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Real Quarterback Rating Differential: Can The Cowboys Get Better On Offense In 2017?

In our opening piece on Real Quarterback Rating Differential, we explained the strong correlation between this stat and winning, and asked where Dallas needs to get better in 2017. Now we turn to the offense, and ask whether Dallas can improve on this side of the ball next year.

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys William Glasheen-USA TODAY Sports

In our first article on Real Quarterback Rating Differential, a stat developed by Cold Hard Football Facts, we explained how it goes beyond the standard passer rating by incorporating a quarterback’s running plays, rushing TDs, sacks, and fumbles.

The current passer rating is just that, a measure of passing effectiveness. Real Quarterback Rating includes rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing TDs, fumbles and sacks to produce a new kind of rating that measures a quarterback’s overall performance with the ball, not just as a passer when he actually releases the ball (which is all that passer rating currently measures).

The differential just measures a team’s own quarterback play against how they limit their opponent’s quarterback play. The team that wins this differential has won between 85.5% and 87.5% of the games over the last five years.

In the last five years, Dallas has ranked as high as second (2014) and third (2016) on the offensive side. But on the defensive side, the Cowboys haven’t been higher than 22nd. Clearly the defense is where the greatest potential gains lie.

But today we’re going to look at whether Dallas has the potential to move up on the offensive side in 2017. Dallas scored 97.12 this season. But Atlanta scored 105.74, and New England scored 102.61. Is there room next year for Dallas to do better? If so, how?

Will Dak Prescott Be Better In Year Two?

Since this stat is all about making the quarterback better, the question is whether Dak Prescott will make a leap ahead in his second season. To get at that question, we started by looking at two things. First, how have other excellent first-year quarterbacks done in their second seasons? Second, where can Dak elevate his game?

Other Quarterbacks

We didn’t make an exhaustive search. Instead, we looked at four quarterbacks that Dak Prescott has been compared to this year: Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger. Did any of them make big leaps in performance in their second seasons?

QB Year Comp% Yds ANY/A TD INT Rate
Romo 2006 65.30% 2903 7.19 19 13 95.1
2007 64.40% 4211 7.17 36 19 97.4
Wilson 2012 64.10% 3118 7.01 26 10 100
2013 63.10% 3357 7.1 26 9 101.2
Brady 2001 63.90% 2843 5.39 18 12 86.5
2002 62.10% 3764 5.54 28 14 85.7
Roethlisberger 2004 66.40% 2621 6.93 17 11 98.1
2005 62.70% 2385 7.53 17 9 98.6

The fascinating thing about this chart is that all four quarterbacks played almost exactly the same from a quarterback rating standpoint in their first and second years as starters in the NFL. Romo went from 10 to 16 games, Brady went from 14 to 16 games, and Roethlisberger went from 13 to 12 games because of injury. For three of the four, their passing yards increased, and for Romo and Brady their touchdowns increased, but all four of their ratings were very close. Tony Romo gained 2.3 points, Russell Wilson gained 1.2 points, but Brady and Big Ben stayed within a point.

It doesn’t look like we can find much hope for a Dak Prescott increase here. But perhaps we should take this as a good thing, as it suggests there is also no sophomore jinx for great young quarterbacks.

Can Dak Elevate His Game?

Just looking at Dak, there is no question he had an amazing year in 2016. It’s probably the best ever for a rookie quarterback. He earned this grade for the season.

Dak A+. Rookie fourth-round compensatory pick, who started third on the depth chart, came in and replaced the quarterback who owns all the passing records for the Dallas Cowboys, and led the team to a 13-2 start, for the #1 seed in the NFC. He ends the regular season with 23 passing touchdowns, four interceptions, six rushing touchdowns, a quarterback rating of 104.2, a completion percentage of 68%, and an ANY/A of 7.9. He finished with 11 games above a 100 passer rating, for a new NFL rookie record.

Dak only had three bad quarterback rating games on the year - two against the Giants, and the first Philadelphia game. If he were able to elevate his play against good defenses in his second season, perhaps this is where he could improve the most. Let’s split out his good games from his weaker ones and see what his stats might look like.

2 Prescott 22 30 73.30% 292 8.2 0 103.7
3 Prescott 19 24 79% 248 11.1 1 123.6
4 Prescott 23 32 71.90% 245 8.05 2 114.7
5 Prescott 18 24 75% 227 9.68 1 117.9
6 Prescott 18 27 66.60% 247 8.55 3 1 117.4
8 Prescott 21 27 77.77% 247 11.3 3 0 141.8
9 Prescott 22 32 68.75% 319 9.85 2 0 121.7
10 Prescott 27 36 75.00% 301 9.7 3 0 127.2
11 Prescott 17 24 70.80% 195 8 1 0 108.9
12 Prescott 12 18 66.66% 139 6.85 1 0 108.3
14 Prescott 32 36 88.80% 279 6.76 0 0 99
15 Prescott 15 20 75.00% 212 12.42 3 0 148.3
16 Prescott 4 8 50.00% 37 4.62 0 0 63
Playoffs Prescott 24 38 63.20% 302 7.65 3 1 103.2
Total 274 376 72.80% 3290 8.87 23 2 117.44

These are 2016 Matt Ryan numbers. Ryan’s quarterback rating is 117.1, and his ANY/A is 9.03. If Dak posted a 117.44 passer rating, it would be the third highest single season of all time. It might be possible, but it’s not likely.

Note that we’ve been using passer rating, rather than real quarterback rating, but this is for ease of comparison, as the latter stat, while more robust, is just harder to come by. And for our purposes here, passer rating is a reasonable proxy.

Dak Prescott could also improve on these numbers by throwing fewer interceptions (unlikely) or fumbling less (much more likely), running more (quite possible), and scoring more TDs passing and running (pretty likely).

But Dak Prescott also doesn’t play by himself. How will his supporting cast look next year?

Can Dak Prescott’s Supporting Cast Be Better In 2017?

Going into the offseason, Dallas stands to lose left guard Ron Leary, second wideout Terrance Williams, backup receiver Brice Butler, and running backs Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden.

Dallas should see the return of La’el Collins to play guard, and might sign Jonathan Cooper to compete with Collins. The Cowboys should also get back Geoff Swaim and perhaps James Hanna at tight end, and Rico Gathers might also be ready. But there’s no telling what will happen at wide receiver.

It’s not difficult to imagine ways for Dallas to improve it’s receiving corps in 2017. To start, if Dez Bryant can avoid missing four games, that would be a big boost. The Dak to Dez connection might also see much more consistency. Their best game was the playoff game, when Dez caught nine passes for 132 yards and two TDs. Dez had three other 100+ yard games. The key, though, is eliminating games of 8, 40, 19, and 10 yards that Dez had last year.

Williams caught 44 passes for 594 yards, tying him for 76th in yards in the NFL, so he’s not irreplaceable. Same with Brice Butler’s 16 catches for 219 yards. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten ought to be about the same, while Ezekiel Elliott could take on a bigger role in the passing game.

Overall, it shouldn’t be that difficult or expensive for Dallas to field as many weapons on offense as Dak had available to him in 2016.

How About Dallas’s Opponents in 2017? Easier, or Harder?

The real challenge for Dak Prescott’s hoped-for improvement could lie in the schedule for next season.

If you look just at the Defensive Real Quarterback Rating of Dallas’s 2016 opponents, and project the 2016 results for Dallas’s 2017 opponents into next season, Dak and the Cowboys are facing a much tougher set of defenses next year. Of course, teams don’t stay static from one year to the next, so a team that played well against opposing quarterbacks in 2016 might not do as well in 2017. They might also do better. To provide some year-to-year comparisons, in addition to projecting 2016 numbers into 2017, we also added 2015 numbers to show how much variation can occur from year to year.

2016 DRQR 2017 DRQR 2015 DRQR
Denver 1 Denver 2
NY Giants 2 NY Giants 2 NY Giants 28
NY Giants 2 NY Giants 2 NY Giants 28
Minnesota 3
Kansas City 4 Kansas City 3
Arizona 5 Arizona 7
Philadelphia 6 Philadelphia 6 Philadelphia 18
Philadelphia 6 Philadelphia 6 Philadelphia 18
LA Chargers 8 LA Chargers 20
Seattle 9 Seattle 6
Pittsburgh 10
Cincinnati 11
Baltimore 14
Tampa Bay 16
Oakland 18 Oakland 16
Atlanta 21 Atlanta 17
Washington 22 Washington 22 Washington 19
Washington 22 Washington 22 Washington 19
Green Bay 24 Green Bay 24 Green Bay 8
Chicago 25
LA Rams 26 LA Rams 13
San Francisco 27 San Francisco 27 San Francisco 27
Cleveland 31
Detroit 32
Total 253 203 249

(DRQR is defensive real quarterback rating.) The totals at the end add up the rankings, with a smaller number reflecting tougher opponents.

The challenge for Dak and the Cowboys is that they are facing nine teams next year who ranked in the top 10 for DRQR this season, compared to six in 2016. And they won’t face Cleveland or Detroit next year, whom Dak lit up in his best two games of 2016.


Dak Prescott might break from his peers and play much better in year two. He might become more consistent, throw and rush for more total touchdowns, while turning the ball over less. His supporting cast could also be stronger. But, with a schedule that right now looks much tougher against quarterbacks than Dallas faced in 2016, it’s hard to see much improvement in Dallas’s real quarterback rating on offense in 2017. The Cowboys might be fortunate if he rates as well overall.

Dak surprised everyone this year. Can he do it again next year?

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