clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What went wrong with Dak Prescott in 2017 and how the Cowboys can fix it

What if Prescott's performance in the last few games is merely the symptom of an underlying but different problem?

NFL: OCT 16 Cowboys at Packers Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Recency bias is the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future. Because it’s easier, our minds are hardwired to use our recent experience as the baseline for what will happen in the future. In many situations, this bias works just fine, especially if you’re making short-term predictions. Even for highly changeable events like the weather or the stock market, making short-term predictions according to events in the recent past works fine much of the time.

But predicting the future in the long term according to what has recently occurred is no more accurate than flipping a coin.

Recency bias is a very real thing in Cowboys Nation right now. Under the impression of the last three games against the Raiders, Seahawks, and Eagles, in which the Cowboys offense didn't just squander their playoff chances, but also barely managed 13 points per game, some people are calling for Scott Linehan's head, others are calling for the Cowboys to draft a QB in the first round, and the really clever ones are sharing their idea that the Cowboys should hire a real GM.

All valid points of course - based on the last three games, and perhaps even a few more games beyond that.

Nobody is going to deny that Dak Prescott has played poorly over the last three games, averaging a passer rating of just 64.9. Earlier this week, Dave Halprin summarized Prescott's performance from the season finale against the Eagles:

Against depleted defense minus many starters, Prescott played poorly, again. He was inaccurate throughout the day, he overthrew Terrance Williams on an open deep pass, he underthrew Dez Bryant on another deep pass and misfired multiple times with open receivers. He also constantly threw short of the sticks on third down.

This performance (and previous performances) has many an agitated fan getting upset at the notion of Dak Prescott being called a franchise quarterback, going on lengthy rants against perceived Prescott apologists, wondering whether firing the QB coach can fix Prescott's issues, or simply wishing Tony Romo back.

But what if the sailing passes, short throws, hurried deliveries, and slow reads you've seen from Prescott over the last few games are not the actual problem, but merely the symptom of an underlying but different problem?

Dak Prescott has played 32 games in his NFL career, winning 22 of them. Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas provides some perspective on those numbers.

Since the 1970 merger, only Russell Wilson has more wins in his first two seasons (24). His 45 touchdown passes are 11th best. His interception percentage (1.79) is second best, with 17 picks in his first 32 starts. He is 11th in passing yards (6,991) and is the only Cowboys starter with consecutive 3,000-yard seasons to open his career.

Those 32 games can be neatly divided into four quarters, as we try to understand what is going with Prescott. The following little table shows Prescott's passer rating for each half season he's played, and where that passer rating ranks among QBs with at least 100 pass attempts over the same period.

Dak Prescott, 2016-2017
2016
Games 1-8
2016
Games 9-16
2017
Games 1-8
2017
Games 9-16
Passer Rating 104.2 105.2 96.9 73.5
NFL rank 4th 3rd 9th 31st

Prescott played an outstanding game in 2016, and continued that game into the first half of 2017, the early-season meltdown against the Broncos notwithstanding. For the first eight games of 2017, Prescott was still a top 10 passer as measured by passer rating, throwing 16 TDs to just 4 INTs, and accumulating 1,800 passing yards.

So what happened to have Prescott's passer rating drop so dramatically over the last eight games of 2017? The next table shows how the number of sacks and the number of QB Hits (as recorded in the NFL gamebooks) has the developed over the four quarters of Prescott's career.

Dak Prescott, 2016-2017
2016
Games 1-8
2016
Games 9-16
2017
Games 1-8
2017
Games 9-16
Sacks 11 14 10 22
QB Hits 29 29 32 44

The numbers here show a significant increase in sacks an QB hits over the last eight games of 2017 versus the previous periods, and while correlation does not always imply causation, I think it's fair to say that the increased pressure Prescott faced over the second part of the season impacted his performance.

Does this mean Prescott has become gun shy? I don't think so, at least not with the way he kept taking hits even in the season finale. But you've got to wonder whether the increased pressure he's been facing has resulted in his forcing some throws, throwing with the wrong mechanics, or even making the wrong reads.

In addition to pressure, there is one other key factor tied to Prescott's performance, and that's Tyron Smith's availability. Remember, Smith sat out the 9th and 10th game (Atlanta, Philly), played three snaps in the 15th game (Seattle) and then sat out the season finale.

Here are Prescott's numbers with and without Tyron Smith in the lineup:

Dak Prescott, Games 9-18, 2017
With Tyron Smith Without Tyron Smith
Passer Rating 88.8 61.5
Yards/Attempt 7.8 5.4
Sacks 5 17
QB Hits 16 28

With Smith in the lineup, Prescott saw the same amount of pressure as he did in the first eight games of the season, and his passer rating was okay-ish, even if it dropped by 8 points versus the first eight games. His yards per attempt of 7.8 were even up versus the 7.0 he had in the first eight games.

But without Tyron Smith in the lineup, things came crashing down in a bad way. And it's likely that the issue for Prescott wasn't just about Tyron Smith, but the knock-on effect Smith's absence had on the rest of the offensive line.

There is no doubt that Prescott will have to continue working on his mechanics, his reads, and his accuracy for next year and the years beyond. But there is no reason not to believe Prescott can get back to the performance levels he showed over the first 24 games of his career - if he gets the protection he needs.

But wait, doesn't every quarterback look great if he has great protection? Not necessarily.

Dak Prescott had some very good pass protection in 2016 and ended up with a 104.9 passer rating for the season. Over the last 10 years, the No. 1 ranked offensive line in pass protection as ranked by Football Outsiders produced a QB with a 100+ passer rating just twice: Tony Romo in Dallas in 2014 and Peyton Manning in Denver in 2013.

Dak Prescott is no Aaron Rodgers, no Tom Brady, no Peyton Manning, not even a Tony Romo. And he never will be. But put in the right situation, and afforded the right protection, he has shown that he can produce at a similar level.

If the Cowboys want Prescott back playing at the level he did over his first 24 games, they'll need to make sure they afford him the same type of protection he had for those games, even if that means a little more draft capital or free agency dollars for the O-line. And Prescott will still have to work on his mechanics, his reads, and his accuracy.