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Projecting Cowboys QB Dak Prescott’s stats for the 2020 season

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How will Mike McCarthy’s arrival impact the franchise quarterback?

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

About this time last year, I embarked on a quest to try and accurately project Dak Prescott’s final statistics for the 2019 season, a difficult task on its own given the general mystery around how Prescott would perform in a new offense run by first-time offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. As it turns out, the prediction was almost completely accurate:

The predictions, which were deemed as “unrealistic” and “crazy high” in the comments, ended up being a bit too conservative. Prescott threw 32 more passes, 303 more yards, and two more touchdowns than predicted. While I didn’t anticipate Prescott flirting with 600 pass attempts and 5,000 yards, I was right on the money with the projection of 8.2 yards per attempt, a figure which was largely derived from looking at how Moore and others worked in the Boise State offense.

But while Moore is returning as the offensive coordinator, new head coach Mike McCarthy is expected to change things up a bit. Moore is still calling plays, but McCarthy has spoken about infusing some of his West Coast offense into what Moore ran last year. That makes things a bit more difficult to predict for 2020, and the uncertainty surrounding both Prescott’s contract situation and the protracted NFL offseason as the league grapples with the coronavirus adds to the challenge.

Just as I relied on Moore’s history with Boise State, looking at Mike McCarthy’s previous offenses will be instrumental in this projection as well. When McCarthy became the head coach of the Packers in 2006, he inherited a somewhat similar situation. The Packers had just endured a disappointing season that resulted in the firing of head coach Mike Sherman, a coach who had reached the postseason four times but failed to advance to the NFC championship game. However, the Packers had their franchise quarterback in Brett Favre,

Granted, Favre had already been in the league for 15 seasons at that point, whereas Prescott is entering just his fifth, but Favre was an established quarterback that McCarthy was getting to work with, as opposed to trying to break in a new guy. In his first season under McCarthy’s tenure, Favre set a career high in pass attempts with 613, and added 3,885 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. The next season, Favre totaled 4,155 yards with 28 touchdowns and 15 interceptions while dropping his attempts down to 535.

Favre then retired (and then unretired to go to the Jets), leaving Aaron Rodgers to take the reins of McCarthy’s offense. Much like Favre did under McCarthy, Rodgers threw the ball a lot too. Rodgers threw at least 500 pass attempts in all but three of his seasons with McCarthy; two of those seasons were when Rodgers missed half the year with injury, and the other was the 2010 season, when Rodgers had 475 attempts. The Packers won the Super Bowl that year, for the record.

It was clear, though, that McCarthy liked throwing the ball frequently. Rodgers was routinely in the top ten of the league in attempts. But for as much as he threw the ball, Rodgers never piled up historic amounts of yards. Rodgers has never broken 5,000 yards and his career high of 4,643 in 2011 was fifth in the NFL that year. This reflects the nature of McCarthy’s West Coast offense: getting the ball out quick on shorter, high-percentage pass attempts.

That’s sure to become somewhat of a factor in the Cowboys offense heading into 2020, but one of the things that made Moore’s offense so potent was that he unleashed Prescott’s deep ball. That, along with Michael Gallup’s big strides, especially as a deep threat receiver, played a big role in the offensive explosion and McCarthy would be foolish to abandon it.

Instead, expect to see a balanced combination of short, accurate throws and deep shots, sort of reminiscent of the ways the Chiefs and Saints run their offenses. For Prescott, that likely means a slight bump in his completion rate. But this also depends heavily on the receivers, as Prescott had 36 dropped passes in 2019, tied for the most in the league. If not for those drops, Prescott would’ve completed 71.1% of his passes.

Assuming the Cowboys receivers don’t have a repeat of that problem, which may in part be helped out by an increase in shorter passes being thrown, then let’s say Prescott ends up with a 66.4% completion rate. That still wouldn’t be as high as his marks in 2016 or 2018, but Prescott wasn’t throwing as many deep balls those years either.

As for attempts, Prescott is likely to see a decline from his numbers in 2019, but only because the team (hopefully) won’t be playing from behind as often as they were last year. Given McCarthy’s pass-happy tendencies, expect Prescott to still throw well over 500 passes.

Adjusting for games missed due to injury, Rodgers averaged 550 attempts a year under McCarthy. But he didn’t have Ezekiel Elliott running the ball, and even under Moore’s guidance they still gave Zeke the ball over 300 times. Let’s peg Prescott’s projection at 542 passes for 2020. Doing simple math, that means Prescott completes the pass 360 times.

Now onto the yards projections. Looking at yards per attempt in Green Bay tells a story. For the first seven years of the McCarthy-Rodgers relationship, they averaged 8.8 yards per attempt. Over the final four years, it dropped to 7.1 yards per attempt. The general consensus from Packers fans is that Rodgers took more control of the offense in the final years, and McCarthy relied more on his quarterback to improvise and make plays.

But in the start, when McCarthy was much more involved, it’s clear that he got a lot out of his quarterback on a per throw basis. That was the case for Prescott and Moore in year one as well, and now the Cowboys have a yards-after-catch king in CeeDee Lamb to boost that figure a bit, as well as the more athletic Blake Jarwin taking over for the slower Jason Witten. Expect Prescott’s yards per attempt to see a slight increase to 8.4.

Going with the projection of 8.4 yards per attempt and doing the rudimentary math, that gives Prescott 4,553 passing yards. It’s a decline in raw yards, but it’s more due to the drop in attempts than anything else. Finally, with regards to touchdowns and interceptions, it’ll likely be close to the same as last year. Assuming there are less dropped passes and more attempts near the goal line (as opposed to trying to run the ball closer to the endzone), let’s say Prescott throws 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

All of this would give Dak a final stat line of:

360/542
66.4% completion rate
4,553 passing yards
8.4 yards/attempt
31 TD
9 INT
104.58 passer rating

While it wouldn’t exactly top Prescott’s performance from last season, these numbers would be relatively close to the incredible season he had in 2019. If the Cowboys can pair a performance like this with a playoff berth, as opposed to the 8-8 finish they had last year, then Prescott will be firmly in the MVP discussion.

Of course, this is just a prediction, and plenty of variables can change things in drastic ways. But with Prescott entering his second year under Kellen Moore’s guidance and arguably having an upgraded arsenal of weapons at his disposal, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to see him come close to replicating the success he just had. And if he can do that, Prescott has a chance to join Emmitt Smith as the second Cowboy ever to win MVP.