The best play-callers in the NFL take precise steps to make life easier on their quarterback. Look at the two teams in the Super Bowl, for example. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid knows he has a generational talent in Patrick Mahomes, so he doesn’t waste time trying to establish the run; Kansas City had the second highest early down passing rate of any team this year. On the other extreme, Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen (who calls the plays, not head coach Nick Sirianni) understands how dangerous Jalen Hurts’ mobility is and therefore led the league in designed quarterback runs this year.
So what does Dak Prescott do best? I guess it depends on who you ask. Most TV analysts would probably make some snide remark about throwing interceptions. But if you prefer hard evidence, the statistics suggest that Prescott is best at play-action and deep shots. He’s been in the top five of all quarterbacks in passer rating on play-action attempts for all but one of his years in the NFL. Prescott has also ranked in the top 10 of quarterbacks in passer rating on throws that travel 20 yards or more in every year of his career thus far.
With that in mind, you’d think Kellen Moore would have dialed up a lot of play-action and deep shots, right? Wrong. As it turns out, Prescott only ran play-action on 26.4% of his dropbacks, ninth most in the league. A quarterback with his track record of success with the run fake should be much higher in usage.
Similarly, Prescott attempted a pass over 20 yards downfield on just 10.8% of his passes. That ranks astonishingly low in the league, 23rd among qualifying quarterbacks. That’s fewer deep shots than Jacoby Brissett, Geno Smith, and rookies Kenny Pickett and Brock Purdy. Not only did the Cowboys limit their deep shot passing game, they were living for the short game, targeting hitch routes at the fourth highest rate of any offense in 2022.
I made the case for why Moore is a good offensive coordinator, and why he should’ve been retained by Dallas, but looking at these trends makes it easy to see why Mike McCarthy felt it was time to move on. These problems are emblematic of a larger trend under Moore since he started calling plays, but the issues reached a fever pitch this year without as much talent at the receiver spot to make up for the scheme’s shortcomings.
Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of Prescott, and unfairly so. Prescott has proven time and again that he’s an extremely gifted quarterback, but the Cowboys - and, more specifically, Moore - failed him this season.
We know that Prescott is great at play-action and that Moore didn’t use the concept enough, but consider this: 14 of Prescott’s league-leading 15 interceptions this year came on dropbacks with no play-action. When Prescott did use the run fake, he threw just one interception all year. In the postseason, both of his picks came without play-action.
The refusal of Moore to rely on things that made his quarterback’s job easier is astounding. Consider the Cowboys’ distribution between run and pass plays, as well. It’s generally known that quarterbacks tend to perform better when throwing on first and second down, as defenses usually are loading up to stop the run in those situations.
That’s doubly true for Prescott. Since entering the league, Prescott is fifth in EPA/play and third in success rate among active quarterbacks on first and second down. He is the poster child for quarterbacks thriving in unexpected passing downs and, just like his success on play-action and deep shots, you’d think Moore would look to use more early-down passing.
A year ago, he did just that. After Moore’s first two seasons calling plays (which included the 2020 season without Prescott for most of the year) saw Dallas ranked firmly in the middle of the league in early down passing rate, the 2021 season had the Cowboys finish eighth in early down passing rate.
However, Moore took a massive step back this year, and ranked seventh from the bottom in early down passing rate. Some of that was due to Cooper Rush starting five games early in the year, but the Cowboys were still in the bottom half of the league in early down passing rate from when Prescott returned from injury to the end of the year.
Moore ran on early downs at an alarmingly high rate, which had the consequence of putting Dallas in plenty of third and long situations. In fact, the Cowboys ended up having the sixth most third-down attempts - and second most of any playoff team - with a whopping 43.7% of them needing at least seven yards to go.
That put Prescott at a distinct disadvantage, as defenses didn’t need to worry about the run and could simply pin their ears back and rush against an offensive line that was consistently near the bottom of the league all year in pass block win rate. In fact, the Cowboys threw on 86% of their third and long scenarios this year, putting Prescott in the position of having to play hero ball with regularity.
And, for the most part, Prescott stepped up to the plate. The Cowboys had the fifth best third-down conversion rate and Prescott himself was eighth in EPA/play and fourth in success rate on third down alone. Of course, the high risk nature of always having to throw on third and long bit the Cowboys a few times too: seven of Prescott’s 15 interceptions this year came on third down, while 10 of them were with more than 10 yards to go regardless of the down.
It bears repeating that all of this came after an offseason in which the front office oversaw a downgrading of the passing offense - trading away Amari Cooper, letting Cedrick Wilson walk, overestimating Michael Gallup’s recovery from an ACL tear, thinking James Washington was enough to offset it all - while talking about Prescott needing to elevate everything around him. It’s clear that he did his very best, and did a better job than Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay without Davante Adams, but there’s a limit to how much one man can do.
That limit gets even lower if the coaching fails as well, and Moore repeatedly refused to do several very simple things that could have made Prescott’s life a little easier. Moore got away from play-action all too often and seemingly forgot he was allowed to scheme up deep shots, two of Prescott’s biggest strengths as a passer. On top of all that, Moore lit the offense on fire on first and second down, routinely asking Prescott to bail the team out on third and long in an ‘all-or-nothing, gotta have it’ situation. Then we wonder why Prescott threw so many interceptions.
The Cowboys clearly have talent on offense, and Moore had plenty of moments as a coordinator where he looked like a genius teeming with creativity, but a closer examination of the things he was doing - and, more importantly, not doing - makes it easy to see how he failed to set his quarterback up for success.