If you pay attention to the NFL, specifically if you pay attention to the Dallas Cowboys, you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz surrounding the Dallas Cowboys new starting quarterback, Dak Prescott. Going into his second year, the Mississippi State product is looking to build on a season that saw him throw for complete 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just 4 interceptions. That’s in addition to him running for another 6 scores, setting a new single-season franchise record. Prescott was so good, in fact, he ultimately forced then face-of-the-franchise QB, Tony Romo into retirement. But even with the job unquestionably his now, doubt continues to swirl around the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year on the national stage. But before you call Dak the next RG3 or Colin Kaepernick, consider the following:
Dallas is returning his entire coaching staff
One problem second-year quarterbacks often face is change. Most of the time, these young QBs who set the league on fire are high draft picks taken by mediocre teams coming off a bad season. As such, it’s common for these players to see changes in their coaching staff, be it their offensive coordinator, or even their head coach. This change affects the consistency of their offensive play calling or system, thereby erasing a fair bit of the familiarity that player might have had going into year two. Dak doesn’t have this problem.
The coaching staff is unchanged and OC Scott Linehan is more than ready to give Dak more freedom within the offense. Last year, considering Dak didn’t even become the starter (by necessity) until the very end of training camp, he didn’t get the chance to build a lot of rapport with his receivers. This led to Dak turning to perennial security blankets, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten early and often -especially once Dez went down in week 3 with a fracture just below the knee. Put simply, Dak took what was there for much of the first half of the season, leaning on fellow rookie, Ezekiel Elliott and the run game to carry the bulk of the load behind the best offensive line in football. Expect Year Two to see a lot more freedom with regard to calling audibles based on what he sees. And if Zeke is suspended for any length of time, expect Prescott to shoulder more of the weight.
To some, this might seem a daunting task for a young QB, especially when we just detailed how his early career did more to minimize the workload. The difference is what we saw down the stretch of the season. As the season wore on, teams began to stack the box against the run and take away the underneath routes to Beasley and Witten. This forced Dak to progress through his reads and fit some balls into tight windows. It might not have been stellar right out of the gate, but as Dez returned to form over the final five weeks, Prescott’s deep ball became a bigger part of the offense. Now, given a full offseason to build and work on his rapport with Dez and the rest of his receivers. Speaking of which…
His entire receiving core is back (except for Lucky Whitehead)
Another big change young quarterbacks often encounter is substantial change to their receiving core. The familiarity and previously mentioned rapport developed is essential. If you learn the tendencies and caveats of your teammates’ game then resetting the next training camp and starting from scratch obviously isn’t ideal. Dallas resigned both of its wide receiver free agents, Brice Butler and Terrance Williams to team friendly deals to ensure Prescott maintained that familiarity. And, until the drama surrounding Lucky Whitehead became a bit too much to stomach, they were set to return the entire receiving core. Even still, the additions of Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, the latter of which is admittedly likely to end up on the practice squad, only makes the Dallas offense more dynamic. If Lucky Whitehead is Dak’s only change at receivers, he should be plenty familiar. Besides, Whitehead was a long shot to make the roster anyway given Switzer’s punt return and slot receiver abilities.
Protecting the Ball
What was the big criticism of Prescott’s game last year? The deep ball. That’s understandable given he wasn’t viewed as an especially gifted passer in college and that he didn’t even get starter-quality reps in camp until after the third preseason game. While some would say taking what the defense gives you and minimizing risk is an indicator of a “bus driver,” Prescott’s 29 total touchdowns, 3,667 yards and mere 10 turnovers (4INTs, 6FBL) would say otherwise. But interceptions don’t necessarily sum up how secure Prescott was with the ball. According to an analytical study from Cian Fahey, Prescott threw just 13 interceptable passes in 17 games (playoff game included).
Three of those passes came in said playoff game, meaning only 10 regular season passes were questionable. To give that number perspective, the league average was 21.8. Want more context? Of his 459 total attempts, just 2.6% of Dak’s attempts were labeled “interceptable,” or, one every 38.2 attempts. That’s not just solid, that’s phenomenal. Still not convinced? The Ticket’s Bob Sturm went a step further and determined that if you take Prescott’s two worst performances (vs Philadelphia and at New York), you’re only looking at 4 interceptable passes on the season. Obviously, he’ll need to improve against division rivals, but that kind of ball security while still putting up big numbers is undeniable. Dak is no bus driver. He’s also no gunslinger. Instead, his numbers place him firmly within that happy median, a place he can still ball out without compromising his team’s chances. And finally…
His game isn’t built on athleticism
This may seem like an odd thing to say given what we’ve seen from Dak in his young career but it bears mentioning. Think about it: what’s a key difference between Dak and someone like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick? RG3 and Kaep did most of their damage with their legs, utilizing unparalleled athleticism to stay one step ahead of the defense. The problem with that lies in film room. Over time, defenses learned how to contain guys like RG3 and Kaepernick, forcing them to read exotic defenses and beat them with their arm. So while both guys had strong arms, they were both undone to some extent by the more cerebral aspects of the game (also injuries in RG3’s case).
The key difference as it relates to Dak is that while he can run, and often did at Mississippi State, his game wasn’t predicated on running last season, 57 attempts for 282 yards and 6 scores. Instead, Dak beat defenses with his arm and his head while amassing a 104.9 passer rating. Progressing through his reads, he utilized the weapons at his disposal and picked apart opponents to the tune of 13 wins in 16 games (excluding @ Philly where he only played in the first series).
Only time will tell whether Dak struggles in his sophomore season, but based on the evidence, all signs point toward another productive season.