Dak Prescott evokes strong reactions from Dallas Cowboys fans, specifically, and from NFL fans in general. To some, he’s a top-10 quarterback who might someday lead his team to a coveted Super Bowl title. To others, time is running out for the soon-to-be 30-year-old, who’s helmed one of the most storied franchises for seven years but has only two playoff victories to show for it.
With two years remaining on his contract, Prescott is at a crossroads with Dallas. It could be argued that he has one more season to prove he should remain their long-term starter. It also could be argued that if not for his 2020 season-ending injury, Prescott’s standing wouldn’t be so precarious.
Dak Prescott the Great
Let’s examine Prescott’s NFL prowess along two divergent tracks. The first showcases his greatness — how he’s elevated Dallas since taking over the starting job in 2016 as a 23-year-old rookie.
Prescott’s 2018 campaign is a prime example of why he’s earned such a generous contract extension. That year, he took a whopping 56 sacks, second only to Deshaun Watson’s 62. Before Amari Cooper arrived in Week 9, Prescott’s No. 1 receiver was 29-year-old journeyman Cole Beasley. Rookie Michael Gallup and post-prime Allen Hurns rounded out the wideout corps.
While Ezekiel Elliott dominated the backfield, Prescott worked his own magic on the ground, rushing 33 times for 203 yards (6.2 yards per carry) and a score. The team needed Prescott’s versatility, and he frequently delivered, making him one of the league’s most effective mobile quarterbacks.
Cooper’s arrival had a huge impact on this offense. But make no mistake: Prescott did more with less in the first half of that season than most quarterbacks, despite getting taken down again and again. Statistically, he was at his best on third downs, as well as in second halves.
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All eight of Prescott’s final wins — including a playoff victory in the opening round — were by a touchdown or less. His Pro Bowl nod that season was a testament to his greatness, as well as a sign of his impending loftier greatness.
And yes, it has been loftier, at least at times. Excluding the Cowboys’ meaningless Week 18 loss to Washington this past season, Dallas had scored 20+ points in 17 straight games where Prescott didn’t get knocked out (i.e. Week 1 of 2023). In fact, Dallas had scored 20+ in 28 of their previous 30 games with Prescott fully at the helm.
In one of those two sub-20-point efforts (against the Chiefs), Cooper sat on the COVID list, while CeeDee Lamb was removed in the first half after suffering a concussion.
The point is clear: With Prescott at quarterback, Dallas’ offense has been elite. Sure, we could praise Elliott and Tony Pollard, and we could qualify Prescott’s achievements by hyping his talented receivers in recent years. But many NFL QBs benefit from surrounding talent. The Cowboys’ consistent offensive prowess is notable, and Prescott merits a meaningful portion of the credit.
Impact of Prescott’s 2020 Season-Ending Injury
As terrific as Prescott has been, beginning in 2021, there were also signs of decline. I believe these signs can be traced back to his season-ending ankle injury in Week 5 of 2020.
Heading into that week against the Giants, Prescott was playing arguably the best football of his career, backed by a mostly youthful corps of locked-in offensive personnel.
Notably, Prescott’s first four games were against the eventual 10-6 Rams, 4-12 Falcons, 12-4 Seahawks, and 11-5 Browns. In other words, this wasn’t a cakewalk of an opening month. But Prescott completed 137 of 201 throws (68%) for 1,690 yards with nine TD passes and three interceptions. He also ran in three scores and averaged 5.4 yards per carry.
So entering Week 5, Prescott was on pace for 6,760 passing yards, or nearly 1,300 more than the all-time single-season record. And while he took a statistical step back that game before getting knocked out, Prescott led his team into the Giants’ red zone four times in six offensive possessions.
As he recovered that offseason from surgery, Dallas handed Prescott a contract that included the largest signing bonus in history up to that point ($66 million). The team believed in him. They were ready for a return to his pre-injury form.
However, I believe that form faded after Prescott got hurt. Dallas paid him as if he were one of the best in the game. And yes, I believe he was. But when Prescott returned in 2021, he was a little more tentative, especially in the running game, where he averaged only 3.0 ypc while collecting a mere 146 yards in 16 contests. Twenty quarterbacks racked up more rushing yards, including four who played less than half as many games.
And while he still shined through the air, this past year — with Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr. gone and Elliott barely treading water in the backfield — Prescott took a significant step back. In 12 contests, his completion percentage dipped to a three-year low while throwing a league-high 15 interceptions. Prescott’s rushing improved only modestly from the year before and was still comfortably below his career averages.
As the Philadelphia Eagles try to cement their standing as long-term NFC East frontrunners, the Cowboys and Prescott are nearing a crossroads. Was this franchise QB’s noticeable downturn in 2022 merely a bump in the road, or is it a sign of things to come? Can Prescott once again challenge defenses on the ground, or is he primarily a pocket passer depending increasingly on his receivers?
Prescott’s 2023 campaign likely will accomplish one of two things. It could quiet his doubters, setting up a 2024 offseason that might result in another sizable contract extension. Or it could pour water on his supporters, who understand that while Prescott is one of the greatest quarterbacks to put on a Cowboys uniform, he also might be on the downside of his career.