By David Kang
After a wildly successful 2016 campaign where he led the Cowboys to an NFC best 13-3 record, brought home Rookie of the Year honors, and arguably had the best rookie QB season of all time, Dak Prescott still doesn’t get the respect that he deserves. Pundits often discredit Prescott’s performance because of his supporting cast. “He has the best offensive line in football,” “Zeke Elliott is the heart and soul of that offense,” “Dez Bryant leads one of the best stable of weapons in football.” While these are all valid points, though these same points are often omitted when talking about other quarterbacks (*cough* Derek Carr *cough*), they fail to analyze Prescott’s actual performance itself within the context of the talent around him and too often make it seem like any old Joe off the street could run the Cowboys offense.
Combining this disrespect for Prescott’s abilities and the aforementioned anomalous nature of Prescott’s rookie season, many expected a regression from the Cowboys. Although their record at 5-3 is certainly an indication of regression, the offense is still humming along. The Cowboys ranked 5th in DVOA% on Offense in 2016 and rank 4th through Week 9 of the 2017 season despite the OL and Zeke Elliott’s struggles in the early part of the season. This decline in performance in his supporting cast has been compensated by Dak’s improvements to main the stability of the offense. With an added year of experience, Dak has been much more aggressive in attacking the intermediate and deep part of the field.
It’s 2nd and 10 in the middle of the 1st quarter. The Chiefs play a Cover 2 Man with the DBs tight across the board. The Cowboys have a high-low concept in the middle of the field to trap the safeties into overplaying one route over the other. Dak recognizes the coverage and confirms it post-snap. He knows that he has Dez Bryant one on one in the right side running the deep dig with safety help over the top. To prevent the safety from jumping the deep dig, Dak looks to Witten post-snap long enough and times the throw perfectly with good accuracy that allows Dez to get yards after the catch.
On this play, the Cowboys execute a 2 man route concept with a play action fake onto an 8 man protection. The Cowboys are up 4 early in the 4th quarter on 1st and 10, and the Chiefs are likely expecting a run based on personnel (23) and alignment (Double TE set in the I). However, the Cowboys motion the H, Geoff Swaim #87, outside in a stack formation next to Dez Bryant. This is great play design as Swaim is mainly a clear out route to carry the safety in the middle of the field while leaving Dez isolated one on one in man coverage. The ball is lined up in the far right has with the receivers lined up +2 on the field side. With the heavy box and how hard the Chiefs are playing the run, Dez Bryant has plenty of room to work with to get open. Dak executes a good play fake, and Swaim does his job by clearing the middle of the field, leaving a wide-open throwing lane to Bryant on the deep dig. Dak throws with great anticipation and accuracy, but Dez loses the ball after the safety hits him and results in an incompletion.
This is 3rd and 7 in the beginning of the 2nd quarter with the Cowboys up 7. The Cowboys have a drive concept in the middle of the field with Bryant and Terrence Williams. Brice Butler is running a fly on the outside with Witten running a stop route as WR1 on the trips side. The Chiefs run a disguised blitz that is essentially a 6 man Cover 3. Dak sees tight coverage on Brice Butler on the outside and knows that he can bait the safety with Dez on the over route. Post-snap, Dak looks off the safety by staring down Bryant, quickly pivots after the Safety holds and Butler moves downfield, and drops a perfectly thrown ball to Butler 25 yards down the field, which he drops.
Aside from Dak’s mental savvy, you can see Dak’s poise in the pocket. He knows that a blitz is coming but does not rush his movements at all or drop his eyes to oncoming defenders. He remains disciplined in his footwork as they follow his eyes and remains tall as he delivers the ball while knowing that he’s going to get hit right afterwards. He does not curl up and fall like a Peyton Manning and is willing to sacrifice his body to make a play downfield.
Dak’s pocket feel and maneuverability is second to none in the league, and it makes him such a great fit with the Cowboys’ offensive line. The biggest factor in my opinion for the relatively lower respect of Dak across the league is how easy he makes things look in the pocket. He does not have crazy athletic ability or escapability like a Carson Wentz to make flashy highlight-worthy plays, but he maneuvers within the pocket and goes through his progressions with effortlessness that often belies the actual difficulty of the plays that he is making.
Notice the very small, subtle step that Dak takes at the very end of his drop. He knows that the rush is coming straight in his face and that the only way to deliver an accurate ball with good footwork is to take that small step backwards to give himself enough space. He does not drop his eyes directly at the rush at any point in this play and keeps his eyes on the target. The step is not very dramatic or pronounced to disrupt the timing of the delivery, but it is pronounced enough to create the distance needed while maintaining good body position for Dak to throw out of. While this is not a very flash or exciting play, this is some expert level pocket work that only a handful of quarterbacks across the league can execute.
Although this pass was inaccurate and incomplete, check the pocket work on this pass. Dak feels interior pressure coming, calmly sidesteps the pressure while maintaining his eyes down the field, and then steps up in the pocket to buy himself more time. Everything is very calm and under control with not a hint of panic.
Lastly, one of the defining traits of Dak Prescott as a quarterback is how quick his process is. Despite being such a young quarterback, Dak has a very good understanding of how to attack defenses and is one of the best at quickly determining that a throw is not there.
This is a 1st and 10 in the middle of the 1st quarter, and the Cowboys run a simple play action fake out of shotgun. Chiefs show off coverage on the outside, and Dez Bryant the WR on the left runs a simple 10-yard dig. Dak knows that whether or not he can throw to Dez on the dig depends all on how hard #57 LB bites on the play action fake. While the LB hesitates a little bit, he manages to drop back in his zone far enough to cover Bryant inside. Instead of lingering on the read longer than he has to (which many QBs will do), Dak quickly shifts to his 2nd read in the backside curl to Terrence Williams immediately after he sees that #57 didn’t bite on the fake. Dak is able to reset and position his feet well toward his target and throw an accurate pass on time to Williams for a good 8-yard gain.
In summary, Dak Prescott has shown measurable improvements from his already incredible rookie season with his increased aggression in attacking the intermediate portion of the field. Although Prescott might not be the most precise passer in terms of ball placement (as you saw in his incompletion above), his ability to attack down the field coupled with his elite pocket ability and near mental mastery of the position has placed him firmly as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. While he is still a notch below Rodgers and Brady, his play has put himself in the discussion for 3rd place after those two, especially with the struggles of its usual participants (Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, the myriad of injured QBs). While many may decry this as a hot take with Dak’s lack of highlight worthy plays, it is simply the subtle small things that he executes so consistently well that merits his place as a great quarterback.