After listening to some postgame analysis and reading countless comments on the game, I finally found time to watch the Cowboys' fiasco in Phoenix. I appears that the offseason plan to become a team that can stop the run while rushing the ball effectively has only been partially successful to this point in the season, as Dallas rushed for an impressive 185 yards, but Arizona tore through Doomsday for 222 yards.
I felt that Dallas drafted a run-stuffing defensive tackle in the first round, a blocking tight end in the second round, a dynamic linebacker that could bring a little more size to the position in the third round, a second defensive lineman in the fourth round, an offensive tackle in the fifth round, and a running back in the sixth round, to force opposing offenses into more passing downs to unleash the ferocious Cowboys' pass rush, produce turnovers, and to take pressure off of Prescott offensively with a reliable running game. To me, the Cowboys' offseason was an admission that Dak needed more help to win games.
In 2022, the Cowboys' overreliance on Dak led to an unprecedented number of interceptions from the quarterback. Falling behind in games forces more passing, and against Arizona, led to an interception in the end zone. Dallas also simplified the offense for Prescott by changing to a West Coast derivation. This Texas Coast offense is based on timing, pre-snap reads, and is mostly comprised of short to medium distance throws, requiring accuracy. Dak has shown good accuracy on his deep balls in the past, and the Texas Coast appears to provide opportunities to toss it deep from time to time.
What I saw from Dak on Sunday in Phoenix was a quarterback that primarily threw to his first read. When he was unable to deliver the ball to his primary target, he either ran, was sacked, threw to a back in the flat, or threw the ball away. I feel that there are two possible reasons for Dak's performance on Sunday:
1. He is still learning the offense.
2. This is as good as he gets reading defenses.
Of course, those that endorse Dak will point to number one, while the readers that denounce Dak will find evidence to support number two. It is probably somewhere along a continuum, but it could be between 99% of one and 1% of the other, or 50-50.
It takes time to adapt to a new offense. While I am certain that Prescott could draw out all the plays, I would not be surprised if he has not learned the offense to the point where he can intuitively find the open man in less than a second. An athlete needs repetitions against many different looks to make the type of quick decisions necessary to succeed in competition. Dak did not play against different personnel in the preseason and is three games into the new offense.
McCarthy adjusted the game plan to assist Dak in getting rid of the ball quickly, since three starting offensive linemen were out. Many of Dallas' offensive sets had one receiver on one side with multiple receivers on the other. The pre-snap read dictated which side of the field Dak would attack. When he went to the side with numerous receivers, the combination of routes made for an easy read to get the ball to the receiver in single coverage or with leverage. Screen passes to running backs and receivers complemented the offensive strategy with a few deep passes into single coverage.
Dak dropped back 45 times. He ran out of the pocket and gained yards three times. Prescott was sacked twice, the second time while he was looking for a second receiver. Of his 40 passes, 33 attempts went to his first read. He dumped the ball off or threw it away six times.
On a positive note, the receivers won most of their matchups and Dak did a good job with his pre-snap reads. He consistently chose the correct receiver in the combination routes. Unfortunately, it appears that he did not see the linebacker (with whom he was jawing earlier in the game) drop into the middle zone when he threw his interception in the end zone. That was a bad read and resembled a lot of what happened in the game against San Francisco that ended last season.
Because of the lack of offense and the interception in the end zone, it is possible that Dak has not made the necessary changes from last season. The simplistic play calling may indicate a lack of faith in Dak, or simply be compensation for missing three starting offensive linemen. Penalties, questionable officiating, poor passes, and bad execution contributed to the Cowboys' red zone failures.
It is easy, but wrong, to state that Dak cannot lead this team to a Super Bowl victory. Only four quarterbacks in the NFL have currently won a Super Bowl, and Russell Wilson's team just lost 70-20. Aaron Rogers is out for the season, Matt Stafford's Rams are 1-2, and All-World Patrick Mahomes is 2-1. Let me know if I am forgetting anyone. If every team carries three quarterbacks, only 4% of NFL quarterbacks in 2023 have won a Super Bowl.
Pretty easy to bet that Dak Prescott is one of those 96%. Let's see if he improves as he learns the offense, and if McCarthy runs some more sophisticated sets as the season progresses. There is plenty of time before the divisional round of the playoffs, where Dak and Dallas usually come up short.
PS. Maybe next time I will write about how every time Dak pumps the ball bad things happen. Whether that is a habit, he does it when confused, or he is compensating for a bad route/read, he needs to stop.