There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this Dallas Cowboys football team. Sure, fans want results and they want them now. That’s something that’s never going to change, but patience has led to the building of a football team that has a lot of good pieces that can help them contend for years. The defensive line is on the rise with the emergence of DeMarcus Lawrence and several other young, hungry edge rushers. The linebacker group has a couple young talents to mix in with aging-yet-still-breathing Sean Lee. And the secondary is filled with young talent that gets better by the day. Whether we completely trust it or not, this Cowboys defense is getting stronger and stronger.
Then there is the offense. While the offensive line is enduring some growing pains due to some new faces in new places, this is still a strong unit. We don’t know what is going to happen with Travis Frederick exactly, but the hope is that he eventually returns and that the line improves. Rookie Connor Williams should improve as well. The offense still has one of the games most explosive running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. And while there are still plenty of questions when it comes to the wide receivers and tight ends, this is still an offense that can be good as long as they have a quality performance from one guy - Dak Prescott.
It should not be surprising that the play of a team’s quarterback is such a huge factor in determining their success. Sure, it’s just one guy, but it’s an important guy.
Before we get to Prescott, let’s take a quick look at each team’s starting quarterback, their age, and their average annual salary.
Let’s change this up a bit and break it down into three groups - aging veterans, QBs with plenty of life left, and the up-and-coming young guns.
Note: Baltimore, Arizona, and Cleveland each make this list twice as they have both a veteran QB and a 2018 first-round draft pick in their back pocket for later. New Orleans also makes this list twice as they’ve recently traded for Teddy Bridgewater as a possible path-forward for when Drew Brees calls it quits.
Five of the eight quarterbacks in this first group are Super Bowl champions. Their teams are riding out whatever’s left from them. Some of them also have a young quarterback to groom on their roster. Some don’t.
The middle group consists of teams that appear to have their quarterback situation set for the next several years and have financially invested in these players. Only Denver’s Case Keenum is considered a temporary band aid for his team and they are without a young quarterback for the future. Whether they are reliable players or erratic at times, these are the quarterbacks their teams are committed to right now.
The final group on the right are the young quarterbacks who their team hopes can become the franchise quarterback that can lead them to success going forward.
As you may have noticed, our guy Dak Prescott is in this group with the rest of these hopeful quarterbacks. The thing that stands out is his puny $680,000 salary compared to everyone else’s rookie contract. And that’s simply because Prescott was a fourth-round pick whereas every single one of these other guys are first-round picks. Every one. Not only that, but 11 out of these 14 quarterbacks are top 12 overall selections in the draft. There’s a new craze going on in the NFL and that’s grabbing a young quarterback early in the draft. A quick review of recent year’s selections yields:
2018 - Five QBs taken in the first round. Two of them are already starting.
2017 - Three QB’s taken in the first round. All three (Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubisky, and Patrick Mahomes) are now starting.
2016 - Three QB’s taken in the first round with two of them taken first and second overall (Jared Goff and Carson Wentz). The guy taken 26th overall (Paxton Lynch) isn’t in the league anymore.
2015 - Two QB’s taken in the first round with both of them taken first and second overall (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariotta).
2014 - Blake Bortles selected third overall. Johnny Manziel (22nd overall) was a bust and Teddy Bridgewater (32nd overall) is now a backup. Derek Carr (36th overall) and Jimmy Garoppolo (62nd overall) were great finds in the second round and they are both very wealthy now.
A couple things from this list makes me a little worried as a Cowboys fans. There are only two busts from this list and the Cowboys were interested in both of them. Thanks to Jerry Jones inability to keep a tight lip, we’ve all heard him whine about how much he regretted passing up on Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch. Either of those decisions would have been a draft travesty for the team.
The next thing to notice is that there are a lot of teams making an early-round investment to get their quarterback, even if it meant sacrificing some pricey draft capital. Many teams have traded to get their guy and now they have him. The Cowboys didn’t do that. They were patient and got Prescott at the end of the fourth round. Many people claim that Dallas just got lucky, but is it possible the Cowboys didn’t get “lucky” after all? What if Prescott isn’t a fourth-round gem, but a fourth-round caliber talent after all?
It seems silly to consider this a possibility after we’ve already witness such great play from Prescott early in his career. Remember, he had the best all-time season of any rookie quarterback in NFL history.
Dak Prescott's Rookie season.— NFLRegion (@NFL_Region) January 1, 2017
Total TDS 29 ( 23 passing, 6 rush)
105 RTG pic.twitter.com/oiNopNDK8F
While he was hot out of the gate, Prescott is at a point where he’s cooled off considerably. It’s almost like he’s suffering from a case of Benjamin Button’s disease when it comes to his performance - his progression started out great and is now gradually going the wrong direction.
Let’s break down his numbers over his first couple seasons and get an idea of how he’s performed in each game. I’ve concentrated solely on the QB rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt for this evaluation.
His first season was remarkable. His only bad performances that season were against NFC East divisional foes - New York (weeks 1 and 13) and Philadelphia (weeks 7 and 16). Also, Week 16 against the Eagles was a throwaway game as the Cowboys had home-field locked up and Dak only played two series in the game. Of those four sub-par performances from Prescott, the Cowboys lost three of those games, which happened to be the only three games they lost that season. Week 7 doesn’t look quite as bad which is why the Cowboys pulled that game out against the Eagles. Prescott regrouped and played better in the second half, but the team pulled out some sneaky special teams play and clutch defense to give him a shot to win that game in overtime. You guys remember that game, right?
Cowboys are about to go down 10 with 7 minutes to go, and Sean Lee forces the Eagles to punt. Absolute MONSTER. Play of the year for him pic.twitter.com/lQ5JIoiHb2— Ryan (@Cogssss) December 26, 2016
Then, finally this...
Dak Prescott to Jason Witten in OT vs. Eagles pic.twitter.com/efVRXqLpIF— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) March 28, 2017
If you look specifically at his yards per attempt in 2016, you can pretty much set your watch to it whether or not the Cowboys pull out the win. If he’s seven or below, the Cowboys don’t win. Anything above seven, the Cowboys win.
Last year, he started off well and had pretty decent numbers in the first half of the season. He posted good QB rating games in six of his first eight games. The Cowboys were 5-3 in that span. And every single loss was another game where his yards per carry was seven or less.
When you look at the second half of the season, there’s an awful lot of red there matching up pretty well to the games the Cowboys lost. Of his five worst QB rating games in his career, four of them occurred in the second half of 2017. And once again, yards per attempt correlates well to the outcomes of the game. If that’s going to be a gauge that most accurately determines whether the Cowboys win or lose, it could mean bad news for this team if something doesn’t change. Prescott had 11 of his 16 games in red for yards per attempt. Granted, the Cowboys still won four of those games, but it took a great effort by the defense and some big plays in special teams to get those wins.
So here we are in 2018 where Prescott opened the season with another poor performance. Despite not throwing any interceptions and posting a good completion percentage, Dak was just not doing enough with his arm to help the offense. Prescott was not making good reads and time and time again he completely missed open receivers. He opted to check down too frequently than to trust his arm to hit an open receiver for a bigger gain. And he never climbed the pocket to make throws downfield. As the “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky said, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Dak’s not taking any shots.
These are all traits that will keep his yards per attempt in the red and unless Prescott makes some improvement to his game, things aren’t going to change much for the Cowboys offense. While this negative trend is enough for Cowboys fans to be concerned, these things are correctable. Dak has made these throws before and it’s not unrealistic to think he can make them again. The coaching staff believes in Prescott and he’s a smart guy. If there is a guy who has the conviction and perseverance to get better, it’s Dak. But actions speak louder than words and Cowboys fans need to see their new franchise quarterback play like a quarterback who can lead this franchise. Because if he can’t and it takes a top 12 pick to land a quality quarterback these days, the Cowboys could be in trouble.