Can Dak Prescott lead Cowboys to the Super Bowl? Pressure’s on
Dallas’ young quarterback is the key to a postseason run in the NFC
If Dak Prescott is the biggest concern in Dallas, then the Cowboys faithful should breathe easy going into their wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday.
Dallas’ defense, which shut down the seemingly unstoppable New Orleans Saints in a pivotal Thursday night game Nov. 29, is flush with playmakers at every level. And on the offensive side, the Cowboys have the dependable Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing yards.
Cowboys fans haven’t gotten comfortable with the team’s young quarterback this season, and that is not without cause. Prescott’s 57.8 quarterback rating (QBR) is below the league average and a far cry from the 77.8 QBR he produced as a rookie in 2016. But you don’t have to look hard if you’re looking for a reason to have confidence in Prescott.
If the cliché “you’re only as good as your last game” is true, then Prescott is great. The third-year signal-caller played his best game of the season against the New York Giants in Week 17, throwing for 387 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. His QBR of 89.9 was his second-best rating of the season.
He was at his best at the most high-leverage moments. On third and fourth downs, his QBR rose to 100 and he completed 13 of 19 attempts (82 percent). His third- and fourth-down yards per attempt was an eye-popping 13.5, more than three yards higher than the league’s best offense, the Kansas City Chiefs, in the same situations. Powered by Prescott’s arm, the Cowboys had a 68 percent conversion rate on third and fourth downs, which is substantially above the league average of 40 percent. He punctuated his performance with a game-winning drive, capped by a 32-yard touchdown pass to Cole Beasley on fourth-and-15 and a successful two-point conversion to Michael Gallup.
Anyone looking to discredit Prescott will need to watch a different game.
Prescott detractors consider him a play-action passer who can thrive only with the support of a dominant rush attack to create manageable third downs and set up easy play-action passes. But that dominant running game didn’t even play Dec. 30. Elliott and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen — Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin — rested on the sideline in street clothes. And it showed in the box score. The Cowboys’ run game was anemic, averaging just 2.3 yards per carry.
Without that run threat, the play-action game was dead. Prescott was 3-for-8 with 41 yards on play-action passes. And third downs were long — Prescott attempted passes on third-and-10 or more nine times and converted four of them, which is impressive but even more impressive when you consider that two of the five third-down failures became fourth-down successes on the next play.
The only fair way to shade Prescott’s play Dec. 30 is to bring attention to the fact that it came against one of the worst defenses in the league. The Giants were 26th in defensive expected points added (EPA) for the season.
However, Prescott showed earlier in the season that he can also punish good defenses. He had a QBR of 94.7, his highest of the season, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the highest-ranked defense by EPA on the Cowboys’ schedule.
Remembering the Cowboys’ last playoff game won’t be enjoyable for fans of America’s Team, because they lost in spectacular fashion. But if they focus on just the performance of Prescott, it should put a huge smile on their faces. It was the birth of “Playoff P.” No one calls him that, but they should. Prescott was called on to go pass-for-pass with the great Aaron Rodgers in January 2017, and the then-rookie quarterback was nearly flawless.
When the Cowboys were down 21-3 midway through the second quarter, their win probability was below 5 percent. From then on, Prescott and the Cowboys scored on all but one drive. As the clock ticked down and the pressure mounted, Prescott got better. He was Hall of Fame good in the fourth quarter, with 116 yards and two touchdowns, a QBR of 98 and completion percentage of 71 percent.
With Dallas down 28-13 at the start of the fourth, this is what he did with his three drives:
He threw a touchdown pass to complete a 14-play, 59-yard drive that started in the third quarter. On the next possession, he led an 11-play, 80-yard drive where he not only threw a touchdown pass but also ran in the game-tying two-point conversion. Rodgers answered by leading the Packers to a field goal, putting them back in the lead 31-28, but it took Prescott and the Cowboys only six plays and 58 seconds to go 42 yards and tie the game with a field goal. That left Rodgers just 35 seconds to regain the lead, which turned out to be too much time. Prescott didn’t get to the overtime he had earned, as the Cowboys lost on a last-play field goal set up by a miracle pass from Rodgers.
This year, the Cowboys are hosting a playoff game against another Super Bowl champion quarterback. This time it’s Russell Wilson and his Seahawks squad, which is much better than most people expected. Although fans in Big D are right to fear history repeating itself — Wilson is plenty capable of heartbreaking late-game heroics — the player they would fear most is on injured reserve.
In the Cowboys’ Week 3 loss to the Seahawks, it was Earl Thomas whose two interceptions decided the game. The following week, the Seahawks lost Thomas to a season-ending broken leg. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have since added a legitimate deep threat and No. 1 receiver, Amari Cooper, via trade.
So life should be easier for Prescott this time around. He will have a big game, and the Cowboys will find themselves back in the divisional round of the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.