We are all looking forward to the Dallas Cowboys’ 2017 season, and the hope is that they can build on the regular season success of last year. And one huge part of that was the completely unexpected emergence of Dak Prescott. While there are many who continue to feel he will have a hard time duplicating his amazing rookie year, which became one of the the biggest NFL stories of 2016, the team and most fans think that he will just continue to excel. He has an excellent chance to do so because he wound up in a perfect situation to develop - and Dallas did a great job of bringing him along.
Recently, the head coach of the Cowboys’ arch-rival Philadelphia Eagles, Doug Pederson, appeared on the Doomsday podcast hosted by Ed Werder and Matt Moseley, and he talked about his impression of Prescott. As reported at the Cowboys Wire by Bryant Crews, his remarks were seen by some as a shot at Prescott. But when the entire quote is taken in context, and not just his opening sentence, it actually is a pretty good summation of how the Cowboys and Prescott maximized his potential.
“He didn’t have to win the games for them,” Pederson said. “He knew that he had a good defense, a tremendous offensive line, a great runner. He had some veteran players that he could rely on and he learned that early, as soon as he had the opportunity to play and that was from Day One. That’s something that a young quarterback sometimes, takes them awhile to figure out the game that way. That’s the impressive thing is he learned to handle that business that well, utilize the people around him, and understand that he didn’t have to go win the game.”
The understanding of what Prescott’s role was on the talented Dallas roster by all involved was key to his success in his first year. And what is perhaps overlooked is that he was able to focus on learning all the right lessons. This is very different from what happens to young quarterbacks who are suddenly thrust into having to lead their team. For a variety of reasons, they are almost never in a position like Prescott landed in. So often what happens is that a talented quarterback, often a first-round draft pick, is inserted into a much less capable roster. As a result, they wind up having to try and win games primarily on their talent and ability. And they usually are not at all ready to handle that against NFL competition. Instead of learning how to succeed, they have to try to do too much, often under relentless pressure both from the pass rush and from being behind on the scoreboard - and that can create bad habits that they never really overcome.
One key bit of evidence of just how well Prescott was developed was his excellent interception rate. We all have heard how he only threw four picks, but over at Football Outsiders, they like to look a little deeper. In a recent article by Vincent Verhei, the factor of luck is also taken into account, as in how many times a defender dropped what should have been an interception. And here, Prescott’s performance still stands up, as even with the times he should have been picked but wasn’t, he wound up with only seven mistakes throwing the ball, fifth lowest in the league. That works out to only a 1.4% adjusted interception rate. (It isn’t exactly germane to this discussion, but for some reason it seems worth pointing out that Eli Manning had the most adjusted interceptions in the league last year with 26.)
The low rate for Prescott was largely because he seldom was in a situation where he felt the need to force anything. Instead of trying to make plays beyond his ability, he was able to pay within his skill and comfort levels. He still showed a superb level of talent, but he did not have to resort to trying to make plays that weren’t there because he had so much help from the rest of his team.
And if you want an excellent example of what happens when a team does not provide the necessary support for a young quarterback, the best may well be Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts. Indy tanked to get him in the draft, but then failed to maintain a roster good enough to win with him. He is probably the best quarterback to enter the league in the past decade, particularly as a passer. And yet he is being absolutely squandered, as well as getting thoroughly beaten up due to poor pass protection. And he is just one case. Jared Goff may be another, as the Los Angeles Rams have a lot of work to do to try and get what they need out of him. He is in the very typical situation top quarterbacks find themselves after the draft: The reason their team got them is that they were so very bad to begin with.
But the Cowboys had a very good roster in place for Prescott, and what looks like a viable plan to maintain it. With the reworking of the secondary, the team became younger and hopefully better. They are also hopeful that the “redshirt” players from the 2016 draft will provide additional upgrades.
Pederson actually saw this in his comments. And just as the Cowboys had a solid blueprint for Prescott’s first season, it is also one to carry him forward. They realized that while the quarterback is the most important single position on the team, it is only a part of the puzzle. The pieces are all there now, although they still have to find out if they truly fit together. But recent history is grounds for optimism.