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Why Cowboys’ issues on 3rd-down are mostly home-made and go way beyond just Dak Prescott

We take an unflattering look at the failed completions on third down by the Cowboys, with some surprising results.

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The secret is out: The Cowboys suck on third down.

Their conversion rate for the whole season is 33.3% (34 of 102). That’s hideous and ranks the Cowboys 28th in the league, just ahead of the inept offenses of the Browns, Jets, Bills, and Cardinals.

Here’s Calvin Watkins of The Athletic, laying the blame for the Cowboys’ third-down woes squarely at Prescott’s feet.

Prescott’s biggest issues this season have come on third down. He’s completed just 59.7 percent of his passes on third down, with a 74.0 quarterback rating. Prescott ranks 28th in the NFL with 350 third-down yards. Baker Mayfield (535) and Brock Osweiler (409) have thrown for more yards in fewer games

A lot of people will reflexively blame this on the quarterback, and while that’s not entirely wrong, it’s not entirely right either.

Watkins does add the following quote from Jason Garrett, who points out that the inability to execute on third down goes beyond the just the QB:

“It’s a collective thing, it’s our whole offense,” Garrett said of Prescott’s third-down issues. “At times we’ve been good on third down and other times not good enough. The other night was one of our better third-down performances. Five out of 11, we had one third-and-six that was called back. It made it third-and-16. It’s a challenging down and distance for everybody; typically, you’re better on third down if you’re better on first and second down and those third downs are more manageable. We’re no different than anybody else in that regard.

“It’s more than just the quarterback, it’s everybody. We all get a piece of it.”

Still, a lot of the discussion about the Cowboys over the last week has centered on Prescott, so let’s examine Prescott in a little more statistical detail.

Watkins uses Prescott’s passer rating and completion percentage to illustrate Prescott’s struggles on third down, and that’s a good starting point. So let’s extend that a little and look at Prescott’s passer rating and completion percentage across all three downs:

Dak Prescott passing stats, 2018
Down Cmp% Rate
1st 60.3 91.7
2nd 66.7 95.9
3rd 59.7 74.0
4th 60.0 95.4

Interestingly, Prescott’s passer rating on first down (91.7) ranks him 19th among 34 QBs with at least 100 pass attempts through Week 9. Similarly, his rating on second down (95.9) ranks him 20th. But on third down, he drops to 30th (74.0), barely ahead of part-time QBs like C.J. Beathard (65.0), Ryan Tannehill (57.4), Josh Allen (41.1), and Josh Rosen (39.1).

So here’s the key question: What’s happening on third downs that turns an otherwise average QB into a bottom-of-the-league passer?

To get a better handle on that question, we have to move beyond passer rating. One of the issues with passer rating is that it rates an eight-yard gain on third-and-10 more favorably than a two-yard gain on third-and-one.

But the game of football is predicated on “moving the sticks” to achieve a new set of downs. So when looking at third-down performance we need to understand a team’s, or a QB’s, ability to gain a first down in such situations, and not just look at some random yardage numbers that don’t tell you anything about the ability or inability to move the sticks.

One metric that does that is a stat called “Failed Completions” which denotes the percentage of attempts that a quarterback threw short of the minimum yards needed for a successful play. On first down, a play is considered a success if it gains 45 percent of needed yards; on second down, a play needs to gain 60 percent of needed yards; on third or fourth down, only gaining a new first down (or scoring a TD) is considered success.

Here’s the Failed Completions Percentage on first, second, and third downs for the 34 quarterbacks who have had a minimum of 100 pass attempts through Week 9 this year. For your convenience, the table is sortable (just click on the blue column headers).

Failed Completion percentage through Week 9, 2018
QB Team 1st down 2nd down 3rd down
Marcus Mariota TEN 8.8% 29.2% 10.7%
Matt Ryan ATL 10.6% 18.8% 26.8%
C.J. Beathard SF 11.9% 26.3% 25.0%
Philip Rivers LAC 13.4% 14.3% 35.9%
Patrick Mahomes KC 13.8% 15.6% 14.6%
Deshaun Watson HOU 14.5% 25.4% 33.3%
Jameis Winston TB 14.6% 25.9% 16.7%
Baker Mayfield CLE 14.8% 31.1% 39.6%
Jared Goff LAR 14.9% 17.6% 30.2%
Dak Prescott DAL 15.2% 21.4% 51.4%
Drew Brees NO 16.2% 30.1% 31.6%
Aaron Rodgers GB 16.3% 23.0% 31.9%
Case Keenum DEN 16.5% 28.3% 44.2%
Sam Darnold NYJ 16.9% 21.8% 35.0%
Blake Bortles JAX 17.1% 19.3% 25.6%
Mitchell Trubisky CHI 17.2% 18.6% 25.7%
Ryan Fitzpatrick TB 17.4% 17.4% 30.8%
Derek Carr OAK 17.4% 21.6% 35.0%
Alex Smith WAS 17.9% 25.0% 35.3%
Andy Dalton CIN 18.2% 25.7% 15.6%
Carson Wentz PHI 19.0% 26.3% 22.6%
Tom Brady NWE 19.8% 19.4% 26.3%
Josh Rosen ARI 20.0% 20.7% 31.6%
Joe Flacco BAL 20.7% 25.3% 32.1%
Cam Newton CAR 21.4% 14.9% 25.0%
Josh Allen BUF 22.2% 41.7% 31.8%
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 22.4% 19.8% 27.1%
Russell Wilson SEA 23.1% 32.7% 35.9%
Matthew Stafford DET 23.6% 27.5% 22.0%
Kirk Cousins MIN 25.0% 25.0% 31.7%
Eli Manning NYG 25.4% 26.8% 47.4%
Ryan Tannehill MIA 25.7% 28.6% 45.0%
Brock Osweiler MIA 27.3% 20.0% 29.2%
Andrew Luck IND 28.0% 21.5% 19.7%

On first down, Prescott ranks in the top 10 of all passers by failed completion percentage; only 15.2% of his completions fail to get at least 45% of the required yardage on first down.

One second down, Prescott ranks just outside the top ten (13th) with a failed completion percentage of 21.4%.

Combined, Prescott has a failed completion percentage of just 18.6% (19 failed completions on 90 total completions) on first and second down, which ranks as the ninth best value in the NFL.

The numbers here are clear: The Cowboys have a quarterback who reliably delivers the required yards on first and second down, never mind what some hothead on Twitter may claim about his accuracy, reads, or footwork.

That doesn’t mean Prescott is perfect, far from it. He still has issues with his mechanics, he doesn’t throw downfield enough, and his completion percentage isn’t where it should be. But on first and second down, the Cowboys’ passing game with Prescott at the helm is keeping the offense “on schedule.”

The Cowboys are a run-first, ball-control offense. As such, the entire offense is predicated on staying on schedule with a high percentage of runs and a lot of short passes on first and second down that are designed to get the team into manageable third-down situations.

But this year, things went to hell in a hand basket on third down for Prescott and the Cowboys, where Prescott has a staggering failed completion rate of 51.4%, the worst value of any QB on the list above.

So the question again is: What is happening on third downs that turns a top 10 QB in terms of failed completions on first and second downs into the worst-ranked passer in the league on third downs?

To get a better feel for that, here’s a look at how Prescott’s failed completions compare between his standout rookie season in 2016 and this year:

Dak Prescott failed Completions
Down 2016 2018
1st down 16.8% 15.2%
2nd down 17.4% 21.4%
1st & 2nd down 17.1% 18.6%
3rd down 32.9% 51.4%

Again, the numbers are clear: On first and second down, Dak Prescott is playing as efficiently as he did in 2016, regardless of the many hot takes out there claiming otherwise. Sure, defenses may be more willing to give up the underneath stuff, and that might influence the numbers, but that’s impossible to quantify.

So if Prescott is playing as well today on first and second down as he did two years ago, then the failure on third down must be due to more than just the “DAK SUCKZ!!!” battle cry of disappointed fans. And Roger Staubach seems to agree:

You’d think that one of those “other things” might be the length of third downs in 2018, on the assumption that the Cowboys are facing more 3rd-and-long situations than they did in 2016, which would make it harder to convert for a first down. Surprisingly though, that’s not the case. The average yards-to-go on third down this year is 7.98 which is only marginally higher than the 7.32 in 2016.

What’s a lot more interesting to look at is who Dak Prescott is throwing to on third down. In 2016, Prescott threw the most completions on third down to Cole Beasley (23 completions), Jason Witten (18), and Ezekiel Elliott (11). In 2018, the slot guy, the running back, and the tight end continue to get the most completions, even though the name of the tight end has changed. Cole Beasley (14), Ezekiel Elliott (10), and Geoff Swaim (4) are the Cowboys’ leading receivers in terms of completions on third downs this year. Here’s how their numbers compare:

2016 2018
Player Total CMP Failed CMP Successful CMP Failed CMP% Player Total CMP Failed CMP Successful CMP Failed CMP%
Beasley 23 2 21 8.7% Beasley 14 6 8 42.9%
Elliott 11 8 3 72.7% Elliott 10 8 2 80.0%
Witten 18 10 8 55.6% Swaim 4 3 1 75.0%
TOTAL 52 20 32 38.5% TOTAL 28 17 11 60.7%

Cole Beasley had a spectacular year in 2016, when only two of his 23 receptions on third down (8.7%) were failed completions that ended up short of the sticks. Beasley that year was a veritable first-down machine, but that was then, and this is now: with a failed completion percentage of 42.9% Beasley isn’t even an average player anymore, as the NFL failed completion average on third down for the 34 quarterbacks we looked at above is 30.5%.

Also in 2016, we were already seeing that Jason Witten was no longer a reliable target on third down, and his 55.6% failed completion percentage documents that. Unfortunately, his replacement in 2018 hasn’t improved on that number.

Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t and isn’t a viable option on third down passes. 18 of the 21 passes completed to Elliott on third down in 2016 and 2018 were failed completions. Essentially, throwing to Elliott on third down is equivalent to punting. Elliott’s numbers are obviously hurt by him being Checkdown Charlie on third downs, but why Elliott remains a part of the game plan on passing third downs - beyond being an extra blocker - is a mystery.

That still leaves the other receivers and other running backs and their effectiveness on third down.

2016 2018
Player Total CMP Failed CMP Successful CMP Failed CMP% Player Total CMP Failed CMP Successful CMP Failed CMP%
Bryant 11 - - 11 0.0% Gallup 2 - - 2 0.0%
Butler 3 - - 3 0.0% Hurns 2 - - 2 0.0%
Williams 9 3 6 33.3% Thompson 1 - - 1 0.0%
Whitehead 1 - - 1 0.0% Cooper 1 - - 1 0.0%
TOTAL 24 3 21 12.5% TOTAL 6 - - 6 0.0%
Other RBs 6 4 2 66.7% Other RBs 1 1 - - 100.0%

The Cowboys have seen wholesale change among the wide receivers above, but the results have remained surprisingly consistent: When Dak Prescott completes a pass these wide receivers on third down it usually results in a first down. Again, Prescott also needs to improve his completion percentage on third downs, but it looks like who he throws to is a much bigger determinant of third-down success than how accurate he is with his throw.

So why do the Cowboys continue to dump off passes on third down to their slot guy, their running back, and their tight end?

Is it because Prescott doesn’t see the supposedly open guys downfield, or is it because those receivers can’t get separation once they are beyond the sticks? Or is it because the Cowboys hardly ever try to scheme their wide receivers open, instead hoping for each WR to win his one-on-one matchup on his own? Or is it because the offensive line can’t hold off the pass rush long enough for the receivers to get open beyond the sticks? Or is it because the offensive coordinator continues to call plays featuring an ineffective Beasley, Elliott, and Swaim?

Since Beasley’s breakout year in 2016, opposing defenses have regularly put him in bracket coverage, and have essentially removed him as an effective third-down threat. The Jaguars are the only team so far this season not to do so and were promptly burned by Beasley for a season-high 101 yards. Even more significantly, Beasley had four successful third-down conversions against the Jaguars, which is as exactly as much as he had against the remaining seven opponents combined!

So if you know that Beasley is going to get bracket coverage, why continue calling plays designed to get him the ball on third down?

If you know you’re QB might be prone to dump off the ball to the RB on third down, and that those plays almost never succeed, why have a running back on the field on passing third downs in the first place?

And if you know that you have a high success rate throwing to your wide receivers on third down, but that they have trouble getting sufficient separation beyond the sticks, why not scheme to get them open with rub routes or pick plays? Or perhaps aligning your receivers a little more often in bunch or stack formations in order to gain a little bit of free space for them to operate in?

Many of the issues with the Cowboys’ third-down offense are home-made, and when the next pass is completed short of the sticks, it is the culmination of a lot of things that have gone wrong before Prescott even threw the ball.

A lot goes into the successful execution of third-down play, starting with the right play-call, the proper blocking by the O-line, receivers who can get open beyond the sticks, and a QB who can deliver the ball.

The numbers show that throwing to Ezekiel Elliott on third down is essentially equivalent to punting. So why do the Cowboys continue doing it?

When opposing defenses took away Cole Beasley as a reliable first-down machine, the Cowboys had no answers.

In this context, I’d be looking very, very hard at the guy in charge of the offense and play-calling.

But sure, let’s focus only on Prescott and his shortcomings.

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