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Evaluating Dak, Part II: What factors are making things harder for Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott?

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Today, we have the second part of our three-part Dak Prescott evaluation.

Love him or hate him, Dak Prescott is one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. Sports media outlets spend countless hours talking about him as they repeatedly capitalize on the cash cow that is the Dallas Cowboys.

Lately, the Cowboys franchise quarterback has given them a lot to talk about. The question of whether or not Prescott has what it takes to lead this team to a Super Bowl has been heavily debated. It’s the answer everyone wants to know.

We are going to take a jab at answering it as we evaluate Dak and look ahead at what we think is best for this Cowboys team. On Monday, we offered up a few of the most trusted quarterback metrics and tried to make sense of the up and downs of Prescott’s career. Here are those metrics.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at some of the more recent happenings and see if we can gather any additional meaningful information.

McCarthy is allowing Dak a lot of freedom

We all know that McCarthy wants Prescott to let it rip and even amidst all the interceptions, he has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want Prescott to stop being aggressive. And the stats back that up. This season, Dak had 19.8% of his throws in tight windows where there was a defender within one yard or less from his target. This level of aggressiveness was the highest it’s been in six years; however, it should be noted that aggressiveness doesn’t necessarily correlate with good or bad quarterback play. In two of Dak’s best seasons at quarterback (2016 and 2019) he had high aggressive levels. McCarthy is right. Dak should continue to let it rip. Data below courtesy of Next Gen Stats.

Kellen Moore was good for Dak

There are times were we can look at a replay and think Prescott never had much of a chance based on the play call, but those instances are few and far between when you consider his entire body of work. The reality is, the Cowboys’ young former coordinator has done a fantastic job calling plays. Our own David Howman did a great job breaking this down, but there are two overwhelmingly convincing arguments in favor of Moore. One, the Cowboys’ offense has been one of the best in the league since he has taken over as OC, and two, Moore is constantly being considered for head coaching jobs. There is no way organizations would even consider him if they didn’t closely examine his play-calling repertoire and see something great.

Of course, the Cowboys organization doesn’t feel that way as news broke this week that Moore would not be retained in Dallas. He has since already lined up a new OC job with the Chargers.

He could use a little more help around him

There are many that believe that Prescott doesn’t have enough viable weapons around him. And there is some truth to this as outside of CeeDee Lamb, none of their receivers can separate. Below are the Cowboys' wide receivers (T.Y. Hilton didn’t have enough plays to qualify) with their average yards of separation shown on top with their WR rankings shown on the bottom.

As you can see, even Lamb isn’t an elite separator, but the other guys struggle immensely. And since many fans are upset about giving away Amari Cooper, we’ve included his numbers as well to show that separation wasn’t a big skill for him this past season (data is courtesy of NFL Next Gen Stats).

It’s also worth noting that Lamb and Gallup’s separation numbers are quite consistent with where they’ve been each season, so we can’t point to outside factors (i.e. recovering from a knee injury) as the culprits. Expect more of the same moving forward. While the tools have been good enough at times, Prescott could stand to use a little extra help.

Dak has plenty of protection

The Cowboys have had a lot of fluctuation along the offensive line in recent years. Most notable was the 2020 shuffle that saw many different players grace the offensive line. But despite the team’s struggle for continuity, the Cowboys are pretty good about giving Prescott a fighting chance. Outside of a challenging 2018 season, Prescott has been near the bottom in pressure percentage per dropback (data courtesy of advanced passing stats from Pro Football Reference).

Injuries have had a lingering effect

One thing that is weird about Prescott’s performances over the last few years is that they become quite contrasting after an injury. In 2019, he had one of his better seasons overall but struggled down the stretch. A shoulder injury made him an absolute non-factor in a critical Week 16 divisional contest against the Philadelphia Eagles where the Cowboys offense never scored a touchdown and ultimately ending their playoff chances.

In 2020, he was lost for the season after five games with that devastating ankle injury. In 2021, he suffered a calf injury in overtime against New England, and we could see a difference in his play down the stretch of the season.

This past season, Prescott suffered a thumb fracture that resulted in him having a plate inserted. While he did come back and was electric at times, who is to say he wasn’t experiencing any inconsistencies when gripping the ball? There were times when his throws were off target or arrived just a smidge late. Could the thumb injury have caused him to take a little zing on the ball? Injury information courtesy of draftsharks.com.

What does this all mean?

Outside of upgrading their wide receiving group, there aren’t any smoking guns as to why Prescott has struggled at times. Being completely healthy could be the biggest factor. It would be nice to see him have a year free of injury as he hasn’t had that since 2018. The Cowboys don’t need any major shakeups on this offense to make it work, so the question now becomes, what should they do next? Can they just stay the course and hope for better days or are changes needed? That’s the topic of our final segment in this series as we ponder what the Cowboys should do with Prescott’s contract going forward.


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