Truth be told, Dallas Cowboys fans are just naturally predisposed to be overly critical of their quarterbacks. The franchise has been spoiled with some truly generational talent at the position with the likes of Don Meredith, Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Danny White, and recently Tony Romo. Being the starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys has a certain level of scrutiny that appears beyond the norm.
So when Dak Prescott started the 2018 season off with some truly poor play the reaction to it, as might be expected, was strong. The fact was that the third-year signal-caller was putting up bad numbers. Through the first three games, he never threw for more than 170 yards and had as many touchdowns, two, as he had interceptions. Over the next three games he at least averaged 215 passing yards per game and had a 5:2 touchdown to interception ratio.
Part of the problem is that Prescott hasn’t really developed all that much since entering the league and his throwing mechanics and footwork are still problems for him. That can be blamed on Dak as much as it can on the coaches. The regression of the offensive line under Paul Alexander didn’t help either, any quarterback’s numbers get worse when throwing under consistent pressure. Another big factor was the decision to go with a wide-receiver-by-committee approach that just wasn’t working.
The Cowboys took measures in their bye week to address those issues. They fired Alexander and went back to the kind of blocking scheme they used in the past, and they traded for Amari Cooper who has done everything in his power to justify that deal. The result has been a surprising four-game winning streak to save the season, capped off with a signature victory over the New Orleans Saints, one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Amid this streak, Prescott has been playing quality football.
In reality, Prescott has been playing at a higher level since before the Cooper trade.
Through the first six games of the season, Prescott was completing 61.9% of his passes, averaging 190 passing yards per game, and had thrown seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Perhaps most troubling was that Prescott was averaging just 6.69 yards per pass attempt. He had also carried the ball 34 times for 203 yards, averaging a solid six yards per carry, but only scored one rushing touchdown.
The game where it all changed? On the road in Washington. Dak had just put in an impressive all-around performance against Jacksonville, a blowout win. Against Washington, Dak threw and ran for a touchdown and put up 306 total yards of offense. The one issue, one that is continuing to haunt him even during this streak, is fumbling. He did fumble into his own endzone, an unforgivable mistake, but he responded with two excellent drives that should have sent the game to overtime except for a phantom ‘snap infraction’ penalty.
Despite the loss, Prescott continued that type of play into the next game, which was a loss to the Tennessee Titans in Cooper’s debut. Prescott had 243 yards and two touchdowns in that game, but turnovers still hurt his performance. Then came the win streak. In fact, looking back at Prescott’s last six games, which spans from that Washington game to the most recent one against the Saints, Dak is completing 70.9% of his passes, which is exactly 9% better than what he had done in the first six games, and has averaged 255 yards per game while throwing seven touchdowns and only one interception. The biggest improvement here has been that he is now averaging 7.93 yards per attempt, a significant increase.
Additionally in that span, Prescott has run the ball less with five fewer carries and has 105 less rushing yards, but he has also scored four times running the ball. This has largely come from a willingness - by both Prescott as a player and Scott Linehan as a playcaller - to run with the ball more inside the red zone, where his mobility can be most dangerous.
Another interesting aspect of this turnaround for the quarterback comes from his pass attempts. Through the first six games, Prescott only threw 30+ passes once, and it was against the Lions. Similarly over that stretch, he never once had 20 or more completions in a game. Over the last six games, Prescott has thrown the ball 30 or more times in all but the Saints game, where he threw 28 passes; he has had over 20 completions in all six of those games.
So what is the reason for this sudden change? It’s impossible to know exactly although adding Cooper to the mix has certainly helped. But it’s important to note that prior to Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension last season, Prescott was playing well. In fact, he was completing 62.9% of his passes and averaging 227 passing yards per game with 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, and had scored four additional touchdowns on the ground. Then came the infamous Atlanta game and things went off the rails from there, for both Prescott and the season as a whole.
It’s possible that such a steep dropoff in production damaged Prescott’s confidence, and perhaps those effects lingered into the 2018 season after failing to make the postseason in 2017. But Prescott’s performance against the Jaguars this year - where he put up close to 300 yards of total offense and had three touchdowns (two passing/one rushing) against one of the best defenses in the NFL and, at the time, one of the AFC heavyweights - may have served as the restoration of his confidence, which led to his strong performance in Washington, DC the next week.
That’s just a theory but the reasoning doesn’t matter too much. The point is that Prescott has rebounded in a strong way from his struggles earlier in the year, and that rebound has coincided with other parts of this offense coming into focus and making the unit just good enough to complement this terrific defense. There is still work to be done, but Dak has battled back to form and is proving capable of leading this team to wins.