The Dallas Cowboys are into their OTAs and trying to answer a lot of questions. But the most important one, who is the starting quarterback, is not at all in doubt. Dak Prescott claimed the job for the foreseeable future with his stellar rookie season. Now the only thing to find out is if he can continue to thrive. So far, all reports from the staff and Dak himself are that he has improved physically. And while every team thinks they are doing great in OTAs, nothing has happened to indicate he has taken a step back on the field. Now, a new analysis from Football Outsiders shows another dimension of how good he was last year, and offers more hope that he can carry this forward.
This is a stat FO has developed called Passing Plus-Minus.
In case you forgot, passing plus-minus estimates how many passes a quarterback completed compared to what an average quarterback would have done, given the location of those passes. It does not consider passes listed as "Thrown Away," "Tipped at Line," or "Quarterback Hit in Motion." Player performance is compared to a historical baseline of how often a pass is completed based on the pass distance, the distance required for a first down, and whether it is on the left, middle, or right side of the field. Note that plus-minus is not scaled to a player’s total attempts.
According to the analysis, Prescott had the seventh-best performance in the league last season. That is two spots better than NFL benchmark Tom Brady. While this is not the whole story for a quarterback, it is noteworthy because it incorporates the all important consideration of whether the pass is successful or not. In other words, it tries to differentiate between completions that are going to move the sticks, versus ones that fall short of the yards needed to convert.
Effectiveness was one aspect of Prescott’s game that cannot be undervalued. One criticism some observers have leveled against him is that he did a lot of “dinking and dunking”, which is proven objectively false by this stat. Yes, he did complete a lot of shorter passes - but they were passes that kept drives alive. Another key stat that FO has developed is called ALEX, or Air Less EXpected on third down, named in “honor” of Alex Smith, who has in the past been notorious for completing passes short of the sticks. Prescott had an ALEX of +1.2 in 2016, which meant he averaged just a bit over a yard more than he needed on third down passes. That is what you need from a quarterback, the ability to put the ball past the mark needed to convert. Remember, this is air yards, and does not count yards after the catch. Unlike some quarterbacks, Prescott did not rely on his receiver to get yards to convert.
This was all accomplished in a season when Prescott was, of necessity, having to learn on the job. His favorable position in these stats, combined with his 68.1% completion rate and excellent 23/4 touchdown to interception ratio, shows just how quickly he absorbed the lessons needed. Now, with a full offseason to add to his knowledge and skills, he should continue to excel, even if some of his numbers might drop off a bit (it is hard to get through any NFL season with only four INTs, which is probably the hardest thing for him to repeat).
Another factor that is in his favor is that the running game is not likely to take much of a step backwards, either. Although the Cowboys are having to rework their offensive line, they still have the three Pro Bowl pillars in place. Ezekiel Elliott, if he can avoid any more car wrecks, should be just as good if not better his second year, especially if the team gets him more involved in third down plays. And while OTA performance is not always indicative of future success, the reports on rookie wide receiver Ryan Switzer are hard to ignore. He looks to be everything the team hoped he would, sort of a Cole Beasley with upgrades. Beasley will still likely have an edge just due to experience, but having both of them on the roster, and maybe on the field together in some packages, is just exciting. Don’t forget that Rico Gathers is getting some good reviews while taking a lot of extra reps while James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are still on the mend from injuries, either. Switzer and Gathers are both additions to the trio of Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Jason Witten, of course. A quarterback is either enhanced or hurt by his receivers, and this year’s group of pass catchers looks like a big plus for Prescott.
Everything is pointing towards Prescott being stronger, faster, and smarter this season, with even better weapons to throw to. Given where he started last year, that is very good news for the Cowboys, indeed.