The Cowboys are now five games into the season, and Dak Prescott has been…. not as good as many had hoped. So far, Prescott is completing 61.8% of his passes for 961 yards, five touchdowns, and four interceptions. His adjusted yards per attempt is sitting at 6.1 yards. He’s on pace to be sacked 51 times this season; he’s only been sacked 57 times his first two years combined. And the passing offense - which was ostensibly revamped to be more Dak-friendly in the offseason - has been objectively bad, averaging only 192.2 yards per game. What’s worse is that Dak’s ball placement, anticipation of defenses, and overall mechanics have seemingly gotten worse.
Of course, any proper assessment of Prescott requires full context. At Mississippi State, Prescott spent nearly full three seasons as the starting quarterback. During that time, he completed 62.8% of his passes for 9,182 yards and 66 touchdowns against 23 interceptions. He also added 2,403 rushing yards on 504 carries and scored 37 touchdowns with his legs. In fact, Prescott still has the third most total yards of any player in SEC school history. He was a consistent name in many quarterback-specific award watchlists and received two first place Heisman votes for his junior season.
Entering the 2016 NFL draft, the consensus on Prescott was that he had great potential but needed to refine some key things in order to become a successful NFL quarterback. Looking at the scouting report by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, Prescott was praised for his NFL size, arm strength, mobility, and leadership ability. Zierlein specifically noted how Prescott was “willing to extend plays outside of pocket with legs but look to finish the play with his arm” and that he can deliver accurate throws anywhere on the field when the pocket is clean. Prescott’s biggest weaknesses coming out of college were that he was “hyper aware of pressure around him… must speed up the pace of his reads… footwork is a mess… needs to improve anticipation.”
Many of those weaknesses are still present today. However, it should be noted that Zierlein’s, and many other scouts’, final assessment of Prescott was that he would succeed best in a situation where he was given time to refine his mechanics before having to start. Initially, that was the plan when Dallas took him: Dak could spend one or two years learning from Tony Romo and then take over as a fully finished prospect. That didn’t happen, and Prescott was thrust into the starting role earlier than expected.
Of course, he was absolutely brilliant in his rookie year, connecting on 67.8% of his passes and putting up 3,667 passing yards, 282 rushing yards, 23 passing touchdowns, six rushing touchdowns, four interceptions, and broke Tom Brady’s record of most pass attempts without an interception to start a career. He and Ezekiel Elliott led a balanced offense to a 13-3 record and Prescott was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year before losing in the playoffs to yet another improbable Aaron Rodgers comeback.
Entering the 2017 season, expectations were high for Dak and Zeke. And for a while, both players were living up to the hype. Prior to the now-infamous Atlanta game, the Cowboys were 5-3 and on a three-game win streak with an offense averaging 28 points per game. Dak himself was completing 62.9% of his passes for 1,818 yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions, and had run in for four touchdowns as well. Then Elliott left the team to serve his suspension and Tyron Smith missed time with an injury, and Dak didn’t throw a touchdown for three straight games. The last three games of Elliott’s suspension, though, the offense averaged 29 points per game and was getting back on track. But once the star running back returned, the offense failed to adjust and put up just 18 points over their final two games en route to a 9-7 final record and falling outside the playoff picture.
So, to recap, Prescott was a Heisman contender in college and played efficient if not great football for a year and a half with the Cowboys, but ever since the speed bump of Elliott’s absence, he and the rest of the offense have been dismal. And as mentioned earlier, many of the holes in Prescott’s game coming out of college are still there. The question is why hasn’t he developed in two years with the team, and the blame for that can be partly placed on Dak and partly on the coaches. After all, hiring Kellen Moore as the quarterbacks coach was supposedly going to help Dak progress further, and if anything he has regressed significantly.
So far this season, it seems that Dak’s weaknesses are being exacerbated by a few things: missing Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, not enough cohesion with his new receiving corps, at times poor blocking by the offensive line, and an offensive scheme that doesn’t seek to maximize his best traits. And while Prescott has certainly made his fair share of bad decisions this season, fans can at least take some solace in the fact that his four interceptions haven’t been entirely on him:
All four of Dak Prescott's 2018 interceptions: pic.twitter.com/im8Mj6OLLj— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) October 9, 2018
So is Dak still “the guy” for the Cowboys? Should the team look to draft a quarterback this offseason? That’s definitely up for debate, but it seems that there has been a massive error in evaluating what kind of player Dak Prescott is. After his rookie season, some were hoping he’d become the next Russell Wilson or Michael Vick, or even Tony Romo. Now, Jerry Jones seems to think he’s the next Jared Goff. In reality, it might be that Dak is the next Alex Smith.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Smith had an illustrious college career and was a Heisman contender while playing for Urban Meyer at Utah. He was taken first overall in the 2005 draft by the San Francisco 49ers, and for the first six years of his career he was absolutely terrible. During that time he threw 51 touchdowns and 53 interceptions, and completed 55.5% of his passes. He had a record of 19-31 as a starter. There were even talks about the 49ers cutting him and giving up on their former first-overall pick.
It all changed when Jim Harbaugh got hired in San Francisco. He recognized the weaknesses of Smith and instead built a scheme that played to his strengths. It helped that the 49ers also had a very stout defense with playmakers at every level, an offensive line that could give him time, and a running back in Frank Gore that was almost impossible to stop. Sound familiar?
Anyway, in Harbaugh’s first year there, Smith threw for over 3,000 yards for the first time in his career, averaging 7.1 yards per attempt, and tossed 17 touchdowns and only five interceptions. The next year, Smith elevated his game even more, and completed 70% of his passes through nine games before an injury took him out. Of course, Colin Kaepernick then played so well that he took Smith’s job and the quarterback was traded to Kansas City.
With the Chiefs, Smith met Andy Reid and other offensive masterminds such as Doug Pederson, Matt Nagy, Eric Bienemy, and Brad Childress. Smith didn’t have very many offensive weapons, but Reid had an idea of how to use him and maximize his strengths better than Harbaugh did. In his seven seasons as a starter for San Francisco, Smith never threw the ball more than 445 times, and it was his first year under Harbaugh. Over the course of Smith’s five years with the Chiefs, he never threw the ball less than 464 times.
A lot of this had to do with Reid’s variation of the West Coast offense. He asked Smith to throw a lot, sure, but they were short throws designed to get the ball to players in space. It didn’t matter that their best receiver in 2013 was Dwayne Bowe (remember him?) or that their running back, Jamaal Charles, would lead the team in receptions. Reid schemed around these short passes and let the receivers do the rest after the catch. Once defensive backs started playing up on these short throws, the opportunity for deep shots would open up.
And Reid did all of this without forgetting the running game, either. Charles still had 259 carries for 1,287 yards in 2013 despite Smith attempting a whopping 508 passes. The best year for Smith, though, was last season. By this point, Travis Kelce had developed into a star tight end and the Chiefs had just scored two of the most athletic playmakers in Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt. They were tailor made for Reid’s offense, and Smith surpassed 4,000 yards for the first time in his career while throwing 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions. It should also be noted that Reid took advantage of Smith’s running ability, having him carry it 317 times for 1,672 yards and 10 touchdowns during his time in Kansas City.
Now, Smith is with the Washington Redskins, a team that seems to be bereft of talent or innovative coaching, and while he hasn’t been terrible, he’s nowhere near as good as he was in Kansas City or even San Francisco in the Harbaugh years. And that’s because Smith isn’t a franchise quarterback. He’s not going to single-handedly drag your team out of mediocrity like Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. But if Smith is in a scheme that plays to his strengths and doesn’t ask him to do things he’s not good at, he can guide a high-powered offense at least to the playoffs, if not further.
And maybe that’s what Dak is. Obviously, it’d be great to see Dak’s footwork get cleaned up and his placement on throws be more in the numbers than over the head. But it’s hard to say that his recent struggles mean the team should just give up on him. He’s been bad lately, sure, but he was so good for nearly five years between college and the pro’s, and there’s no way that’s just a coincidence.
The Cowboys have a lot of similarities to those Harbaugh 49ers and Reid Chiefs. Zeke is, at the very least, a top three running back in the NFL. The offensive line has underperformed lately but they’re still in the league’s top tier. Cole Beasley is a great route runner, and Tavon Austin has the speed and athleticism to be a discount Tyreek Hill. And then there’s the defense, which is currently allowing just 19.2 points per game. That’s a team that can really succeed if Dak can be like Alex Smith.
So, maybe Dak isn’t the next Russell Wilson or Jared Goff. But can he still be successful for the Cowboys? Absolutely. Often times people talk about players like Prescott needing to be fixed, and in an ideal world, that would happen with one good offseason. But sometimes in the NFL, it’s not about fixing a player, it’s about fitting the player. And right now, the Cowboys need to build an offense that Dak fits into, because adding a few wrinkles this year just wasn’t enough.