Think back to week seven in 2018. After one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in history with a touchdown to interception ratio of 23:4, Prescott now looked vulnerable. The quarterback out of Mississippi State won 12 out of his 23 games from 2017 to week seven in 2018 and it didn't look particularly encouraging.
And in that year, the Dallas Cowboys finished week seven at 3-7. It seemed like they were going to miss out on the playoffs for the second straight year. Then, just one day after the Cowboys lost to Washington 20-17, it was announced that Amari Cooper was coming to Dallas for a first-round pick.
Since then, things have improved for Dallas and specifically Dak Prescott. But with Cooper potentially gone next season, the question of whether Dak improved because of Cooper or if Cooper was traded during the middle of Prescott's development will be answered.
If Cooper is cut, 2022 will answer the question of correlation or causation with Dak Prescott
As a quick preface, this is not going to be an attempt to answer the question of correlation versus causation. This question will be answered eventually and in reality, the only way to speculate on the answer would be through flipping a coin or guessing. No one knows what will happen.
But, instead, let's take a look at Dak’s career with and without Amari to see the drop-off.
Up to this point, Prescott has played 41 regular-season games without Cooper and 44 regular-season games with the receiver. Thus, the sample size for each group is large enough to adequately compare the two. First, let’s look at how Prescott has done without Cooper:
- Win percentage: 60.9%
- Points per game: 23.3
- Passing YPG: 219.5
- TD to Int ratio: 1.3 to .6 per game
- Passer rating: 95.0
Obviously, all of these stats are irrelevant if we do not have the comparison. So, here are the same stats with Amari Cooper:
- Win percentage: 63.6%
- Points per game: 28.7
- Passing YPG: 297.4
- TD to Int ratio: 2 to .6 per game
- Passer rating: 103.0
This leads to a difference of (positive numbers means Prescott improved with Cooper):
- Win percentage: 2.7%
- Points per game: 5.4
- Passing YPG: 77.9
- TD to Int ratio: .7 to 0 per game
- Passer rating: 8.0
So, Prescott is a better quarterback with Cooper. No one will argue that Dak in 2019 through 2021 is worse than in 2017 and the first half of 2018. Amari has been great for Prescott’s development and arrived during a pivotal year for Dallas’ franchise QB.
But when the Raiders traded Cooper to Dallas, Dak was only halfway through his third year in the league with only 1,455 pass attempts under his belt. Flash-forward three and a half years later, where Prescott has just completed his sixth year in the NFL. Now, only seven starting quarterbacks in the NFL have more pass attempts than Prescott since 2012 (he was drafted in 2016).
Dak Prescott is a veteran quarterback who has developed and grown since he came into the league six years ago. Since he was drafted, he is a two-time Pro Bowler, won Offensive Rookie of the Year, won a playoff game, lost two, and suffered a season-ending injury. He is no spring chicken and has had his ups and downs in the NFL.
Thus, it might reasonable to assume that Prescott can succeed without Amari Cooper because he is now a veteran quarterback who has developed in his own right. And also consider that for the stats listed above, in 2018 the leading receiver was Ezekiel Elliott by receptions.
So the question is, what would Dak’s career development have looked like without Amari Cooper? And if you take Cooper off this team, what happens to Prescott? Or essentially, is the quarterback that Prescott has evolved into caused by Cooper, or is it caused by normal career progression?
Just because Cooper coming to Dallas correlates with Dak’s career upswing doesn’t mean he is the primary cause of it.
It is possible that the reason Prescott faced a down year in 2017 and the first half of 2018 is due to a complete lack of receiving options. Even if Cooper leaves, the Cowboys will still have CeeDee Lamb, Dalton Schultz, and potentially Michael Gallup, which is better than the 2017 and 2018 corps by a sizeable margin.
If you want the physical data behind it, the correlation between Dak’s performance with Cooper is stronger than Dak’s performance by game number (.27 versus .19). But these are simply correlations and it would be unfair to assume that the causation of one is stronger than the causation of the other.
But if Cooper is cut these questions will be answered. How reliant is Prescott on Cooper? Are the two games Dallas played without Cooper in 2021, the Chiefs and Raiders, prescriptive of what Cowboys fans should expect moving forward?
And the big question; is Dak’s improvement from 2018 to now a result of a dependency on a star-studded receiving corps, or is it just natural development?
The answer will likely fall somewhere in the middle. But it is impossible to speculate on what Dak will look like until Prescott walks onto the field (with a full season sample size) without Cooper.
Until then, Cowboys fans can hope that Cooper is in Dallas for the 2022 season and the question of correlation versus causation can wait another year to be answered.