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Evaluating Dak, Part I: Just how good is Dak Prescott and is he the quarterback for the Cowboys?

Join us for this three-part series as we break down the Cowboys' $160 million investment and try to understand what the team has in Dak Prescott.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

For the better part of two decades, the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys has been under constant scrutiny. Even though many fans appreciate the fantastic play-making moments of Tony Romo and Dak Prescott, it doesn’t mean there aren’t times when the appreciation isn’t as apparent. For Mr. Prescott, we are right in the middle of one of those moments.

The Cowboys 29-year-old quarterback is coming off a season where he led the league in interceptions despite missing five games. Some of these picks aren’t on him, but many others are. And considering the team exited this year’s postseason on the heels of a two-interception performance from Prescott where the offense only scored one touchdown, the question has been raised on whether or not he has what it takes to lead this team to a Super Bowl.

Does he?

This week, we are going to attempt to answer that question as we embark on a three-part series where we examine (I) how good is Prescott (II) why has he had some struggling moments recently, and (III) what should the Cowboys do with him going forward.

Some are “ride or die” with Dak as his skills aren’t even in question, but others have their doubts. Regardless of which side of the fence you are on, let’s first try to get an honest assessment of just how good of a quarterback Prescott is. To do this, we are not looking at wins and losses, we are not trusting the eye test, and we are not looking at the basic statistical graphics that pop up on our television screens all the time. Instead, we’re going to examine some of the most trusted player evaluation metrics the NFL has to offer.

Expected Points Added (EPA)

Not all plays are created equal. Quarterbacks perform differently based on things like down and distance, where they are on the football field, and even the game situation. For example, strong performances are much harder in game-winning drives than they are in drives occurring in garbage time. But regardless of the game situation, every specific play has some average expected points value that is derived from an extremely large set of data from plays in that exact situation. So after a quarterback makes a play, he goes from one game situation to another. The difference in expected points from those two game situations is the expected points added (or lost if it’s negative).

Taking into account how many times a quarterback drops back into the pocket, here is how Dak Prescott has rated in each of his seven seasons in the league (his yearly rank is also included).

Total Quarterback Rating (QBR)

Not to be confused with passer rating (or QB Rating) which is essentially a volume stat that works off of basic passing statistics (yards, completion %, touchdowns, and interceptions), total quarterback rating (QBR ) is actually quite useful. QBR is very similar to EPA, but it goes a little further as it attempts to remove factors that are not in a quarterback’s control. It considers how much blame lies with the offensive line in giving up a sack or how much of a passing play is attributed to the yards after the catch from a wide receiver. It also factors in the quality of the opponents as higher scores are awarded against tougher defenses.

Here is Dak’s QBR over his career with his yearly rank also included.

Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)

DVOA is also very similar to EPA in that it takes into account every little detail of the game situation in determining the value. And like QBR, it also takes into account the quality of the opponent (that is where the “defense-adjusted” comes in). DVOA spits out a value that is a percentage better (positive value) or a percentage worse (negative) than the league average.

Here are Prescott’s DVOA numbers over the years.

While each of these metrics are different, we see a similar pattern with Prescott’s performance over the years. We’ve broken them down into five phases. Looking at the swings, we have drawn the following conclusions from each phase of Prescott’s time as the Cowboys quarterback.

PHASE ONE (2016): Dak was fantastic during his rookie season

This isn’t telling you something you didn’t already know. Opposing teams had yet to figure him out, he had a great cast of characters around him, and he played so well that Romo never got his job back when he was healthy causing the team to move on from him the following season.

PHASE TWO (2017-18) Dak dropped off the next two years

After a great start, Prescott slowed down. Maybe teams started figuring him out, but for the next two seasons, he turned into a dink-and-dunk passer as his yards per attempt shortened. He also didn’t throw as many touchdowns as he did his rookie season, but his interceptions went up.

PHASE THREE (2019) Kellen cut him loose

While the Cowboys finished a mediocre 8-8 in 2019, we saw a new style of quarterback play from Prescott. It was Jason Garrett’s last year as head coach, but it was Kellen Moore’s first year as offensive coordinator. This revealed to the world that Dak was not a game manager, but could air it out with the best of him. He finished with then career-highs in completions, touchdowns, and passing yards finishing just 98 yards shy of 5,000.

PHASE FOUR (2020) The shortened season

With Mike McCarthy taking over the team in 2020, the Cowboys' defense was historically bad, causing the offense to air it out to stay in games. Prescott only played in five games before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, but up until then, he was averaging 371 yards per game, a pace that would’ve flirted with 6,000 had he played a full season. This season had the greatest variation among the three stats and with a smaller sampling, it’s better to not put too much stock in that year.

PHASE FIVE (2021-22) Not great, but not as bad as you think

While Dak’s 2021 DVOA was fantastic, the metrics above suggest that Prescott is teetering right on the fringe of a top-10 quarterback these past two seasons. If you don’t believe he’s elite, you’re right and the data supports you. At the same time, if you look at his less-than-stellar second half of 2021 and roller-coaster 2022, he still emerges as a fringe top-10 quarterback.

Now, that we have a good feel for how Prescott has played throughout his career, we want to turn our attention to recent history. What do the Cowboys have in Prescott right now and what are some things that have occurred that might be affecting his performance? We will look at those aspects closer as we continue our Evaluating Dak series this week so stay tuned.

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