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We can pretend otherwise, but it all comes down to Dak Prescott for the Cowboys

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It’s on the QB, and it usually is in the NFL.

Jacksonville Jaguars v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

After the Cowboys cooked up a 40-burger on the Jaguars Sunday, there wasn’t as much analysis of what was wrong with the Cowboys offense. Naturally that should be the case, scoring 40 points will have that effect. It is worth revisiting all the things that were supposedly wrong with the offense previous to the Jaguars game. You can lump all that criticism into four major categories - Dak Prescott’s failures, Scott Linehan/Jason Garrett’s failures, poor blocking from the offensive line, and no real threats among the pass catchers.

Looking back after this week, all of those things are still in play, and they all tend to interlock with each other so it is hard to separate them out. But if you’re looking for the offensive measuring stick, the answer really lies with Dak Prescott. The Cowboys offensive line hasn’t been terrible this year, in fact they have been rated a top-10 unit in several places. Scott Linehan/Jason Garrett may have had their rocky moments (the punt in Houston will never be forgiven), but they are essentially running much of the same offense they ran in 2016 and early 2017 when the offense rolled, and they were using that in the Jacksonville game, too. Yes, they are making some tweaks along the way, but they are essentially calling the same scheme. The receivers might not be all-world, but they are functional and have been providing opportunities for big plays.

Simply put, this team’s fortunes rise and fall with the play of Dak Prescott. With Prescott, it doesn’t have to do with volume passing. He only threw for 183 yards against Jacksonville yet the Cowboys scored 40 points. With Prescott it comes down to efficiency, accuracy and his legs.

When we talk about efficiency, we’re talking about taking advantage of the limited number of passes he usually throws in a game. In this game, he threw two touchdowns and completed passes on eight third-down plays. That is efficient.

When discussing accuracy, it’s not just pass completion percentage. His 63% completion percentage on Sunday is just okay, but what we’re really talking about is hitting players with passes so they can do something with it after the catch, and so the ball doesn’t pop up in the air for an interception. We saw far fewer passes sailing high in the Jacksonville game, something Prescott does often when he is struggling in a game. Footwork and mechanics play a big role in that. Receivers were able to latch onto the ball without full-extension leaps, or body-contorting, or engaging in other acrobatics. They made easy catches and were able to run with the ball afterward, like when Beasley converted his first touchdown.

Here is a snippet from ESPN that backs up the accuracy theory.

Playoff chances: 48.8 percent. The Cowboys’ playoff hopes will largely depend on what version of Dak Prescott they get the rest of the season. In Dallas’ three wins, Prescott has thrown for five TDs and no picks, and his off-target percentage is 15 percent. In their three losses, Prescott has two TDs to four INTs and an off-target rate of 23 percent, which would be the second-worst rate of any QB this season.

Another big thing Prescott did in the game was use his legs. My colleague Cole Patterson discussed that in detail here. There is a stat for Dak Prescott that states when he runs the ball five or more times in a game, the Cowboys are 10-3. At face value that doesn’t mean a lot, you can’t just run Dak on the first five plays of a game and expect a win. What it does go to is all the good things that can happen when he does run.

There are the direct benefits of Prescott running, like scoring a touchdown. In 2016 and 2017, Prescott has six rushing touchdowns in each season. This year he only has one, the one that came on Sunday. At this pace he wouldn’t even get to three on the season. There are also the first downs that come from his runs, and the fact that running can turn a potential sack into a positive play. Too often Prescott has danced around in the pocket and held the ball instead of just taking off. Maybe he’s trying to prove he can be a pocket passer, but he should forget about that and just do what is effective.

Which leads back to the number of rushes in a game. Choosing to run on broken pass plays in one way he can achieve more carries, but being a little more greedy on the read-option is another. Too often Prescott defers to handing off to Ezekiel Elliott instead of pulling it back and taking off running himself. On film, he has misread this on several occasions. So it’s not just the play-caller giving him more opportunities to run, Prescott can take matters into his own hands.

And he should run more, because Prescott is one of the most effective running quarterbacks in the NFL. Michael Strawn made that case this past offseason.

In fact, you could make the argument that Dak was the most effective running quarterback in the NFL in 2017. His DYAR trails only Russell Wilson by four points and is fully 30 points higher than the #3 player Marcus Mariota. He’s practically tied with Wilson for first place in YAR and he’s third in DVOA.

Wilson, Prescott, Mariota, Newton and Taylor are clearly the five best running QBs in the league and each is able to make significant offensive contributions with their legs.

But note that Prescott ranks only fourth in rushing attempts among the five. Newton ran the ball 7.5 times per game and Wilson five times per game while Dak barely averaged three rushes per game.

So far this year, Prescott is fourth in rushing attempts by quarterbacks, but is number one among the top four in yards per attempt with a 6.0 average.

QB Attempts Yards Avg. per carry TDs Yards per game First downs
Cam Newton 45 208 4.6 3 41.6 19
Deshaun Watson 36 203 5.6 1 33.8 12
Josh Allen 35 155 4.4 3 25.8 12
Dak Prescott 34 203 6.0 1 33.8 11

Prescott running the ball also has indirect benefits. Once Prescott is effective running the ball in a game, it brings a spy for the defense into the picture. This ties up another defender. It also forces gap discipline on the defensive pass rushers, thus slowing them down and limiting their stunts. What do we always talk about when pass rushing Russell Wilson or other mobile QBs? Stay in your lanes and contain him. If you’re doing that, you’re not pinning your ears back and just heading straight to the quarterback.

Finally, it also benefits Zeke. When teams now have to worry about Dak’s legs, they can’t just be heat-seeking missiles heading for Zeke. They have to respect the backside of the play where Prescott can take off running on read-options. It just slows down a defense.

Sure, there is more opportunity for injury when Prescott runs, but he can mitigate that by running out of bounds when that’s available, or sliding and forgoing trying to pick up every extra yard unless the play is so important it requires him to fight for a little extra. Smart running can significantly limit the possibility of injury.

The Cowboys now have a defense they can rely upon. They have Ezekiel Elliott, and they have an offensive line that while it is no longer the clear-cut number one unit in the league anymore, it is more than good enough to make this offense work. We can say we want more creativity from Scott Linehan, and while he is making some minor adjustments, we aren’t going to see wholesale changes. But we’ve seen this offense work in the past under this same scheme.

It really comes down to Prescott. If he can be efficient, accurate, and put pressure on the opposing defense with his legs, the Cowboys will have more than enough firepower on offense to win. In the NFL, it always comes down to the quarterback, anyway.