The Dallas Cowboys were dealt a major setback on Sunday when Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury. For Prescott, who was fighting for a new contract in Dallas, this injury is a devastating blow. However, unfortunate as that circumstance was from Prescott’s perspective, this article is not about him. It’s about what the Cowboys will do going forward with backup quarterback Andy Dalton at the helm. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Dalton is worse than Prescott, but the decline isn’t so steep that Dallas will fall off a cliff offensively with him as a starter. Unfortunately, given how the team has played so far in 2020, even that drop-off will likely cripple any chance the Cowboys had of being a serious competitor in the playoffs.
Evaluating Prescott and Dalton’s performances using the OVM
Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton have been in very different situations over the last few years. Dalton has spent most of 2020 riding the bench, and before that, he played for the Cincinnati Bengals, one of the NFL’s most troubled organizations. Meanwhile, Prescott has been leading one of the NFL’s best offenses in Dallas. Were we to compare their statistics directly, the results would be heavily weighted in Prescott’s favor.
Therefore, in order to contrast them fairly, let’s use PFN’s Offensive Value Metric (OVM), which measures how valuable a player is to their offense, to evaluate their play, starting in 2020. According to the OVM, Prescott has played reasonably well thus far this season, earning an OVM grade of 27.54. It isn’t a spectacular grade, but it still indicates that he provided greater value to his offense than more than half of the NFL’s quarterbacks prior to his injury.
Unfortunately, since Andy Dalton hasn’t played many snaps for the Cowboys this season, we don’t have enough data to draw a grade from. So, we’ll need to look further back in order to compare him to Prescott properly. In 2019, Prescott was actually playing slightly better than in 2020, earning a grade of 29.33, making him one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the NFL during that season. Dalton, meanwhile, had a grade of 24.66. That isn’t a massive drop, and in fact, it indicates that Dalton provided a relatively average amount of value to the Bengals offense. That said, Prescott was clearly the more valuable quarterback last season, and even during a rough start to this year, he was still outperforming Dallas’ new starter.
Explaining the difference between Prescott and Dalton’s 2019 grades
The most influential factor in determining the two quarterback’s grades in 2019 was their completion percentages. On the surface, the difference seems obvious. Prescott completed 65.1% of his passes, almost 6% higher than Dalton’s 59.5%. However, the disparity actually goes further than that.
The NFL uses a combination of factors to determine whether each pass thrown by a quarterback should result in a completion and then creates their expected completion percentage from that data. According to their calculations, the two quarterbacks should have had nearly identical completion percentages; 62.3% for Dalton, 62.6% for Prescott. Comparing those expected percentages to what happened in reality, we can see that Prescott overperformed, completing passes that he shouldn’t have, while Dalton failed to connect on throws that might otherwise have been completions.
Andy Dalton is not the Cowboys only problem
Dalton is far from a bad quarterback. He is certainly a downgrade from Prescott, but the gap between them isn’t nearly as large as it often is between a starting quarterback and their backup. In fact, if the rest of the Cowboys offense was performing at an elite level, Andy Dalton being a downgrade might not matter. Unfortunately, Dallas’ skill position players have been underwhelming so far this season. Their highest-graded wide receiver is CeeDee Lamb, with a grade of 33.98. For a rookie, that isn’t a terrible grade, but you want your number one wide receiver to be providing more value than that.
Meanwhile, star running back Ezekiel Elliot has received a grade of just 8.03. That grade isn’t as terrible as it looks, since running back grades trend significantly lower than other positions on average. However, it is still well below average at the position. In short, none of the Cowboys star players were providing much value to the offense, even with Prescott at quarterback. They will need to step up significantly if Dalton is going to find success.
The Cowboys can still have a decent season with Andy Dalton, but he can only take them so far
Despite the above concerns, the Cowboys still have a high chance to make the playoffs. The NFC East is almost certainly the worst division in the NFL, and Dallas’ schedule is generally quite weak. Of their remaining opponents, only two would make the playoffs if the season ended today: the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their other seven opponents (not double-counting divisional games) have a combined record of nine wins, 24 losses, and two draws. Even with Andy Dalton at quarterback, the Cowboys should have enough talent to win a majority of their remaining games, a scenario that would likely lead to them winning the division and earning a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, once they go up against the cream of the NFC crop, such as the Green Bay Packers or the Seattle Seahawks, they are likely to come up short. Even with Prescott at quarterback, given how the rest of the team was performing, I think that result was probable anyway. However, losing him almost certainly dooms Dallas to an early playoff exit, assuming they even make it that far.