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Is Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott really a clutch performer?

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Let’s see if his reputation for playing big in fourth quarters holds up

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dak Prescott is a polarizing figure for the Dallas Cowboys. There is a large contingent of fans who think he’s, at best, a bus driver and the team will never achieve much success with him at the helm. Others believe he’s capable of greatness. And in between are a wide range of voices and opinions.

One thing most seem to agree on, however, is that Dak is a clutch performer. They point to games earlier this season against Detroit and Atlanta as proof; in both instances Dak led the team down the field for a game-winning, last-play field goal.

But “clutch” is a relative term. What does it mean exactly? Yes, a final drive to erase a deficit and win the game is indeed a clutch performance. But what if earlier in the fourth quarter it was a failure to execute with a lead that resulted in the deficit that needed to be overcome at the end? Was that a “clutch” performance?

I decided to take a comprehensive look at Dak’s key, late-game performances. I charted every play of Dak’s career in which the Cowboys began a fourth quarter drive in a one-score game. This means the point margin was between +8 or -8 when the Cowboy took control of the ball. I then determined whether the drive was a success or failure. In most cases “success” means scoring points, but in some cases it also meant simply taking time off the clock in a close game where the Cowboys were already ahead.

I then segmented the drives into the following groups:

  • Trailing - Success
  • Trailing - Failure
  • Even - Success
  • Even - Failure
  • Ahead - Success
  • Ahead - Failure

Note: I excluded what I call “zero leverage” drives: drives in which the Cowboys offense could simply run the clock out by kneeling. This analysis also excludes the most recent New Orleans game.

Since the 214 era began (that’s Zeke’s and Dak’s numbers combined if you’re unfamiliar with the idea), there have been 25 games in which the Cowboys started a drive in the fourth quarter of a one-score game. Let’s see how the team has performed overall in those circumstances:

These are some promising results. Not once in games where the Cowboys were leading or tied did the Cowboys fail to win the game. In addition, they managed to overcome deficits four times out of thirteen (basically once every three times). These are impressive team results that show when the game is close at the end Dallas is able to take care of business and even make the odd comeback here or there.

Here’s a look at each of those games:

Several thoughts:

  • We see just why that 2016 season was so magical. All four fourth-quarter comebacks of this era came in that season; the Cowboys haven’t overcome a fourth-quarter deficit since then. Seven times the Cowboys trailed at some point of the fourth quarter and four times emerged victorious; that’s remarkable.
  • Eleven times in that 2016 season the team was involved in a one-score, fourth-quarter game and won eight of those games. Stat nerds will tell you that’s unsustainable.
  • Since then, the team has gone 8-6 in such situations.
  • The 2018 team has had four opportunities to overcome fourth-quarter deficits and have failed in every instance.
  • As noted earlier, the team is 5-0 in games where the team was tied in the fourth quarter, most recently at Philadelphia to kick-start the team’s current four-game win streak.

Let’s see how the team did on a drive-by-drive basis depending on the game situation:

The team has had 59 offensive drives spread across these 25 games. They’ve been successful more often (56%) than not (44%). They’ve been more successful than not in all three situations but perform particularly well when playing with a lead (62% success rate). Having successful drives in these situations is why the team has enjoyed overall good results as a team.

Let’s break down the success/failure groups into each drive result:

Notes:

  • 30 of the 33 “successful” drives ended in touchdowns or field goals
  • Twice the team ran the clock out when given a lead and needing to gain at least one first down to finish the game.
  • The one “successful” drive ending in a punt came against Washington in 2017. The offense took over with 4:35 remaining and nursing a seven-point lead. They used nine plays to drive 31 yards and take all but 54 seconds off the clock. Washington needed to drive 88 yards with no timeouts to tie the score. That’s a “success” in my book.
  • Half of the “unsuccessful” drives resulted in punts.
  • Seven of the 59 drives (11.8%) ended in turnovers. Included are twice when Prescott turnovers proved the key play in the game:
  1. Interception against Green Bay in 2017
  2. Fumble against Washington in 2018
  • The one “unsuccessful” drive that resulted in points came against Tampa Bay. A turnover gave the Cowboys the ball inside the Tampa 20-yard line of a tie game. In that situation, only a touchdown can be considered a “successful” drive.
  • Note the huge discrepancy in yards per successful (62) drive versus unsuccessful drive (12). Most of the unsuccessful drives seemed to fail rather quickly: three-and-outs or a turnover committed on the first set of downs. There weren’t a lot of instances of the team driving far down the field then failing at the end.
  • Six yards per play overall - that a respectable number considering these are key drives where winning or losing often depends upon the outcome of the drive.

Those are all team results. And those are the most important indicator of success or failure. But let’s look at Prescott’s performances during these drives:

And here we see a serious ying and yang thing going on. Intuitively we’d expect Dak’s performance on successful drives to be better than on unsuccessful drives. But the variances are dramatic. The numbers on the successful drives are eye-popping:

  • 86% completion percentage
  • 12.2 yards per pass attempt
  • 149 passer rating (not far from perfect)

The unsuccessful numbers obviously lag far behind. But the overall numbers are what I’m interested as they capture the total “clutch Dak” performance:

  • 76% completion percentage
  • 9.2 yards per pass attempt
  • 120 passer rating
  • 10-to-1 TD to INT ratio
  • Only one interception in 132 pass attempts.

These are remarkable numbers. Dak is putting up elite numbers in these “clutch” situations. You can’t win 64% of these one-score games without quality quarterback play and these numbers show Dak is a key driver behind the team results.

The absence of mistakes is also a key reason Dallas hasn’t lost a single game when tied or leading in such situations. Dak deserves credit for both making plays and avoiding the costly late-game mistake.

Let’s look at Dak’s performance whether leading, tied or ahead:

Again, eye-popping results:

  • When ahead Dak completes passes at an 83% rate and moves the ball (10.5 YPA) in an efficient manner (127 rating).
  • Dak performs even better when the game is tied (10% TD rate, 142 passer rating).
  • Not surprisingly, Dak’s numbers aren’t as good when the team is behind. But they’re still very good. He completes 73% of passes for 7.9 YPA and a 106 rating.

Note: I looked at Dak’s rushing numbers but was surprised to find they weren’t significant. For those interested:

  • 21 Rushing attempts
  • 63 rushing yards
  • Two touchdowns (Green Bay in 2017, Washington in 2018)
  • One fumble

In short, depending on the situation Dak varies from very good to outstanding. That’s a range we can all live with.

Here’s his numbers segmented into the six different situations:

I’ll let the table speak for itself mostly. It’s not surprising the failed drives while trailing have the worst numbers.

The real question, though, is how do Dak’s “clutch” numbers compare to his overall numbers. Let’s take a look:

First we can see that 132 of Dak’s career 862 pass attempts (15%) come in these “clutch” situations. And we see that Dak is demonstrably better in such situation than in “non-clutch” situations.

He’s better in every single significant statistical metric:

  • Dak’s completion percentage is fully 12 points better than his non-clutch number.
  • Dak’s yards per attempt improves from 7.1 to 9.2 in these clutch situations.
  • Dak’s passer rating jumps from 92 (below average) to 120 (elite) in clutch situations.

We also see Dak’s touchdown percentage improves from 4.3% to 5.7%. Just as importantly, his interception numbers drop by 66%, from 1.8% to 0.6%. Summarizing, he’s makes big plays at a higher rate while making bad plays at a lower rate.

Overall, Dak is probably an average to above-average NFL quarterback. But when fourth quarter crunch time comes in a close game, Dak elevates his play to that of an elite NFL quarterback.

This is something to keep in mind when evaluating Dak’s overall play. Yes, it’d be nice if he could play at such a level all the time (and perhaps avoid some of those late game dramatics).

But I’d much rather have a decent quarterback who becomes better in such situations than a quality quarterback who shrinks in such situations.