When you’re the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, all eyes are on you. It’s been that way for Dak Prescott from the moment he stepped onto the field during his rookie season. Over the years, the Cowboys have gradually catered to his needs as they built the team around him. Sometimes that has meant putting an emphasis on fundamentally sound receivers, and other times it’s just putting the right guy in his ear.
Today, we’re going to venture through Dak’s career and examine his passing yards per game and try to determine what meaningful events had the most influence on his success. It’s been a little bit of an up-and-down career for Prescott and we want to see if there are any clear connections to some of the big changes the Cowboys have made over the years. Here is his yards per game breakdown over his 97 career games.
The game manager
Prescott was supposed to be a fourth-round development guy who worked behind Tony Romo and boy genius Kellen Moore, but both of those guys suffered injuries before the regular season began thrusting the rookie Prescott into action. And as we know, it’s a gig Prescott never relinquished.
Early on, Dak was perceived as a “bus driver” who had the luxury of operating behind a great rushing attack led by another rookie sensation, Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott finished his rookie season averaging 229 yards per game and a still-to-this-day career-high 104.9 passer rating.
X doesn’t mark the spot
Things didn’t go so well for Prescott in his second season and the reasoning could be blamed on various things. Some people believed that teams had a lot more tape on him and defenses were more equipped to figure him out. Others point to a November contest against the Atlanta Falcons where he got his clock cleaned as he was sacked eight times in that game. Prescott appeared skittish as the Cowboys dropped three-straight games and Dak had a four-game stretch where he didn’t reach 180 yards passing. Prescott finished with a career-low 208 yards per game average.
That year also marked the last season for veteran receiver Dez Bryant as he struggled to gain separation and started having balls slip out of his hands. Bryant's numbers down the stretch were abysmal and the team opted to go a different direction in 2018. Unfortunately, the team didn’t have the answers as the cheap additions of Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, and Deonte Thompson just didn’t cut it.
He’s worth a first
The poor evaluation of the wide receiver position group in 2018 forced the front office to make a move when they traded a 2019 first-round draft pick for Oakland Raiders receiver Amari Cooper. The young receiver hit the ground running, immediately bolstering the passing attack. The Cowboys went from offensive futility to suddenly explosive just by adding the former Alabama star. The Cowboys re-signed him to a five-year, $100 million extension in 2020.
Cooper played three and a half seasons with the Cowboys, putting up 1,000+ yards in his first three. Unfortunately, Cooper’s numbers dipped in 2021, and with the emergence of another first-round pick, CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys didn’t feel they could justify the cap resources for Cooper and he was shipped to Cleveland.
Prior to Cooper arriving, Dak was averaging just 216 yards per game, but that skyrocketed to 297 yards per game during the time when Cooper was catching passes for the Cowboys.
It’s CeeDee's house now
The team put their faith that Lamb was the real deal, and as it turned out, he was. Lamb’s numbers have gotten better each year he’s been in the league, including a career-high 1,359-yard All-Pro season last year. Sadly, the team had no answer outside of Lamb as Michael Gallup was a shell of his former self after a season-ending knee injury the prior year. With no Cooper and no supporting help for Lamb, Prescott’s numbers dropped to just 238 yards per game.
The student becomes the teacher
It’s so weird how the Cowboys quarterback/coaching circle of life panned out. Prescott is in Dallas because his former head coach, Jason Garrett, strongly advocated for him. And former backup quarterback Kellen Moore was brought to Dallas because of his time with Scott Linehan in Detroit. Strangely, it would be Dak who replaced Moore (and Tony) and then Moore who eventually replaced Linehan as offensive coordinator.
The Cowboys' offense took off with Moore calling the shots in Dallas and Prescott worked well with his former teammate by his side. Dak’s yards per game went up a full 60 yards from 227 under Linehan to 287 under Moore.
As mentioned before, 2022 was a struggle for the passing game and while the lack of receiving talent is one reason, the play-calling was deemed another as the Cowboys moved on from Moore in favor of head coach Mike McCarthy calling the plays.
With so many different pieces influencing Prescott’s game, what do you think is the most influential component? Did the Cowboys make a huge mistake by trading away Cooper? Are they making another one by not keeping Moore around? What are the circumstances that have helped Prescott have success throwing the ball? To help provide some answers, we’ve decided to take Prescott’s game log a little further and break it down by the different events that have affected the passing game.
Amari Cooper is the smoking gun. There is no better revelation than the 202 to 274 split during the 2018 season after they acquired him from the Raiders. And whether Moore should’ve been let go or not remains to be seen, but he was a clear upgrade over Linehan. It is worth noting that Linehan also benefited when Cooper showed up, albeit he was only around for the beginning of it.
What does that mean for the Cowboys going forward?
Now, we’re Cook’n?
The Cowboys are upping their resources at wide receiver as they traded for the proven veteran Brandin Cooks. This may seem like they are going backward as they just had a proven veteran in Cooper, but props to the Cowboys for recognizing their misstep, and kudos to them for landing Cooks for half the price of Cooper.
The team is hoping the trio of Lamb, Cooks, and a healthier Gallup will provide answers. They appear to be firm believers that this avenue is the right path versus that of the play-calling prowess of Moore because he is now residing in southern California. Yards per game aren’t the end-all, be-all tell of a quarterback’s performance, but it does paint a picture of what a team is capable of through the air. If there is truth to the splits that the above graph shows, then having a legit alpha receiver with two quality counterparts will be just what Prescott needs to get rolling again.