The biggest question surrounding the Dallas Cowboys entering this season is undoubtedly regarding their quarterback.
Dak Prescott was incredible throughout his rookie season and over the first half of his sophomore campaign. Three ugly games quickly derailed the fourth quarter of the existing sample size, but data shows that that’s an outlier.
On the subject of data, there’s a set of data suggesting Prescott is going to rebound in 2018. NFL Media’s Cynthia Frelund, the company’s analytics expert, recently proclaimed that Dak will be more efficient this season, and a lot of her justification is the absences of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant (don’t worry about the title of the tweet below, it’s all about Prescott’s efficiency and has nothing to do with why Zeke is #1).
“Witten and Bryant combined for almost half of the team’s passing targets last season; however, a deeper dive shows a significant decline in first downs earned as a percentage of these targets compared to past seasons. This trend indicates Prescott might have been trying to force feed Bryant, while Witten was unable to rack up yards after the catch.
Let’s look at those numbers in a bit more detail. The table below shows the Cowboys passing targets and 1st downs for the last two years with details for Bryant and Witten.
|2016||2017||Change vs 2016|
|1st Downs||1st D %||Targets||1st Downs||1st D %|
|Dez & Witt||192||71||37.0%||219||70||32.0%||-5.0 pts|
|All others||267||111||41.6%||271||92||33.9%||-7.7 pts|
The data confirms Frelund’s first few points.
Witten and Bryant did combine for almost half the team’s passing targets (42%) last year. And it’s also correct that first downs earned as a percentage of targets declined for the Dez & Witt combo, from 37% in 2016 to 32% in 2017.
In some ways, it’s become almost fashionable to rag on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. We’ve seen all sorts of stats about how Prescott’s numbers look better when he’s not focusing in on Bryant, about how Witten has slowed down, and how these two former Cowboys greats were somehow holding the Cowboys offense back.
But the interesting thing here is when you actually take a deeper dive into the numbers, some of those narrative simply don’t hold up.
Sure, the Dez & Witt combo saw a five-point drop in its first downs earned percentage, but look at the rest of the receivers: their percentage dropped even more, down 7.6 points from 41.6% in 2016 to 33.9% in 2017.
What this tells us is that the issues in the 2017 passing game were systemic, and not just limited to Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. The decline in first-down production was a team-wide issue and wasn’t just about the two superstars.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily invalidate Freelund’s other points: Prescott did look like he was forcing the ball to Bryant at times, and Witten did have a career-low YAC percentage last year.
So yes, spreading the ball around more, and getting more YAC from whichever player picks up Witten’s targets will improve the efficiency of the Cowboys passing game. But to get it back to 2016 levels, the other receivers must step up their game as well, as must Dak Prescott himself, and as Frelund also points out, the O-line and the running game also need to return to their 2016 form.
At the end of the day though, it may all come down to the playcalling:
Dallas’s shift from Dez Bryant and Jason Witten means Scott Linehan’s short, efficient passing game is the key to the Cowboys 2018 offense.