As the season ended there has been a lot of discussion about where exactly the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie prodigy, Dak Prescott, fits in with the league’s quarterbacks. I’d like to add my particular take on that discussion, inspired by a Twitter conversation I witnessed last week. Bob Sturm is well known around these parts for his detailed weekly breakdowns of Dallas’s offensive and defensive performance. A somewhat less known name is John Daigle (on twitter @notJdaigle), who does the charting of passing plays which the sturminator uses.
After the season, they posted these two charts:
Dak Prescott’s season
All Dallas opponents
A person on Twitter stated that they look quite a bit alike. I disagree. At first glance, they do, but there are some significant differences.
These charts track the air yardage for each pass (where the ball is thrown in relation to the line of scrimmage) as well as the end result. Some things jump right out at you. Most completions on both charts happen inside 10 yards. Almost nobody throws the ball in the middle of the field beyond 20 yards. Passes over 20 yards tend to go down the sideline and be ineffective.
But look closer, and some significant differences show up. Look at 10-20 yards along the hashmarks. These are often the "seam’ routes we hear so much about. Dak throws fewer of them, and almost doesn’t throw at all beyond 15 yards, while Dallas opponents appear to have a great deal of success in the 15-20 yard range. I think this might be due to the amount of "Tampa 2" style coverage Dallas plays, where the Mike linebacker is asked to play a zone in the middle of the field about 15-20 yards deep. It’s a tough role to fill.
Further examination reveals some more interesting tidbits, though. For all the "dinking and dunking" Dak Prescott supposedly does, look at the concentration of passes along the five yard mark for Dallas’s opponents. They had to check down a LOT. That speaks very well to the job the Dallas secondary did in coverage. It also explains how Dallas was 31st in the league in completion percentage against, yet 11th in yards per pass attempt against. For his part, if you look at the 10-20 yard range, Prescott has a lot of success in this area and there’s more red and yellow there for the opponents than there is for Dak.
But the significant difference is down the field. Opponents have been very poor on passes traveling over 20 yards against Dallas. While no one has a terrific completion percentage on these attempts, Dallas’s opponents are, by my count (which may be wrong as I simply counted dots by hand here) 18/63. That’s 28.5% and pretty low. Worse is the touchdown/interception ratio of 2/5. Consider that one of those literally hit Brandon Carr in both hands before bouncing to a lucky Tampa Bay receiver and those numbers suddenly look significantly worse for Dallas’s opponents. They simply got killed when they tried to go deep. I did not have actual yardage measurements for these catches, but I added up the air yards and then added 5 yards per reception for YAC (have no idea how accurate that is) to get a yardage for passer rating performance. Using that method I came up with a 48.6 passer rating for Dallas opponents going deep.
Contrast that with Dak’s performance. With only 34 attempts (again, counting by hand, so I may be slightly off), Dak had 14 completions — nearly as many as the opponents had on way more attempts. That gives Dak a 41.2% completion rate on passes 20 yards or more. A significant advantage for Dallas. Then we get to TD/INT ratio. 5 to 1. That boosts Dak’s rating, using the same air yards plus five YAC formula I used for the opponents, gives Dak a massive 115.8 on these deep passes. That differential between Dak and his opponents, with much credit to the Dallas secondary, explains a lot about Dallas wins this year.
Disclaimers: I simply took some dots on a chart and tried to put numbers with them. I am almost certainly a little off in some of the "stats" I have come up with here, but the differences in result are real and the numbers are far enough apart that being a little off doesn’t really change the conclusion: Dak Prescott was very successful going down the field against Dallas opponents, who were greatly limited in doing the same by the Dallas secondary. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the almost two to one advantage in opponent pass attempts down field does not mean that opponents went downfield twice as often as Dak did. Dallas opponents threw approximately 25% more passes than Dallas did, and this would contribute to, though not account for, the difference in the number of downfield attempts.
Thanks to John Daigle for permission to use his play charts.