Dak Prescott was an MVP candidate through the first 11 weeks of the 2019 season. Since that time, the Dallas Cowboys have gone 0-3 and Prescott’s performance has taken a hit through that stretch. Even at 6-7, the Cowboys hold a 66.4% percent chance of winning the NFC East per Football Outsiders and the offense still ranks second in DVOA but the last three-game stretch has left little optimism over the team.
The three-game losing streak isn’t on the quarterback — that falls more on a defense that ranks 22nd in DVOA — but it has also been clear Prescott’s play hasn’t been up to the bar set by his early-season performance. Prescott is still having a good season. He’s third in ESPN’s QBR and eighth in a composite of Expected Points Added and Completion Percentage Above Expectation, though there was a time this season when Prescott was first in both.
Still, when quarterback play has overcome a bad defense all season, it’s more noticeable and easier place blame when that suddenly isn’t happening anymore than on the unit that needed to be lifted in the first place. That’s where the Cowboys are right now as they enter an important stretch for their playoff homes with games against the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
Diving the depths
Using Sports Info Solutions charting data, we can find out where — or if — Prescott’s play has dipped in recent weeks. Here’s how Prescott performed to different depths of the field over the first 11 weeks of the season.
|Depth of Throw||Attempts||Throw%||On-Target%||Comp%||YPA||EPA/Att|
Prescott was one of the best throwers in the short and intermediate areas of the field. The Cowboys killed on those intermediate throws and were able to mix in efficiency on deep shots. Those throws haven’t connected at the same rate over the past few weeks.
|Depth of Throw||Attempts||Throw%||On-Target%||Comp%||YPA||EPA/Att|
Accuracy in the short game has taken a huge hit and while Prescott hasn’t seen as much of a dip on the intermediate throws, a significantly higher rate of them have not been completed. Here’s the full change in production from Weeks 1-11 to Weeks 12-14:
|Depth of Throw||Throw%||On-Target%||Comp%||YPA||EPA/Att|
One place Prescott has increased accuracy is on deep throws, but over the past three weeks, he’s gone deep almost half as often as he did to start the season and those gains have not been as big when they have been completed. Still, over the past three weeks, Prescott is 16th on overall on-target rate but just 25th among quarterbacks in completion percentage.
A lot of this drop off has stemmed from throws under pressure over the past three games. Prescott has seen a similar amount of pressure in the split — 32.4% of his drop backs from Weeks 1-11 and 32.8% from Weeks 12-14 — but his ability to handle that pressure has been much worse. Over the first 11 weeks of the season, Prescott absolutely dominated on pressured drop backs with eight touchdowns against three interceptions, enough for 0.13 EPA per attempt. That has dropped to minus-0.26 EPA per attempt over the past three games.
Performance under pressure is one of the least stable quarterback statistics and Prescott has experienced that variance on both extremes this season. The negative side of that has showed up in bunches and really impacted play against the Chicago Bears in Week 14.
On a 1st and 10, the Cowboys ran play-action. Prescott had to sidestep a blitzing linebacker who pushed back Ezekiel Elliott in pass protection. The throw was off-balance and just over the head of a well-covered Amari Cooper.
The next play used another play-fake but this time Khalil Mack got around Tyron Smith. Prescott had to rush a throw to an open Cooper, who had to dive to make the catch. With more time, Prescott could lead Copper, who had plenty of room to run after the catch.
It also showed up in the short game on another first down throw. Prescott felt pressure from his right side, moved to his left, and fired an off-balance throw that went outside the reach of Michael Gallup.
These are understandable misses given the situation, but they’re also throws Prescott was hitting at a higher rate during the early part of the season. What could be more concerning are some throws Prescott has rushed without pressure. On Dallas’s first play of the third quarter, Prescott had Cooper open in the middle of a zone but rushed his throw and put the ball short and behind his diving receiver for an incomplete pass.
We can expect Prescott to rebound some in his performance under pressure — though not likely to the highs of early in the season — but the question will be if the recent lack of success in that area has gotten to Prescott and has started to impact his overall approach. The miss to Gallup can be looked over, but the miss to Cooper could be cause for concern.
One area the Cowboys can help out their quarterback comes from the play calling. When Dallas started its offensive slump there was a concern from some portions of the team that Ezekiel Elliot was not involved enough in the game plan. Over the past three weeks, the Cowboys have made an effort to get the running game going more on early downs and that strategy has been a net negative for the offense.
From Weeks 1-11, Dallas passed on 54% of first and second downs in the first half of games. (We’ll use the first half here because it’s more reflective of the game plan than second half play calling, which can become more influenced by game script.) Over the past three weeks, that rate has shifted to just 46%. Not only has that limited success on early downs, but it has also made third downs more difficult to convert, which has put more responsibility on the quarterback.
The Cowboys averaged just 5.6 yards to go on first-half third downs from Weeks 1-11, the lowest average to-go in the league during that time. Over the past three games, the Cowboys have averaged 6.5 yards to go on third downs in the first half, which is 11th. The shorter third downs opened up the play calling and the Cowboys averaged 8.6 yards gained on first-half third downs and converted 51.5% of those attempts, both third-best over that time. While the Cowboys have a respectable 42.9% conversion rate over the past three weeks, they’ve averaged just 4.8 yards gained on first-half third downs, which ranks 24th.
Over the course of the full game, Dallas faced 49 total third downs of 7 or more yards to go in the first 11 weeks of the season. Over the past three weeks, they’ve already faced 20. But this goes to how impressive Prescott has been, even over the last stretch. The Cowboys converted a league-best 38.8% of those third and longs from Weeks 1-11 and are 10th best at 30% in Weeks 12-14.
Like play under pressure, third down performance is less table than what happens on early downs, but the Cowboys put their quarterback in a bad situation, especially over the past few weeks with inefficient play calls on those early downs. Yet, the quarterback has been able to bail the team out more often than would be expected for a worse player.
How to improve
The next two games are incredibly important for the Cowboys and their chances of making the playoffs. However, they happen to be against two of the best defenses at creating pressure this season. The Rams are 10th in pressure rate and fifth in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate while the Eagles are eighth in pressure rate and fourth in Pass Rush Win Rate.
If the Cowboys can work around that pressure in a way that doesn’t involve heavily running on first and second downs, Prescott has still shown he can do enough to lift this offense to where it needs to be. For the Cowboys to succeed, they’ll need to do just as much to help the quarterback out and he did to carry the team earlier in the season.