Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys are currently engaged in intense contract negotiations. On Monday, the team used their franchise tag on their young quarterback, but that is only a temporary measure. Rumor has it that Dallas is considering making Prescott one of the NFL’s highest-paid quarterbacks, a concept that might make those who are only casual followers of Prescott’s career skeptical. After all, for most of his time in the NFL, the general public has viewed him as an average quarterback at best. I was always of the opinion that Prescott was worth re-signing. Back then, I considered him to be an upper to mid-tier quarterback; nowhere near the level of an Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, but good enough to lead a talented Cowboys roster to success. However, in 2019, Prescott proved that he is capable of playing at an elite level. He became the central focus of Dallas’ offense, and it showed in his statistics.
Prescott’s impressive statistics
I don’t think anyone would argue that Prescott was the best quarterback in the NFL last season. That honor belongs indisputably to the MVP Lamar Jackson. But Prescott’s statistics firmly cemented his place within that second tier of quarterbacks alongside players like Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson. In his fourth season, he posted the best numbers of his career, with 4,902 yards (second in the NFL) and 30 touchdowns (fourth). He also threw just 11 interceptions, a relatively low number compared to some of the other high-volume passers in 2019. Even the most devout Prescott-hater has to admit that those are the statistics of an elite quarterback, one who is worth giving a massive contract.
The impact Prescott had on the offense is undeniable
Prescott’s individual successes led to overall offensive improvement as well. The Cowboys offense averaged 27.1 points and a league-leading 431.5 yards per game, a significant increase from the prior season in both areas. Prescott’s detractors will be quick to point out that Dallas’ offense is very talented, and that therefore Prescott does not deserve credit for their success. However, the Offensive Share Metric (OSM), which we use here at PFN to measure how responsible a player was for the statistics they produced, indicates the opposite.
Back in 2018, Prescott’s OSM grade was 23.8, 18th overall among qualifying quarterbacks. Much like his statistics during that season, that grade is mediocre. Not terrible, but nothing special either. But after being made the focus of the offense in 2019, his grade increased to 29.33, making him the fifth-highest ranked quarterback in the NFL. That is a massive increase, one that shows just how much of the Cowboy’s offensive success last season fell directly on their quarterback’s shoulders. And of course, the statistics Prescott produced with that newfound responsibility speak for themselves.
There were multiple factors that led to an increase in Prescott’s grade. To start with, Prescott threw the ball further downfield in 2019 than in 2018. The distance the ball traveled in the air after it left his hand increased from 7.6 to 9.3 yards across all of his attempts, and from 5.5 to 7.6 on his completions. Not only do those statistics represent a substantial increase in the offense’s overall production when Prescott was throwing the ball, but they also show that the passes he attempted were significantly more difficult. Now, attempting more difficult passes isn’t necessarily beneficial in a vacuum. That said, if you can maintain a similar level of efficiency while doing so, your impact on the game overall will naturally increase. Which brings us to the other reason Prescott’s OSM grade improved: his completion percentage.
Last season, Prescott’s completion percentage was slightly lower than in 2018, dropping from 67.7% to 65.1%. On the surface, this seems like it would decrease his grade. However, the much more important statistic is the difference between Prescott’s in-game completion percentage, and his expected completion percentage, which the NFL calculates based on numerous advanced metrics. Because Prescott threw the ball further downfield in 2019, it is understandable that his expected completion percentage dropped from 66.2% down to 62.6%. However, the difference between his actual completion percentage and his expected completion percentage rose from 1.5 to 2.5%. So even though he completed fewer passes overall in 2019, he actually had a higher percentage of unexpected completions than the year prior, leading to an increase in his effective efficiency and his OSM grade.
The Cowboys record reflects poorly on Prescott, but he isn’t entirely to blame
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Prescott’s remarkable statistics did not translate into team success. Dallas only managed eight wins in what might have been the worst division in the NFL. How poorly that reflects on Prescott depends on your perspective. Some fans and analysts view wins as a quarterback statistic, which might tempt them to place the blame for the Cowboy’s failures squarely on Prescott’s shoulders. By those criteria, 2019 would be the worst season of his career. And if Prescott’s excellent play isn’t leading to Dallas victories, why would he be worth signing to a massive contract?
However, as disappointing as it was for Cowboys fans to see their team miss the playoffs, there is more to that story than meets the eye. Dallas’ record, as bad as it might appear to be, is somewhat misleading. Last season, the team went one and six in one-score games, a win rate of just 14%. If even one of those losses changed into a win, the Cowboys would have been 9-7. That record likely wins their division and leads to them making the playoffs. The good news is that kind of trend rarely lasts for long. For a team to lose so many close games in a single season is more likely a statistical anomaly than anything else. 2019 already represents a massive departure from 2018, when the story was completely different. That season Dallas, with a very similar roster, won 10 of the 14 one-score games they played. In theory, the pendulum will swing back into Dallas’ favor in the near future, and the perception of Prescott should improve dramatically as a result.
Prescott is worth his contract and then some
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has some difficult decisions to make this offseason. One thing that is clear, however, is that allowing Prescott to slip through his fingers now would be a serious mistake. It’s true that Prescott might never be the NFL’s best quarterback. No matter how hard he tries, he’ll never be able to match the raw arm talent of Patrick Mahomes, or the incomparable athleticism of Lamar Jackson. However, despite those relative limitations, Prescott played like a top-five quarterback last season, one that deserves a long-term contract. If he can maintain that level of play going forward, then he will be worth every penny Dallas spends on him.