Monday, August 15, 2016

The Morning After: Dak Prescott's Debut In Los Angeles

It certainly gives me no joy to grab the exact same topic matter that any Cowboys enthusiast will in the aftermath of the preseason opener.  I prefer to zig when the media zags, but on this occasion, perhaps you could allow me to not take the road less traveled for the day after (or 2 days) analysis from the very first game of the preseason.  
After all, while I do have observations about David Irving, Chaz Green, James Morris, Anthony Brown, and several others of the young starlets, this game was always going to be a real look at what the Cowboys have behind Tony Romo as they try to decide how to handle that issue moving forward.
Most of the football world thinks the Cowboys need to shop for backups - especially since losing Kellen Moore.  Anyone who disagrees with them is simply arguing the side that says that since 2015 went so horribly bad with veteran backups, why not just roll with two kids in Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers under the heading of "it can't possibly be worse than what we saw last season."  I think that is a rather dangerous position to take, but Saturday night will likely add support to that side of the discussion.
Let's recap my Dak Prescott position.  It started in March when there was talk the Cowboys were so in love with Prescott that the team was considering a high second-round pick.  That may have been fiction, but when it happened, I spent a day with his Mississippi State tape for a draft preview and you can see that here.  
I summarized my feelings at the end of that piece:  the odds of QBs in this range of a draft developing into something special are much longer than most pundits (or teams) are willing to admit. That said, at the right price (top of Round 3?), you can see why Prescott may be a prospect that a coach like Scott Linehan believes he can develop and get to agree to the Romo retirement timeline. There are certainly traits and flashes where you can see a high ceiling.
I wanted the right price.  Which, to me, wasn't ever going to be pick No. 34.  Then, he slid and slid and slid.  The Cowboys pretty much confirmed to us at the top of Round 4 (pick No. 101) that they wanted Connor Cook from Michigan State, but when the Raiders traded in front of them, they moved on to DE Charles Tapper.  Dallas came back to the idea when Prescott remained available at No. 135 in the compensatory picks in Round 4. 
Was Prescott worthy of a second-round pick?  Not to me.  But a late fourth?  Let's do it.  
Fast forward to two weeks back.  Kellen Moore is lost for the year and we are looking at Prescott and Showers every day in practice.  Prescott is smartly checking his passes down and keeping them out of trouble.  Showers is pressing the ball down the field and looking like he is campaigning for No. 2 behind Romo.  I think both QBs are doing the right thing as Prescott is in the oven for 2017 and 2018 as a developmental play, whereas Showers is trying to convince the braintrust that he can do it and they shouldn't pull the trigger on a trade for a veteran.  The biggest reason there is if they make a trade, it will be Showers on the streets to make room.
Then Saturday happened.
I am not sure how much you read into preseason game No. 1, but it should not be too much.  Most of the time you get limited participation and almost no tactical preparation for the opponent.  Game plans are vanilla and the objective is generally to see young players with live ammunition to see how they respond.  Otherwise, get through it without major injuries and get back to camp.
Well, all that being said, my plan was to look the good and the bad of Dak Prescott's debut.  He did not cooperate.  He provided nothing bad to analyze.  
So, here is the good.
First drive and after a Geoff Swaim drop and an Alfred Morris run, the Cowboys have 3rd and 1.  This is easy, right?  Rams' franchise tag recipient, Trumaine Johnson, plays off and soft on Beasley and Cole runs a slant where Dak hits him in stride for some easy work.  Pretty casual coverage there by Johnson against a guy who is a third down machine, but hey, it is August 13th.  
Why Dez Bryant was in uniform on Saturday night is a real mystery, to be honest.  It sounded like he talked his way into the lineup, which is a fantastic leadership anecdote if it works (it did) or a disaster that requires someone's job if he hurts himself (especially after last season where he did talk his way into the lineup too soon and hurt himself again).  Regardless, Dez is a QB's dream in that you throw him 50/50 balls and he makes it look so easy.  
Dak has this throw in his bag and this is exciting because not every QB can do this (Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, Kellen Moore), but if you can throw that back shoulder fade with authority and location, it can really be an issue for the defense.  Look at that beauty against Coty Sensabaugh.
Then back underneath to the security blanket of Beasley.  Keep in mind here the blitz is arriving and he is throwing right into it. Pretty veteran QB play there.
Above, it is 3rd and 11.  This is a play in which every team is expecting you to run on 3rd and 11.  It is the screen which satisfies the desire to make high percentage throws on 3rd and long which still have a chance to move the chains (especially behind this offensive line).  The timing is key and the location is vital, and Prescott checks both boxes, then Morris does the rest.  This is really encouraging, too, even though most people just assume it is easy.  I think we see it done poorly often enough to know it really isn't that easy.
And because they extended that opening drive with that screen, Prescott is allowed to make that same throw to Dez against Sensabaugh that they made minutes earlier.   Is this a Run/Pass option that is a give unless he sees the backside WR in man coverage?  Especially if that WR wears No. 88?  See the safety TJ McDonald No. 25 thinking run?  Either way, Coty Sensabaugh again is at the mercy of Dez and you can see that Bryant isn't losing this battle.  Good location, better receiver.  
This is pretty.  So, the Rams decide to show more zone on the next Cowboys' drive.  Especially with Dez Bryant now on the sideline.  So, the Cowboys start the next drive with a play-action pass and it appears the Rams are in a Cover 3 with Prescott tossing a "Cover-3 beater" strike to Brice Butler on that deep out.  The throw is on time and it all looks very easy.
The next throw is the signature play of his performance and you can just see the coaches and Dak in the break between the 1st and 2nd Quarter debating whether they should take a shot on the first play.  
Again, it looks like Cover 3 to me, and it looks like Williams beats the corner and the safety can't get there.  This is a throw.  The "drop it in a bucket from 40 yards" throw.  He didn't even allow Chaz Green's problems with that stunt throw him off.  Fire up that hype train and let's ride.  
Same throw from the end zone view.  He keeps the safety in the middle with his eyes.  And then puts the ball where it needs to go.  
This last play for Dak is maybe my favorite.  It is 3rd and a mile.  Players have to understand football to play QB.  We know the odds of converting 3rd and 26 are minuscule.  But, we also know that the FG range is the real goal.  Five yards gets us a chance.  Ten yards gets us a better chance.  And more than 10 yards makes it nearly automatic for Dan Bailey.  Prescott feels the blitz, leaves out the other side, and gets almost 15.  This is a high IQ read of the situation.  And then he gets down.  Brilliant stuff.
Now, you can't win with fans.  Either you are not positive enough and you are a hater or you are too positive and people tell you to put away the anointing oil.
That's fine.  We all know he can't do that every week.  How do we know?  Because his QB rating was pretty much perfect (154.5) and we have seen football before so we will rule that out on a weekly basis.
As we knew, he is interesting for sure.  He has upside.  And now he has this game for every Cowboys fan to reference for years that "he has it in him".  He should be very proud of his performance and confident that he can play at this level.
Now, we see what is next on his path.  Should the Cowboys now feel that backup QB is fine?  No.  QB is defined by consistency and repeatability.  He must do what so many have had to do in their career. Turn out another performance on Friday night that offers more information and evaluation.
But, man.  He will always have that first night in Los Angeles.  That was awesome.  

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