never mind that the majority of passes thrown in the NFL are thrown out of the shotgun. Football Outsiders explain how you might have missed the trend to the shotgun if you had been asleep for the last 15 years.

In 2001, NFL teams only used Shotgun on 14 percent of plays. Five years later, in 2006, that had increased slightly, to 20 percent of plays. Shotgun usage has risen steadily since then, shattering the halfway point in 2013 (when NFL teams used Shotgun 59 percent of the time) and then creeping over the 60 percent threshold in 2014. Before 2007, no team had ever used Shotgun on more than half its offensive plays. In 2014, 26 different teams used Shotgun over 50 percent of the time, led by Philadelphia which used Shotgun on an NFL-record 86 percent of plays.

But it's not just Philly QBs that are using a high percentage of shotgun. Here's an overview of the top 20 QBs from last year by passing yards (with Tony Romo's 2014 season added for good measure), and their pass attempts out of the shotgun as a % of total pass attempts. The table is sortable, just click on the blue column headers to sort.

Shotgun snaps in % of total pass attempts, 2015
QB Team Attempts Yards Shotgun ATT Shotgun%
Drew Brees NO 627 4,870 438 70%
Philip Rivers SD 661 4,792 606 92%
Tom Brady NE 624 4,770 472 76%
Carson Palmer ARI 537 4,671 306 57%
Matt Ryan ATL 614 4,591 393 64%
Eli Manning NYG 618 4,436 503 81%
Blake Bortles JAX 606 4,428 433 71%
Matthew Stafford DET 592 4,262 472 80%
Ryan Tannehill MIA 586 4,208 475 81%
Kirk Cousins WSH 543 4,166 386 71%
Jameis Winston TB 535 4,042 334 62%
Russell Wilson SEA 483 4,024 361 75%
Derek Carr OAK 573 3,987 470 82%
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 469 3,938 376 80%
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 562 3,905 408 73%
Cam Newton CAR 495 3,837 420 85%
Aaron Rodgers GB 572 3,821 445 78%
Sam Bradford PHI 532 3,725 489 92%
Jay Cutler CHI 483 3,659 415 86%
Alex Smith KC 470 3,486 357 76%
Tony Romo (2014) DAL 435 3,705 332 76%

The Chip Kelly-enabled Sam Bradford tops the table with 92%, but shares the top spot with Philip Rivers and is closely followed by Jay Cutler. Neither of the latter QBs have a particular reputation as shotgun QBs. And the same applies for most of the other QBs here. 14 of the 21 QBs listed throw at least three quarters of their passes out of the shotgun - including Tony Romo at 76%.

Which brings us back to Dak Prescott. After his stellar outing on Saturday, it didn't take long before the first voices popped up claiming that the Cowboys had prepared a gameplan specifically for Prescott, a gameplan that allowed him to pass out of the shotgun, and that by adapting the offensive scheme, OC Scott Linehan helped get Prescott through the game.

Obviously, the argument continues, it's easier for a shotgun QB like Prescott to pass out of the shotgun than from under center, which is why Prescott's performance doesn't present an accurate picture because Prescott was scheme enabled - or some such confirmation bias-driven nonsense like that. And the anecdotal evidence to support that claim is that Prescott threw eight of his 12 pass attempts out of the shotgun.

Never mind that 18 out of the 21 QBs in the table above throw out of the shotgun more frequently.

Never mind that that Prescott took more snaps under center than from the shotgun on Saturday.

That's right, you read correctly. Prescott took 31 snaps against the Rams (including four plays blown dead by a penalty, a sack, and a kneel-down). 18 of those snaps were from under center, 13 were out of the shotgun. So much for game planning for "Shotgun" Prescott.

If we exclude the penalties, the sack, and the knee, that leaves 25 snaps. Here's how those 25 snaps add up in terms of play selection:

Prescott Play Selection vs Rams
Formation Pass Run
Shotgun 9 2
Under Center
3
11

If you were looking for confirmation that "Shotgun" Prescott passes a lot out of the shotgun, you found it on Saturday. But if you understand that all QBs today pass a lot out of the shotgun, then Prescott's numbers don't stand out at all.

You'll find a detailed, play-by-play split for all snaps at the bottom of this post.

Star_medium

After railing against confirmation bias, it's important to understand that there's another bias that's just as prevalent in sportswriting, and one that we as fans are particularly susceptible to: Motivated reasoning. Here's the Scientific American explaining the concept.

Motivated reasoning describes our propensity to scrutinize ideas that oppose our intuitions less than ideas that support our intuitions. My favorite study (pdf) that illustrates motivated reasoning comes from Ziva Kunda. It goes like this.

Kunda brought participants into a room and had them play a game. Before they started they watched two other people play the game, one who was far superior (and actually a confederate). Here was the catch: Kunda told half the participants that the expert player would be their teammate and the other half that he would be their opponent. Kunda found that the participants lined up to play with the expert praised his skills while those lined up to play against the expert dismissed his skills and labeled him as lucky.

I trust that the data presented in this post makes it clear that Dak Prescott wasn't "lucky", scheme enabled, or somehow received help. I also hope that I did not "praise the skill" of Prescott and instead found the fine line between the two extremes.

Star_medium

Play Description Formation Play Note
Drive No. 1
1-10-DAL 20 (12:22) D.Prescott pass incomplete short right to G.Swaim. Under Center Pass Incomplete (playaction)
2-10-DAL 20 (12:18) A.Morris right guard for 9 yards. Under Center Run Handoff
3-1-DAL 29 (11:36) (Shotgun) D.Prescott pass to C.Beasley for 15 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
1-10-DAL 44 (10:53) L.Whitehead left end for 11 yards Under Center Run Handoff
1-10-LA 45 (10:22) A.Morris left end for 1 yard Under Center Run Handoff
2-9-LA 44 (9:46) D.Prescott pass deep left to D.Bryant for 18 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
1-10-LA 26 (9:27) A.Morris left guard for 1 yard Under Center Run Handoff
2-9-LA 25 (8:51) D.Prescott pass short right to C.Beasley for 8 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
3-1-LA 17 (8:07) A.Morris up the middle to LA 14 for 3 yards (M.Barron). Under Center Run PENALTY on DAL-C.Green, Holding, - No Play.
3-11-LA 27 (7:36) D.Prescott pass short right to A.Morris for 12 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
1-10-LA 15 (6:52) D.Prescott pass short left to R .Smith for 5 yards Under Center Pass Complete (playaction)
2-5-LA 10 (6:13) D.Prescott pass short left to D.Bryant for 10 yards, TOUCHDOWN Shotgun Pass Complete (playaction)
Drive No. 2
1-10-DAL 25 (1:33) D.Jackson up the middle for 6 yards Under Center Run Handoff
2-4-DAL 31 (:48) D.Jackson left guard for 4 yards Under Center Run handoff
1-10-DAL 35 (:10) D.Prescott pass deep left to B.Butler for 22 yards Under Center Pass Complete (playaction)
1-10-LA 43 (15:00) D.Jackson right end for no gain Under Center Run Toss
2-10-LA 43 (14:20) D.Jackson right end for 11 yards Shotgun Run Handoff
1-10-LA 32 (13:37) D.Prescott pass deep left to T.Williams for 32 yards, TOUCHDOWN Shotgun Pass Completion
Drive No. 3
1-10-DAL 10 (11:59) D.Jackson left tackle for 5 yards Under Center Run Handoff
2-5-DAL 15 (11:23) D.Jackson left tackle for 4 yards Under Center Run Handoff
3-1-DAL 19 (10:39) D.Jackson up the middle for -1 yards Under Center Run Handoff
Drive No. 4
1-10-LA 38 (8:43) D.Prescott pass incomplete short right to G.Swaim. Shotgun Pass Incomplete (playaction)
2-10-LA 38 (8:37) D.Jackson right tackle for 5 yards Under Center Run Handoff
3-5-LA 33 (8:01) D.Prescott pass short right to D.Street for 9 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
1-10-LA 24 (7:19) D.Jackson up the middle for no gain Under Center Run PENALTY on DAL-J.Brendel, Holding, - No Play.
1-20-LA 34 (6:43) Penalty Shotgun - - PENALTY on DAL-D.Prescott, Delay of Game, - No Play.
1-25-LA 39 (6:18) D.Prescott sacked at LA 43 for -4 yards Shotgun - - Sack
2-29-LA 43 (5:40) D.Prescott pass short right to D.Street for 2 yards Under Center Pass PENALTY on DAL-G.Swaim, Illegal Motion - No Play.
2-34-LA 48 (5:17) D.Prescott pass short left to D.Street for 8 yards Shotgun Pass Completion
3-26-LA 40 (4:38) D.Prescott scrambles right tackle for 14 yards Shotgun Run QB Scramble
Drive No. 5
1-10-DAL 15 (:14) D.Prescott kneels for -1 yards. Under Center - - Knee