Statistical regression is coming for Dak Prescott.
Prescott’s rookie season was too far of an outlier for it to be repeated. Only four times in history has a quarterback attempted 400 passes and thrown four-or-fewer interceptions. Tom Brady is responsible for two of those. No other rookie quarterback ever threw that many passes and finished the season with a 67.76 completion percentage. Prescott was the 17th passer in history to accrue that completion percentage while averaging at least 7.99 yards per attempt.
The efficiency with which Prescott played last year was startling. Especially for a player who wasn’t expected to start after being selected in the fourth round. Statistically it was the greatest rookie season in the history of the NFL.
Of course that needs to come with a caveat. The evolution of NFL offenses and the changing rules mean that it’s easier than ever for quarterbacks to put up big numbers. Furthermore, Prescott played behind a great offensive line with a good set of receivers in an offense that relied heavily on the run to set up the pass. When he did throw the ball there were a large percentage of plays that set up easy completions for him with smart route combinations or hard play fakes.
Nick Foles’ presence still hangs over super-efficient quarterbacks like a bad five o’clock shadow.
Foles threw 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2013. Like Prescott, he played behind a great offensive line. Like Prescott, he had a great running game. Like Prescott, his coach was scheming receivers open for easier throws. Unlike Prescott, he was constantly throwing the ball to defenders and missing wide open big plays.
The black-and-white nature of sports—every game has a winner and a loser—means that evaluation often takes on an ‘if you’re not one you’re the other’ tone. Prescott wasn’t the greatest rookie quarterback in the history of football. He also wasn’t Nick Foles.
Foles had an interception rate of 0.57 percent during his outlier season. He had an interceptable pass rate of 5.43 percent, he threw a pass that should have been intercepted once every 18 attempts. Prescott’s interception rate last year was 1.06 percent, his interceptable pass rate was 2.62 percent as he threw a pass that should have been intercepted once every 38 attempts.
Only 10 percent of Foles’ interceptable passes were caught whereas almost 40 percent of Prescott’s were.
Prescott was right at the league average for the percent of his interceptable passes that were caught. Only five quarterbacks had a better interceptable pass rate than Prescott. He wasn’t relying on luck to avoid turning the ball over. He benefited from playing in a good situation but the primary reason for his success was his decision making and poise in the pocket.
It’s easier to be a productive quarterback playing from clean pockets but it still requires patience and an ability to process what is happening in front of you so you can react accordingly. A quarterback who gets time in the pocket but stares down one receiver or rushes his decision to throw/scramble is wasting opportunities to attack the defense. He’s also more likely to run himself into sacks and lead defenders to the ball for interceptions.
From as early as the first preseason game, Prescott was showing off an ability to diagnose the pass rush instantly at the snap. If the defense blitzed, he knew to get rid of the ball and was able to find his hot route. If the defense rushed four or fewer, he understood that he had to hold the ball in the pocket to give his receivers time to run their routes downfield.
When he was pressured, that ability to react accordingly didn’t go away.
Prescott obviously got more clean pockets than most quarterbacks during his rookie season but he wasn’t reliant on clean pockets to be effective. He made plays against pressure, especially when his line was missing starters because of injury early in the season, and showed off an ability to sit alone in shotgun while correctly setting protections to counter potential blitzes.
That poise is the starting point for Prescott’s success. It’s what allowed him to build out a wide skill set, establishing a foundation from which he can develop his proficiency as a passer. After his rookie season Prescott is already a good passer but he’s a better quarterback than he is a pure thrower. Prescott is already advanced at mitigating pressure in the pocket with his movement, at delivering the ball against arriving hits, at diagnosing coverages and at cycling through progressions.
He doesn’t need to get better in the areas that typically improve with greater experience. The only way Prescott can make major strides forward as a player is by becoming a different type of thrower.
Charting for the Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue revealed Prescott as the quarterback with the 11th-highest accuracy percentage in the league. His 75.6 percent was 8.2 percent behind the most accurate quarterback and two percent above the league average. Overall accuracy percentages are useful for highlighting how effective a player was in his specific role. The problem is every quarterback has a different role.
To get an idea of Prescott’s ability as a passer we have to dive a little deeper into the charting.
Prescott’s accuracy was remarkably consistent. He ranked ninth, 10th or 11th in five of the six yard depth ranges. His outlier depth, 11-15, was only slightly below the 63.53 percent league average. The results make it clear that Prescott isn’t a limited passer by depth. He isn’t the type of player who struggles to consistently complete short throws or hit deep routes.
He doesn’t close off the field to let the defense be more aggressive on underneath throws.
Whenever a smart, technically-refined and poised quarterback plays behind a high-quality pass-blocking line with a great running game, he will consistently find wide open receivers. Prescott’s play combined with the benefits afforded to him by his situation meant that he could often avoid attacking tight coverages. He didn’t play with an aggressive mindset, he was much more likely to take the higher percentage play to Jason Witten or Cole Beasley underneath rather than search out the big play to Dez Bryant in tighter coverage.
As a rookie Prescott completed the passes you expect a quarterback to complete at an exceptionally high rate. He kept the offense ahead of the down-and-distance, complementing the strong running game with smart plays.
That is where the style of thrower matters as much as the accuracy of the thrower. Prescott didn’t throw a high percent of his passes behind the line of scrimmage, his passes concentrated past the line of scrimmage to short and intermediate routes. 52.5 percent of his passes travelled to the 1-10 yard range, 11th most in the league, while 23.32 percent of his passes travelled to the 11-20 yard range, eighth most in the league.
Prescott was willing to take shots downfield and he could rely on his intelligence and timing to attack windows over the middle of the field. He has a strong arm but didn’t show off a particularly wide range of trajectory control during his rookie season. Prescott can fit the ball into tight windows downfield but it’s not something he excels at.
His skill set combined with his situation meant that Prescott didn’t need to play with an aggressive mindset. As a thrower he didn’t need to attack tight windows. He took calculated shots downfield at times and, encouragingly, looked good when doing it.
If he is to take a step forward in his second season, Prescott needs to diversify the passing game by taking on a more aggressive approach while showing off greater trajectory control. For as good as the rookie was at setting protections and calling full-blown audibles from five-wide sets, two hugely impressive things for someone so young, the Cowboys’ passing game as a whole was still somewhat limited.
According to this year’s Football Outsiders Almanac, the Cowboys ran on first down 58 percent of the time last year. That was first in the league by three percent and more than 10 percent above the league average. It makes sense for a team with Ezekiel Elliott and a great offensive line to run the ball on early downs but the Cowboys also led the league in running while trailing in the second half of games and ranked in the bottom five of the league for shotgun/pistol plays.
Play action passing was a huge part of the Cowboys offense.
The Quarterback Catalogue revealed that Prescott had the second-highest play action percentage at 18.11 percent but only gained 21.94 percent of his yards off of play action, fifth most in the league. Prescott had by far the highest percentage of play action plays where he left the pocket by design (hard play fakes) yet the offense still struggled to create big plays. Prescott’s reluctance to be aggressive with his deep threats in these situations needs to change.
Because of their quarterback’s mindset and the structure of the offense, the Cowboys were tied for the third-fewest passing plays that gained 20-or-more yards last year. Altering that mindset and showing off a greater ability to make higher-degree-of-difficulty throws will allow Prescott to create more big plays which will be integral for offsetting the inevitable blemishes that will come from his efficiency regressing.
Even if Prescott only adds more mistakes and doesn’t take those steps forward, the offense around him and the width of his established skill set should still allow the offense to be one of the better units in the league.
The Cowboys offense is able to dictate the play to opposing defenses every week. That makes Prescott’s job easier because the offense can determine which matchup they want to attack depending on how the defense lines up. If they come out in base personnel and drop a safety into the box, Prescott can use a hard play fake to take a shot downfield into distorted coverage or find Ezekiel Elliott with a matchup advantage outside. If the defense comes out in a nickel package, the Cowboys can rely on Jason Witten and the offensive line to run the ball easily.
A slow transition to an offense that features more shotgun formations—Elliott can run from shotgun and pass protect brilliantly—will take place so long as Prescott shows growth with his touch passing, anticipation and aggression.
Ironically, Tony Romo is the ideal foil for Prescott to study as he continues to develop. The Cowboys will hope to replace with Romo vs Dak debates with Prescott emulating the elements of Romo’s play that made people clamour for him last season even while the team was winning. Development is always difficult to predict but Prescott having a wide skill set already established will allow him to work on specific things more than trying to improve his whole game.
While it’s not always indicative, the quarterback also made more of the types of throws he needs to get better at over the second half of his rookie season. If that trajectory sustains Prescott will be the biggest name in the NFL sooner rather than later.