The discourse has been radiating like a heat lamp since the moment Cole Holcomb snagged Dak Prescott’s pass and returned it for a touchdown late in the game on Sunday. We’ve been treated to all kinds of opinions on Prescott, but the overwhelming consensus is that the Cowboys’ franchise quarterback is in a slump of some sort. Jerry Jones even suggested as much on Tuesday.
Jerry Jones on @1053thefan on Dak Prescott: "I don't want to say (it's a) slump, but that's probably fair. It's such a multifaceted evaluation. I would say that our offense is definitely away from where we were 5-6 weeks ago. ... Yes, he is (healthy). He'll figure it out."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 14, 2021
Personally, I reject the notion that Prescott is in a slump, although it largely comes down to the semantics of how one defines a slump. It’s hard to ignore that Prescott’s three worst games of the year (against the Broncos, Chiefs, and Football Team) have come in the last six games. Even his performances against the Raiders and Saints were below Prescott’s standards.
However, the key part in that last sentence is this: for Prescott’s standards. Simply put, Prescott has been playing some truly elite football ever since Amari Cooper joined the team. That’s two and a half seasons of top-of-the-line production before his string of sub-par games and stinkers lately. And even then, Prescott has had plenty of good plays during this stretch of struggles; it’s not like he’s suddenly forgotten how to play football.
Simply put, conventional wisdom suggests that Prescott is going to start playing great football again soon. The odds are very good that a 3.5 year sample size is more indicative of who Prescott is rather than a ~ six game sample size. Still, all of this leads to the question of what exactly is wrong with Prescott right now.
First things first, it’s important to acknowledge that there is no one answer to that question. In a sport with as much variance as football, that’s rarely the case. And for the Cowboys, there is a very long list of things that bear at least some responsibility for their recent struggles on offense. Here’s some of them:
- Injuries and absences; they’ve played without Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Tony Pollard, Blake Jarwin, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup at various points during their slump, while Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t been at 100% for several weeks now
- Dak Prescott’s calf injury caused him to miss a game, and the offense hasn’t looked like themselves since then with the exception of the Falcons game, although both Mike McCarthy and Jerry Jones insist he’s healthy
- Connor McGovern has struggled in both pass protection and, more recently, run blocking since taking over for Connor Williams
- Their most recent game was the first time all three of these wide receivers played on two-thirds or more of all offensive snaps, so it would stand to reason that Prescott still isn’t back to his usual rhythm with these three
Our own Dave Halprin also brought forth an interesting and compelling explanation for Prescott’s struggles. Broken down here, Halprin explains that teams have generally stopped blitzing Prescott and started playing more zone coverage over the last six games, which has coincided with a general decline in offensive production. That’s still a small sample size, making it hard to determine whether this is a coincidence or actually a blueprint, but it’s something to watch as more games are played.
Another theory that has likely gone underreported thus far is the Cowboys’ offensive line woes, and that’s largely because it’s an easy problem to miss. If you’ve been following along with our weekly analytics roundups, you know that Dallas has consistently been near the bottom in the NFL in pass block win rate - which measures how frequently an offensive line holds their pass blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer - but have had one of the best adjusted sack rates during that same span.
In short, these two metrics suggest that the Cowboys have not been all that good in pass protection but Prescott and Kellen Moore have done a good job of scheming around that. Part of that has been quicker throws, as Prescott ranks in the bottom third of qualifying quarterbacks in average time to throw, while play-action and bootlegs have also helped.
One symptom of this has been less opportunities to throw beyond the first-down marker, which has been exacerbated in recent weeks. Since the Broncos game, Prescott has been in the bottom 10 of quarterbacks in air yards to the sticks, which measures how often a quarterback throws at or beyond the first down marker. This has led to the Cowboys’ drastically reduced ability to move the chains, which has been the biggest problem on offense.
In short, it doesn’t seem as if Prescott is trusting his protection right now. He’s getting rid of the ball faster and throwing it shorter than he has before, and it’s coincided with this drop in production. And the play that really sparked this discourse - the pick six against Washington - displayed this problem as well.
Wondering why Dak missed Schultz early on the 2nd INT? This is why.— Skywalker Steele (@SkywalkerSteele) December 13, 2021
Earlier in the game the same play got 88 WIDE open for a chunk play.
Came back to it in crunch time looking for 88 out of the action. This time WASH played it extremely well.
He knows he shoulda took the sk pic.twitter.com/OkkG8u94vh
As Skywalker Steele breaks down in this tweet, the play itself was a duplicate of an earlier play that went for a big gain to Lamb. They called it again and Lamb was well-covered, which forced Prescott to go to his second read, Dalton Schultz. The issue is that a defender gets up in his face this time, altering Prescott’s platform by the time he goes to Schultz.
Matters are made worse when Schultz stops on his route, and Prescott has to sling the ball around the defender in his face to get it heading in his tight end’s direction. Then, as we saw on the angle during the broadcast, the defender in Prescott’s face was obscuring his view of Holcomb, who swooped in to pick the ball off. Several things went wrong on this play, and most of them stem from Washington simply playing it well.
Overall, it’s demonstrative of the larger issue for this offense: they’re not moving the chains as much, which leads to more stalled drives, and a seemingly decreasing level of confidence in his line has led to Prescott not test defenses all over the field anymore. Does it count as a slump for one player if his issues are stemming from poor pass protection? That’s an argument over semantics but either way, this is a problem the Cowboys have to fix.