Ed Note: Due to a mistake on my part, this article was originally posted under my byline (Dave Halprin) when it should have been posted under the byline of our newest writer, Joseph.Hatz. I have now corrected it, but wanted everyone to know where the credit is due for this excellent article. -- Dave
Dak Prescott has been as impressive as he could possibly be over his first three preseason games. He has shown all the attributes you want to see in a franchise quarterback; pocket presence, poise under pressure, arm strength, athleticism, humility, leadership, the ability to command a huddle, and accuracy, both on the run on designed movement and from the pocket. His coaches and teammates seemingly love him, and Cowboys fans should be beyond excited at the possibility that the organization may have found their future franchise quarterback with a compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round.
Now that Tony Romo is set to miss 6-10 weeks Prescott is being forced into the starting lineup sooner than anybody would’ve expected, and in order to understand Prescott’s immediate and long-term future it is important to study the past of the superstar quarterback Prescott is compared to most by both the media, as well as former NFL general managers and head coaches, Russell Wilson.
During the 2012 preseason you heard similar praise of Wilson coming out of Seattle; poised, a leader, ability to make plays with his arm and his legs. Wilson also had a huge preseason as a rookie with 536 yards on 63.5% passing and six combined touchdowns to only one interception, which is very similar to Prescott’s preseason performance to date. This was enough for the Seahawks to make the somewhat surprising decision to start the rookie who many thought was more of a developmental prospect.
Russell Wilson's first NFL preseason.
|Russell Wilson, 2012 Preseason Passing Performance|
Dak Prescott's first NFL preseason (so far).
|Dak Prescott, 2016 Preseason Passing Performance|
We all know what has happened since then for Wilson and the Seahawks but the key comparison to make here is how and why Wilson succeeded early on.
Early in his career Wilson was protected by a dominant defense and running game. He made plays at critical times but he wasn’t asked to carry the team week in and week out with his arm. He was afforded the time to develop the finer points of playing the position while still winning games because he had the best defense in the league, as well as one of the best running games in the league, supporting him. This gave him the luxury of being able to play, win and build his confidence without being asked to do too much, too soon. Over the span of four seasons the offense slowly shifted from a conservative, run-first attack to a system built around Wilson, all while he learned on the job. This deliberate shift and integration of Wilson into the offense as a passer is reflected by the fact that his pass attempts have increased each year he has been in the league:
2012: 393 total, 24.5 attempts per game
2013: 407 total, 25.4 attempts per game
2014: 452 total, 28.2 attempts per game
2015: 483 total, 30.1 attempts per game
Anybody who watched the 2014-15 NFC Championship Game, where at one point Wilson had about as many interceptions as he had completions, knows that he was not yet a finished product. However, thanks to a wise coaching staff, a dominant defense, and Marshawn Lynch, Wilson was incubated in a sense early in his career, asked to only do what he does best while developing his skill-set. This process culminated last season, Wilson’s fourth in the league, with him fully taking over the offense as Lynch missed most of the year. The result was a career high in passing yards, touchdowns, completions, completion percentage, yards per attempt and QB rating.
Ben Roethlisberger followed a similar path early in his career. Like Wilson he won a Super Bowl in his second season, but it wasn’t because he was carrying the team with his arm week after week. He also had one of the most dominant defenses in the league at the time, a strong running game, and a coaching staff who understood that he must be protected early in his career, similar to Wilson. In fact, Roethlisberger actually cratered a bit in his third season, the year after winning the Super Bowl, where he attempted almost 500 passes, as opposed to fewer than 300 each of the previous two seasons. The result was an 18 to 23 touchdown to interception ratio and the Steelers missed the playoffs only a year after winning it all. Perhaps their offense shifted to centering around Ben too soon, but the next season, his fourth, he again attempted over 400 passes and racked up 32 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions. The season after that he won his second Super Bowl.
The key takeaway here is that before evolving into elite, potentially Hall of Fame quarterbacks who could carry teams on their own, even two of the youngest Super Bowl winning quarterbacks of all-time were supported by a total-team concept early in their careers, with dominant defenses and strong running games. They were not asked to make up for deficiencies that existed elsewhere on their teams like seasoned quarterbacks often are and they were afforded the time to learn, improve and build confidence while slowly being integrated as the focal point of the offense over a span of years. You can see a similar pattern play out repeatedly over the last 10-15 years from Joe Flacco to Cam Newton and even Tom Brady. You can even see it still in progress right now with a guy like Teddy Bridgewater. Simply put, young QB’s just do not come into the league and consistently win 10+ games a year without being supported by a total-team concept unless they are a once in a decade prospect like Andrew Luck.
All of this brings me back to Dak Prescott. Certainly the Cowboys should have the dominant running game to help protect the rookie, not to mention elite weapons like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in the passing game, but the obvious problem here is the defense. While most successful young quarterbacks had dominant defenses to lean on early in their careers, the Cowboys have the furthest thing from it. Before Romo’s injury the offense was expected to shield the defense in 2016, not the other way around, and that will likely still be the case in 2017 to some extent.
Without the support of even a good defense, let alone an elite defense like Wilson had, the Cowboys will have to be very careful not to ruin the confidence of a promising young quarterback by asking him to do too much. The best thing for Prescott’s development over the next 2-3 years would clearly be a healthy Tony Romo, which would afford him the time to learn on the job and develop his weaknesses into strengths, but given Romo’s recent injury history you have to acknowledge the possibility that he will never be able to stay on the field for a prolonged period of time again.
If that is the case, over the next few years the team will have to lean on the running game, only ask Dak to throw it about 25-28 times a game, and hope to get at least an average level of performance from the defense. Interestingly enough, Romo only averaged 29 attempts per game in 2014 and the offense was at its most efficient that year when he attempted less than 30 passes per game, so in that regard the game plan shouldn’t change too much.
As fans, we will have to temper expectations both for Prescott as an individual and the team as a whole. While personally I am excited and somewhat encouraged by getting a look at what the future could hold, it’s important to be mindful of the fact that even if Prescott is the second coming of Russell Wilson, he won’t have similar success to what Wilson had early in his career with a defense that is in the bottom half of the league.
To be clear, the cupboard is not bare here with Prescott. He is an effective runner who is joined by two starting-caliber running backs in the backfield, which brings the intriguing possibility of the read option into play as we saw Thursday night. He has also shown the ability to execute play-action effectively and challenge defenses vertically with his arm, two key abilities for a quarterback who is facing a defense preoccupied with stopping the run. With the offensive weapons around him there are enough elements to create an effective game plan, especially if Romo actually is able to return after only missing about a month or so of the season, and therefore limiting Prescott’s action to only about six games.
It’ll just be key to keep in mind when evaluating Prescott’s performance that it is extremely difficult for rookie quarterbacks to have sustained success early on without the luxury of a strong defense to lean on. If Prescott is able to buck that trend, especially if he is forced to play a larger sample size than just four to six games, the Cowboys future may already be here without any of us having realized it.