Sometimes, when we are looking for answers, we just don’t ask the right questions. That of course leads to wrong conclusions and false trains of reasoning. One clear example of this the question “Is Dak Prescott really one of the top players in the NFL already?” Figuring that out is seen a crucial to forecasting how the Dallas Cowboys will do in 2017, with some occasionally energetic debates between his supporters and his critics. But that is not what should be asked. The real questions is this: “How did the Cowboys build an offense that maximized their young quarterback, when so many other teams squander theirs?”
It’s amusing, really, how many point to the nearly perfect situation that Prescott landed in as the sudden starter in Dallas as if that is somehow a minus in his ledger. Bucky Brooks used this exact argument in his analysis of whether Dak is a system guy or a starter (hat tip to OCC for having this in the news links):
The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year certainly looked like a star as a surprising first-year starter for "America's Team," but he landed in a perfect situation for a young quarterback with the league's best offensive line and a pair of elite playmakers at the RB1 (Ezekiel Elliott) and WR1 (Dez Bryant) spots. Not to mention, he had one of the most reliable tight ends in NFL history at his disposal (Jason Witten), which provided the rookie with a security blanket when things got chaotic in the pocket.
Think about it this way: The Cowboys have five former first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Elliott and Bryant) in their projected starting offensive lineup, which significantly exceeds the number of top picks surrounding the likes of Drew Brees (3), Philip Rivers (3), Tom Brady (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2) and Aaron Rodgers (1). Thus, it's easy to make the argument that the Cowboys' supporting cast alleviates the burden on Prescott's shoulders to carry the offense.
Brooks, like so many others who have stated this argument in some variation or other, misses the entire point: Not having to have your quarterback carry the team is the objective in the NFL, not some kind of litmus test of his talent. It is interesting that he cites Brees and Rivers in this article, because they are two quarterbacks that have superior talent at their position, but are going pretty much nowhere because of the dearth of help they get from their supporting cast.
Rodgers is another example of the problem with having to put things on the QB’s shoulders. He was absolutely brilliant against the Cowboys in the playoff game last season. But he was unable to keep that up the following week. There just wasn’t anyone else to step up and help carry the load. Prescott has Elliott there beside him, which means you can’t focus on stopping one of them. You have to figure out how to put the brakes on both.
An even better way of looking at this is what happened to the two rookie quarterbacks last year who were supposed to be budding stars from day one, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Goff was a non-factor last season, and it is hard to say whether that was due to his being unready for the NFL, or the failure of the coaching staff to prepare him. What is fairly certain is that there was almost no help around him on the Rams’ roster. Hopefully, the new regime in Los Angeles can get things turned around, but there is a very real risk his career could go the way of Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts. Luck had some real success early, but the talent level has steadily eroded, and Indy is on the verge of totally wasting his legitimately elite talent.
Wentz is especially interesting from the perspective of Cowboys fans. He started out the season on fire, and for a while it was neck and neck whether he or Prescott would have the best season. But things faded in a hurry. Part of this may be due to a limited tool kit (so far) for Wentz, but the defense trotted out by Eagles fans is that he was failed by his receivers and the rest of the offense. Here at Blogging The Boys, we have always maintained that the Philadelphia roster was largely trash, but it is so amusing to see their own fans vociferously maintaining just how bad they were last year in trying to prop Wentz up. Thanks for affirming our beliefs.
Contrast that to what happened to Prescott. Drafting Elliott was the final piece in putting the dominating run game favored by Jason Garrett in place. The offensive line was already built (which is the one thing that will take some work to maintain with the departure of Doug Free and Ron Leary), and the receiver corps is also a very good group, especially with Bryant healthier than he has been for a couple of seasons. 2015 proved that you could not just plug anyone in and succeed - but 2016 showed that if you found a talented and, perhaps more important, very intelligent quarterback, this was a machine that would let you play to his strengths instead of wasting them. While the argument rages about whether there will be a slump for Prescott in his second year, it tends to ignore the ability the Cowboys have shown to properly utilize the many great tools they have. That is where Scott Linehan is so important to the team. He did a superb job in finding ways to make Prescott successful last season, and the work he will be able to do getting ready for this season should just improve things. And it is why the rest of the offense is not likely to take any significant steps backwards. While replacing Leary may make the interior of the offensive line a bit weaker than last season, La’el Collins is arguably a much more physically talented player than Free was, and he may prove to be an upgrade in the long run. That will be largely on the coaching staff, but they certainly have some impressive raw material to work with.
The stellar debut of Prescott was perhaps the biggest story of the NFL in 2016, but it led many to overlook or discount what happened with the ten players on the field with him. He became a true plug-and-play replacement as the franchise quarterback, a remarkable thing in itself, but it was having such a talent-laden and capable offense around him that made the real difference. That is largely the same situation Dallas has for 2017, with a real hope that the defense will make some real strides in getting better as well. Prescott may well turn out to be a system quarterback, as Brooks stated. But when the system is as good as it was last year, that is not a detriment. It is the ideal situation. Hopefully it is going to be just that again this year.