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Dak Prescott is moving the sticks like no other QB in the NFL

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First-down percentage can tell you which QBs are moving the sticks and which QBs aren’t. And we tell you which QB is which.

NFL: SEP 25 Bears at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Teams that consistently move the sticks tend be the teams that win consistently. It follows that quarterbacks that move the sticks consistently are very good quarterbacks; quarterbacks that fail at this most basic of football tasks are usually not very good.

We measure QBs by all sorts of real and made-up stats, but there is no readily available stat that measures a QB’s ability to move the sticks.

The simplest way to measure a QB’s ability to move the sticks is to add up his passing and rushing first downs and divide them by his number of dropbacks and runs. The resulting QB 1st-down percentage (or 1D%) may not be perfect, but it removes some of the inconsistencies that plague some other stats:

  • It does not reward a QB for completing a 15-yard pass on 3rd-and-16 (like passer rating or YPA do)
  • It does not reward the QB for throwing a screen pass that the RB takes 80 yards for a TD (like EPA and many other stats do).
  • Similar to efficiency stats like EPA and QBR, it does reward a QB for his running game, which many passer-centric stats do not.
  • On the downside, because it’s about first downs only (and therefore disregards any yardage beyond the first-down marker), it tends to undervalue QBs from big-play offenses, and tends to reward QBs who are able to sustain long, methodical drives. It also doesn’t properly reflect the impact of interceptions or fumbles, as it simply treats them as another pass attempt or run.

Let’s take Dak Prescott’s 2019 season to illustrate the 1D% stat. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, Prescott had 96 passing first downs on 248 dropbacks (238 pass attempts + 10 sacks), and 12 rushing first downs on 20 runs. In total, that’s 108 first downs on 268 plays, a 40.3 first down percentage.

Over the first seven weeks of 2019, the first-down percentage for the 37 NFL QBs with more than 60 pass attempts is 33.2%. Here’s how those 37 QBs rank in 1D percentage:

Rank Player Pass Att Sacks Pass 1D Runs Run 1D 1D%
1 Dak Prescott 238 10 96 20 12 40.3%
2 Jimmy Garoppolo 167 8 67 15 7 38.9%
3 Matthew Stafford 218 12 88 11 5 38.6%
4 Deshaun Watson 235 21 96 31 13 38.0%
5 Philip Rivers 276 13 110 7 2 37.8%
6 Kyle Allen 122 10 51 4 0 37.5%
7 Kirk Cousins 189 12 74 13 5 36.9%
8 Patrick Mahomes 241 8 87 12 7 36.0%
9 Russell Wilson 230 17 88 30 11 35.7%
10 Derek Carr 189 8 72 8 1 35.6%
11 Lamar Jackson 215 17 78 73 30 35.4%
12 Matt Ryan 285 19 107 11 3 34.9%
13 Tom Brady 228 10 81 6 4 34.8%
14 Jameis Winston 220 25 88 14 2 34.7%
15 Jacoby Brissett 206 7 71 21 9 34.2%
16 Aaron Rodgers 250 12 86 11 5 33.3%
17 Jared Goff 283 12 97 11 3 32.7%
18 Josh Allen 189 15 66 39 13 32.5%
19 Eli Manning 89 2 29 2 1 32.3%
20 Ryan Fitzpatrick 105 6 34 10 5 32.2%
21 Case Keenum 172 10 59 5 1 32.1%
22 Carson Wentz 240 13 78 22 10 32.0%
23 Sam Darnold 73 6 25 3 1 31.7%
24 Teddy Bridgewater 195 11 66 15 4 31.7%
25 Kyler Murray 259 23 86 42 16 31.5%
26 Joe Flacco 230 23 78 7 3 31.2%
27 Gardner Minshew 226 16 77 26 6 31.0%
28 Baker Mayfield 198 16 63 7 4 30.3%
29 Daniel Jones 175 18 53 16 10 30.1%
30 Andy Dalton 286 24 88 13 7 29.4%
31 Cam Newton 89 6 29 5 0 29.0%
32 Mitchell Trubisky 160 10 49 5 1 28.6%
33 Mason Rudolph 94 3 27 5 2 28.4%
34 Marcus Mariota 159 25 49 23 5 26.1%
35 Ben Roethlisberger 62 2 14 1 0 21.5%
36 Josh Rosen 109 16 26 3 0 20.3%
37 Luke Falk 73 16 15 0 0 16.9%

The title of the post already gave it away; Dak Prescott’s 40.3% leads all NFL QBs. Nobody in the NFL moves the sticks better than Dak Prescott (and the Cowboys offense).

And here’s the kicker:

  • When Dak Prescott has a first-down percentage of 30% or higher, the Cowboys are 35-6.
  • When Dak Prescott has a first-down percentage below 30%, the Cowboys are 1-13.

What this means is that 1D% accurately correlates with Dak Prescott’s QB record in a stunning 48 out of 55 games. When Dak moves the sticks, the Cowboys win. When he doesn’t, they lose. The Cowboys fancy themselves a running team, and there may be all sorts of intangibles associated with being a physical, run-heavy team, but they live and die by the passing game - running-game truthers and 30-carry auto-win apologists notwithstanding.

As you look through the names in the Top 10, most should not surprise you. Eight of the players in the Top 10 currently have a passer rating above 100, the exception being Jimmy Garoppolo (90.8) and Philip Rivers (93.5). Garoppolo’s passer rating would rank him just 20th on this list. Which just goes to show that looking good as measured by passer rating and actually moving the sticks may not be the same thing, especially because Garoppolo’s passer rating suffers a little from the 49ers preference for rushing TDs over passing TDs (SF Ranks T25th in passing TDs and 10th in rushing TDs). Garappolo may not throw a lot of TDs, and he may not always make the best decisions with the ball, but he’s moving the sticks (and has a great defense). And as such it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to see the 49ers at 6-0.

In the list of 37 QBs above, 16 have a 1D% greater than the 33.2% average, 21 are below the league average. That means that the guys ranked from 11-16 (Lamar Jackson, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Jameis Winston, Jacoby Brissett, and Aaron Rodgers) are just slightly above average in moving the sticks this year.

And if you compare 1D% ranking with EPA-based metrics, you’ll see a strong correlation, which is no surprise, given that both EPA and 1D% place a premium on first downs, unlike more blurry metrics like success rate, YPA, or passer rating.

From No. 17 on down you’ll find a lot of guys who may have big names but haven’t gotten a lot of recognition for their play this year. In terms of moving the ball, the numbers are clear: these QBs are below league average.

And as you get into the 30% range, you get into a situation where the quarterback becomes a liability for the team, regardless of his draft pedigree, contract value, or “eliteness.”

At its core, football is about gaining at least 10 yards in three tries, and 1D% gives you a good idea of how successful a QB will be at achieving a new set of downs.

  • A 1D% of 50% means that the QB and his offense is basically unstoppable. Theoretically, a 50% rate means every second QB play will achieve a first down. You could run once and throw twice and statistically you’d get a new set of downs every time until you stumble into the endzone.
  • A 1D% of 33% means you’d get a first down after every third QB play. But that only works in a theoretical scenario where you don’t have any run plays. In real life, teams will average at least one run in a three-play sequence, and if you only get a new set of downs on every third QB play, you’re going to be punting a lot.
  • A 1D% of 25% means you’d get a first down after every fourth QB play. That’s terrible, and will mean a lot of three an outs.

For Cowboys fans, a breakdown of Prescott’s 1D% numbers through the first seven games might be instructive. The following table lists Prescott’s numbers by target:

Target Plays 1st downs 1st down %
Amari Cooper 50 25 50%
Tavon Austin 10 5 50%
Jason Witten 31 15 48%
Michael Gallup 40 18 45%
Devin Smith 9 4 44%
Randall Cobb 30 13 43%
Blake Jarwin 15 5 33%
Cedrick Wilson 7 2 29%
Ezekiel Elliott 30 8 27%
Tony Pollard 4 1 25%
Dalton Schultz 1 0 0%
Jamize Olawale 1 0 0%
QB Runs 20 12 60%
Sacks 10 0 0%
Incomplete (no clear target) 10 0 0%
Total 268 108 40.3%

This is a good look for Prescott and his receivers, as most of the receivers move the sticks at an above average rate, even old man Witten, much to my surprise. Jarwin’s numbers are slightly disappointing, and we run into sample size issues for most players ranked below him.

Elliott’s low percentage is likely owed to the fact that the Cowboys like to use him as Checkdown Charlie in the passing game. I’m not sure that this is more than a statistical oddity, but Elliott has almost identical first-down percentages on dump offs as he does on runs:

  • On 135 runs, Elliott has 35 first downs, a 1D% of 26%
  • On 30 targets in the passing game, Elliott has eight first downs, a 1D% of 27%.

Overall though, these are excellent numbers, and to put Prescott’s 40.3% first-down percentage in context, here are the league leaders of the last three years (min 300 ATT):

  • 2018: Drew Brees, 40.3%
  • 2017: Tom Brady, 37.8%
  • 2016: Matt Ryan, 42.5% (with Prescott second at 39.1%)

With these numbers, it’s only fitting that the Cowboys have the No. 1 offense in EPA, have the No. 1 offense in opponent-adjusted DVOA, have the No. 1 offense in yards per game, and have the No. 1 offense in the Aikman Ratings.

Not everybody may like to hear it, but first-down percentage isn’t the only metric in which Dak Prescott leads the league.

Most Cowboys fans are happy to see Prescott leading the league in so many metrics, but nobody has a bigger grin on his face right now than Prescott’s agent.

And there’s also this:

Heading into the bye, there likely won’t be a lot of Cowboys headlines, and that likely won’t sit well with headline-lovin’ Jerry Jones. What are the odds Jones hijacks the news cycle at some point in the next two weeks to announce a record-breaking contract for a QB that moves the sticks better than anybody else in the NFL and leads the No. 1 offense in the league?