Dak Prescott was an after-thought in the NFL draft. “He’s not worth watching” and “He’s Tebow” were two of the phrases I remember when I asked people I respect if he was worth watching. You see, I only turn my attention to the draft after the NFL season ends so I ultimately only watch 100 or so prospects. I rely on the full-time draft guys to point me in the right direction of guys who are worth my time.
I regret not watching Dak.
After two games with the Cowboys, Prescott didn’t look like anything special. He was a huge upgrade over Kellen Moore and the corpse of Matt Cassel’s career but he wasn’t really showing off a high-quality skill set. He was making routine plays, showing off some patience in the pocket and taking care of the football. His accuracy was erratic and he wasn’t attacking different coverages while showing off subtlety with his process in the pocket.
He was fine. A serviceable starter who allowed a talented Dallas Cowboys offense to function effectively enough for them to win games.
That changed in Week 3.
Above is the Cowboys’ second offensive snap of the game. Akiem Hicks destroys Travis Frederick on this play. That in itself is a sight to behold because it’s rare that Frederick would lose a matchup so badly. Frederick’s failure puts immediate pressure on Prescott in the pocket.
Interior pressure is typically the toughest for a quarterback to function against. Edge pressure can be mitigated with pocket movement more easily because you can step forward with a posture that allows you to comfortably release the ball.
Prescott can’t step up. In fact, he doesn’t step into this throw at all. He actually throws the ball while jumping into the air to avoid the bodies that arrive at his feet.
Because he has correctly diagnosed the coverage and released the ball at the right time, there is no danger of his feet leading to a turnover here. His pass is slightly high and slightly slow, but Dez Bryant is able to work back through it before turning upfield for a first down.
On his second dropback, Prescott is facing a Second-and-6. He is alone in the backfield with three receivers to his right and two to his left. His three receivers and one tight end release vertically downfield at the snap. His running back, who lined up in the slot to the left, runs a short curl to act as a checkdown. His running back is covered from the beginning of the play.
Prescott’s left guard is beaten and none of his receivers are open. He recognizes that the defense is playing man coverage and there is nobody spying him. Without rushing his decision making, Prescott leaves the pocket and scrambles for six yards and an easy first down.
Cole Beasley gets pummelled on this play. With a rookie starter who has limited experience, the natural conclusion is that the quarterback led him into a heavy hit. Sometimes, as a receiver, you have got get pummelled for the play to work as designed. Especially as a possession receiver.
Prescott didn’t throw Beasley into a hit unnecessarily. He held the ball long enough for Beasley to clear the traffic over the middle of the field and delivered as early as he could. The young quarterback did this while the pocket around him closed. Prescott had pressure in his face but kept his eyes downfield and maintained his posture to throw the ball with a stout foundation.
There wasn’t a receiver open elsewhere who he missed. This was the best option on Third-and-6. Beasley gained six yards but was marked just short of the first down marker.
Regular starting left tackle Tyron Smith didn’t play in this game. His replacement struggled. That was highlighted on this play as Prescott is forced to step up in the pocket while reading the coverage downfield. He buys time with his feet in the pocket, maintaining his stance to throw the ball at all times, before releasing the ball from a condensed pocket.
Had Prescott released the ball earlier, tight end Jason Witten would have had a chance to turn into the endzone. Instead, Prescott’s pass was slightly late and slightly underthrown. The play still gained 18 yards and Prescott’s work in the pocket to mitigate pressure was more significant than his slight inaccuracy.
After this play, Prescott forced his way into the endzone for a rushing touchdown.
That was his first drive of the game. Look back on those plays. Notice anything? Seriously, look back and see if you can recognize a trend that I haven’t mentioned so far in this article. Did you see it? On all but one of those plays, Prescott set the protection for his offensive line.
During a week when fellow rookie Carson Wentz was compared to Peyton Manning pre-snap and Aaron Rodgers post-snap, Prescott’s control of his offense has barely been mentioned, if at all.
For a fourth-round pick who had played in just two games, Prescott’s acumen diagnosing defenses and altering his offense to take advantage of what the defense is doing was spectacular in this game. He repeatedly identified linebackers to anchor the protection off or directed his running back to the right spot. He even executed full-blown audibles, communicating with all 10 of his teammates through hand signals while aggressively calling out a different play.
The Cowboys put him in the backfield alone on a few occasions, trusting that he would make the right decision to get rid of the ball quickly if he had to.
Take this play in the second quarter for example. Prescott is alone in the backfield with five receivers spread across the field. It’s Second-and-6. Your computer isn’t broken, the gif doesn’t show you the ball being snapped. Instead it looks exclusively at the coverage and what happens before the snap. The Cowboys line up early in the play clock. That gives Prescott time to work the defense.
With a hard count, Prescott gets two of the Bears linebackers to make sharp movements. Those movements are hard to see from this angle but they you’ll be able to notice the subtle jumps if you focus on them.
Those subtle but sharp movements tell Prescott all he needs to know. He knows both linebackers are at the very least going to move forward at the snap, even if they don’t fully follow through as pass rushers.
Knowing that at least one of those linebackers is coming makes it likely that the Bears are blitzing. If they are blitzing, Prescott knows he will have someone open to his left based on how the defense lines up. He has single coverage outside for Terrance Williams.
Prescott finds Williams with a timely, well-placed throw as an unblocked defender comes from the other side of the field. He neutered the blitz with his acumen pre-snap and timing post-snap.
Williams is about to step into a greater role in the Cowboys offense because of Dez Bryant’s fractured tibial plateau. That’s a major problem for Prescott and the Cowboys offense. Williams can get open and he’s really fast, but he’s unreliable. He showcased that when he ruined Prescott’s best play of this game against the Bears.
Prescott’s actions were completely ignored on the broadcast of this game because Williams fumbled. Neither Cris Collinsworth or Al Michaels revisited how Prescott’s audible and precision throw led to a big play. He used a variety of hand signals for his receivers while calling “Arizona” and pointing out the linebacker for the offensive line to set its protection off of.
Once the play began, Prescott hits Williams in stride by manipulating the trajectory of his pass so it clears the linebacker who leaps directly in the passing lane.
If you want to talk about a rookie doing something that should never be expected of a rookie, this is it. Quarterbacks play in this league for a decade without being able to make that adjustment before the snap. The throw itself requires a level of arm talent that Prescott himself hadn’t really shown through two games. It wasn’t just about strength it was about controlling the flight of the ball.
Combining the two traits made for a spectacular play that was unjustly overshadowed by an element that is irrelevant to the evaluation of the quarterback.
Prescott later threw a touchdown to Bryant when he diagnosed Cover-1 before the snap based on the defense’s alignment. He was alone in the backfield with five receivers spread across the formation. Bryant was running a skinny post to his right, so he opened the play looking left to hold the safety to that side of the field. The decisiveness with which Prescott turned back to Bryant told us that he was always going to throw the ball there.
His timing and placement on that throw was perfect for Bryant to run through the ball and into the endzone.
Prescott knows this is Tony Romo’s team. He said as much to Dallasnews.com after Week 2, “This is Romo’s team. I’m just trying to do my best to win games and put this team in a successful position to do that week in and week out and when he comes back I’ll leave that up to the big guys.”
While Prescott is saying the right things, it’s unlikely he’ll be excited about returning to the bench. The former Mississippi State prospect expected to be this effective in the NFL, via USA Today:
“The offense we ran at Mississippi State was nothing short of an NFL offense,” Prescott said. “The only thing that was different is that we didn’t go under center. I swear to you, in (pre-draft) visits, every play they showed me, I could name it. We just called it something different. At another team I visited, they ran the exact same stuff we ran.
“Knowledge-wise, I think I’m the smartest quarterback that came in this class. I would love to go on the board and go head to head with anybody else. That’s how I feel. That’s how confident I am.”
After Week 3, it’s hard to argue against him.