If there is a question about the Dallas Cowboys I hear more than others this month at training camp, it is easily some variation of the following: "Is there any chance Dak Prescott can have a second year that is as good as his first?"
It is a question that is issued more as a statement around the league -- especially in the cities of Cowboys rivals: "There is no chance Dak Prescott can have a second year as good as his first," they say.
The facts are pretty clear. He was the 135th player taken in the 2016 draft, then hauled off and won 13 games and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. That is an award that is almost always won by a first-round player, and in the past 20 years has been won by someone drafted later than the second round just twice -- Prescott and Denver running back Mike Anderson in 2000. Anderson was actually a sixth-rounder in that era, when the Broncos could literally put any running back behind their line and reap the benefits.
But Prescott is a quarterback. And quarterbacks do win this award, but they never win it if drafted outside of the first round. In the history of the award, only Buffalo QB Dennis Shaw won it (in 1970) from outside of the first, but he was the 30th pick, which was the second round then -- a first-rounder by today's standards.
But, back to the question -- can Prescott do it again? Can he match numbers that seemed impossible to consider for a rookie and now seem impossible to pull off again?
He completed 311 passes in 459 attempts for a magnificent 67.8 completion percentage to go with 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 104.9. Prescott racked up 3,667 yards for a incredibly strong eight yards per attempt.
Now, we look at his rookie season, and I have continuously looked at his positive plays. If you missed them, every week last season we would look at his great moments, so go check them out. Almost 20 different times I wrote blogs (with All-22 clips) about Dak and his great season.
So, that has been done. We have established that he is a very promising young man with almost his entire career still in front of him. This project is not about his good plays. This project is about the plays that he might want back from 2016.
With each passing year, more people are writing more smart football pieces than ever before. This makes people like me very happy, people who love the Xs and Os and strong video analysis that is available today from writers all over the world who follow the NFL. One such writer, Cian Fahey, wrote something this offseason that I have studied and would recommend to you, Pre-Snap Reads - Quarterback Catalogue 2017, which breaks down the 17,000 passes thrown by the 33 qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL last year. He would evaluate each throw from each quarterback, then designate each one accordingly. It was an incredibly ambitious project and I enjoyed reading his findings, which often confirmed things we knew, but also shattered many stereotypes that get thrown around in the media about how one quarterback doesn't do something as often as others. When you actually have the raw numbers, you can quickly put that nonsense to bed with objective evidence. If someone says this guy or that guy is merely a "bus driver," while this other guy is a "gunslinger," wouldn't it be nice to verify that with statistics? Also, if one guy has a supporting cast that is sabotaging his performances, it would be great to quantify that, too. Who is getting clobbered because of their protection, and who is having touchdowns dropped?
We should tell you that, of the 13 passes in question, three of them came in the playoffs. So, that means only 10 passes were judged to be poor and dangerous in the regular season. To express that, let's list things as they should be that demonstrate just how special he was as a rookie:WEEK 1 -- vs. NY GIANTS: None
Well, if you know how I feel about the sport, you know that his study on "interceptable passes" would greatly interest me. We aren't just worried about actual interceptions, but also those that should have been intercepted. Dropped interceptions, and similar plays that did not cost us the game only because of dumb luck. The teams and quarterbacks know those are equally horrid and need to be phased out, too. We can't turn the ball over. Those coaches who we have studied over the years will speak at great length about how quarterbacks who are careless with the ball cannot win in this league. Interceptions and turnovers are death in the NFL, and to have a quarterback who does that too much means you don't have the right guy.
At the same time, fear of interceptions often means fear to throw the ball down the field and find the big plays. So we need a quarterback who is hunting for opportunities without risking the ball. I used to believe it is difficult to make big plays without the collateral damage. But, today's elite quarterbacks have figured out how to break the code and do exactly that.
So, Fahey's study broke down the league's quarterbacks on this very topic. And we found out that of the 33 qualifying quarterbacks last season, Prescott threw the fifth-fewest interceptable passes with 13. Some players almost threw 40, and the league averaged 21.8. You might say, sure, but they are also throwing bigger positive plays, too. Actually, very few. But when it comes to those throws that get you beat, Prescott took care of the ball. On average, 4.2 percent of the league's passes were bad ones. Prescott was at 2.6 percent. The league threw an interceptable pass every 23.7 attempts, but Prescott did so every 38.2 attempts.
Hopefully you know what comes next from a piece by me. I wanted to look at those 13 (actually 14 -- you will see why) plays that were judged to be interceptable passes by Prescott in his rookie season. Let's look for trends or errors that he is well aware of, but as fans who watch him, it should be informative to examine those rare times when he did the wrong thing. I went to him to get the chart of specific plays, and now I have them for you.
Let's see what we can learn.
WEEK 2 -- at WASHINGTON: None
WEEK 3 -- vs. CHICAGO: None
That is worthy of mention right there. He played the first three games of his NFL career with no passes into harm's way. The entire month of September, which included a win at Washington that required quite a few nice throws into tight spaces. The Cowboys were getting quarterback play that was remarkable for a rookie. On to October:
WEEK 4 -- at SAN FRANCISCO:
So, here is the first play he would want back. Interceptable No. 1:
This is second down-and-2 in the first quarter at San Francisco. They are in Shotgun 11 but go empty. The 49ers are going to drop into a zone, and this throw by Prescott is one that is confusing in that we think it is for Jason Witten, but it might have been intended for Cole Beasley (the official stats say Beasley). Regardless, it is neither here nor there, and the ball should have been picked off by Eric Reid, who dropped it.
I am reasonably sure he wants the hook to Witten and just misses the throw. To his credit, he finished the game with many fine throws and no more trouble after that brief miss.
WEEK 5 -- vs. CINCINNATI: None
WEEK 6 -- at GREEN BAY:
He had one bad throw against the Packers up there in that blowout victory, and you probably remember it well. The Cowboys were way ahead and if they didn't do anything silly, they were going to win at this point. Late third quarter, it is third-and-8 from their own 6-yard line. I am not ultra conservative, but if ever there is a time to bring on the punt team, it is here. Instead, they tried to move the chains.
The Packers are trying to cause confusion and make a big play to turn the game. Prescott throws into Cover 1-Robber with another hook to Witten on the offense's right. And again, accuracy seems to be the issue here, as there is nothing wrong with the decision if you put it on No. 82. Instead, he throws it behind Witten, and this might have turned the game if the Packers had their offense going. Instead, they fumbled it right back to the Cowboys shortly after.
It was the first interception of Prescott's career. Six games in and five wins down, he finally broke his streak of passes without a pick. And it didn't matter, as the team was rolling.
WEEK 7 -- BYE
WEEK 8 -- vs. PHILADELPHIA:
This was the Sunday night game that was played Oct. 30. This, to me, was Dak's roughest game of the season from a decision-making standpoint. He just couldn't figure out the Eagles' defense and their blitz game for much of the night. To his great credit, he stayed with it and eventually found victory in a massive step forward in his career -- to win a tough battle without playing great.
Here is the first one that you may remember well:
Things move faster in the red zone for quarterbacks. Tighter windows, tighter spaces. Must make good decisions fast and know that linebackers are trying to jump your eyes. This is second-and-7, and you can tell that Prescott is pretty sure Witten is going to get the attention and that Brice Butler can then squeeze behind him. Hopefully you will notice how much of the Cowboys' offense is still using Witten as a diversion to run routes off his shoulder for others. He is still the focal point between the hash marks for the Cowboys and their opponents.
This time, Jordan Hicks is wise to the idea, and we would call this a rare rookie mistake:
Here, you see Prescott off his back foot and staring down Butler. Hicks is all over it and it really never appeared to have much of a chance to get through.
This also reminds us to know the situation. We don't want to take chances on early downs and early in games. We don't need desperation from our quarterback, and we need to only force throws when the risk and reward meet up. This time is clearly not that occasion, at all. Forced throw that can get you beat.
Interceptable No. 4 of the season happened late in the third quarter of the same game.
Dallas is down 20-10 here, and it is getting late. The pressure is growing and the stadium is restless. It is third-and-goal, and Prescott wants to make a touchdown happen. Sometimes, you get yourself into trouble there.
The Eagles only rush four, but Doug Free gets beat to flush Prescott out. This is where you look, consider running, and then give up on the play because there is another quarter to play and Dan Bailey can cut the deficit to seven. Instead, he channels his inner Brett Favre and tries to make a miracle. If it wasn't for Terrance Williams taking a very wise pass interference, this should have -- and would have -- been picked. Awful decision.
Again, though, we know why he did it. He is trying to make something happen. That makes sense, but that is the top reason why quarterbacks get into trouble. They are trying to make something happen, rather than take what is given.
The fifth poor pass of his season also could have cost Dallas the game that night. It is first down and the Cowboys are driving, down seven, with less than four minutes to play. This might be their last shot at staying alive.
The safety blitz puts this play in massive jeopardy early. Malcolm Jenkins is unchecked and Prescott has to make him miss on his own. He almost does. Not quite. At that moment, on first down, we have to throw the ball into the stands. We cannot throw the ball up for grabs again. That night, he was throwing a few 50-50 balls, and this one also would have lost the game if he did not have Lady Luck helping him out. Leodis McKelvin cannot hold on to the ball that was intended for Butler.
Again, we admire the courage and the want, but don't ever do that again. He was very lucky.
The very next play, he came right back and made a great one with Dez Bryant.
He overcame some moments in that game that told us he had some real mental toughness and the ability to move on from the good or bad to the next play. He is very impressive in this regard.
WEEK 9 -- at CLEVELAND:
This game in Cleveland had almost no issues at all, as the Cowboys thumped the hapless Browns. Prescott made a poor throw, but I count this one as simply getting overconfident in a blowout and therefore, it is no big deal. But here it is:
Third-and-18 from the Cleveland 37, and he decides to try to get Witten down the seam and sails the throw against a zone. This is clearly what gets you into trouble -- sailing a throw with safeties behind it.
Again, look at that throw. There is almost no shot at getting that in there, but he was feeling it. Look at all the defenders reading his eyes. Just know on third and 18, the defenses are set up to deal with a quarterback who thinks he can fit the ball into a tight space and force a turnover. He got away with that one, but be careful on that.
WEEK 10 -- at PITTSBURGH: None (What a performance that was.)
WEEK 11 -- vs. BALTIMORE:
Here, you have a play-action bootleg which the Cowboys ran (and opponents saw) almost 50 times last year. Defenses have a plan, and that plan is to go hit the quarterback with the backside defensive end/linebacker who is not blocked. This time, it is Terrell Suggs. But the Cowboys have an option for Prescott with Lucky Whitehead in the flat. It is second-and-8 and early in the game. Just take what they give you. Instead, Prescott wishes to burn them with the pass downfield across his body. Bad idea.
Again, he made very few poor decisions in 2016. But this one was not what you are looking for. There are many reasons why not to try this and it should have been picked off. It wasn't, but don't tease the defensive backs in the NFL with this throw. They are too good.
WEEK 12 -- vs. WASHINGTON: None
WEEK 13 -- at MINNESOTA: None
WEEK 14 -- at NEW YORK GIANTS:
This is the game most point to when doubting Prescott. I think they are grasping at straws, but this game and the Sunday night game against the Eagles are the reasons the rivals have hope that they can get him flustered. The Giants had great disguises on defense and were trying to make his head spin. They did a real nice job on that, too.
In Fahey's piece on Prescott, he properly showed how this Janoris Jenkins interception was a wide receiver error. Bryant slipped and fell, and Prescott did nothing wrong at all. He put the throw where it needed to go, so this one did not go on Prescott's ledger.
We are quick to put everything on the quarterback for interceptions, but this is not at all on him. Solid throw, bad luck.
The next one is on Prescott. Here, the Cowboys are ahead, 7-3. The game is going poorly, but the Cowboys are ahead. It is third-and-15. We know the chances of converting a third-and-15 are extremely low. Between 10-15 percent league-wide. So, even though it frustrates fans, this is where you take your medicine and try to set up a punt, or a play that might get to the sticks but not risk ball security. Instead, Prescott reaches back and throws it deep, hoping for a Bryant miracle. Unfortunately, you can't throw it right at the safety.
As you can see, the protection is breaking down and this is the "sudden rush of blood to the head" decision that Prescott usually avoids. Again, down 10, maybe you do this. Up four, you really don't want to do this and then say "it was basically a punt," if you are the quarterback. Keep your nerves in check.
Here is the next one on the Cowboys' next possession. The Giants were driving them nuts on third downs:
Third-and-5, with the Giants taking away what the Cowboys were looking for. Watch how they have linebackers who start to rush, then backpedal into the throwing lanes without warning. The Giants were in their heads on this night.
Prescott slides and buys time, but nobody could get open on this night. Bryant flashes open, but the throw isn't right and almost gets picked by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Finally, with 2:39 to go, here is another interceptable pass. First-and-10, but the Cowboys are now looking for answers with desperation -- never a great situation to solve problems.
Watch the Giants plug up all ideas inside and make the Cowboys try to find long throws to the outside. Beasley is open, but Prescott is late on the throw and this is nearly a pick-six, or at least the nail in the coffin.
Same as the Ravens play, where we try to throw across the body to the left off one foot in desperation. Just can't get any mustard on the throw, and it should have been picked.
The good news? That was the last dangerous throw of the regular season.
WEEK 15 -- vs. TAMPA BAY: None
WEEK 16 -- vs. DETROIT: None
WEEK 17 -- at PHILADELPHIA: None
To go through an entire regular season with just 10 passes you want back is phenomenal. He was able to find big plays down the field and move the team all year without risking the ball. Again, I am showing you a lot of video to demonstrate that he wasn't perfect. I don't want you to misunderstand this next point: Prescott was really, really good all season long. He threw hundreds of passes and had a few poor ones.
Now, on to his playoff performance. In total, he was very good. But he did have three passes for us to look at against Green Bay, all in big moments:
Before halftime, this is third-and-10 from the 15. Again, the Cowboys and opponents know tendencies here. The Packers are sitting on Prescott's eyes and Witten to the inside. Watch the angle from the end zone:
Watch No. 48, Joe Thomas. He is sitting on that throw all day. He knows what is about to happen and he wants Prescott to try it. Again, red-zone throws are so dangerous to that spot. Be careful, especially on third down. They got away with this one.
Next is the deep throw to "make something happen" when you are trying to keep up with Aaron Rodgers:
Green Bay is up 28-13 here, so you understand the urgency, but there is also 9:32 left in the third quarter. Don't get too desperate. But, Prescott again throws it right at the safety, looking for the home run to Williams. It is first down, the Packers have two safeties deep for just this occasion. Too dangerous to force this on first down without play action.
An off-balance throw here, too. Again, this is not an interception because Green Bay drops it. That is part of football, but from a coaching standpoint, you can't be results-oriented. Bad decisions take destiny out of your hands and gives the opponent control. Can't do it there.
And then, just four snaps later and the very next throw:
I understand Fahey putting this on Prescott, but I continue to claim that Bryant has to get this block. If he does, Micah Hyde cannot jump the route (that he obviously knew was coming). But, the location was poor and, at this point, it seemed the Cowboys were cooked.
To the credit of Prescott and the offense, they actually were back in this game and had a great chance to win. But the learning experience will have to suffice.
So there they are. Thirteen passes that Prescott made that were dangerous. He was nearly perfect in 2016, and maybe he will be even better in 2017. He is a really fine quarterback and seldom makes poor decisions. But, as fans, hopefully we are OK with studying those rare occasions when he makes the wrong choice.
I think he can be just as good in 2017. As his radio visit with us this week indicated, he wants to "aggressively take what the opponent gives" them.
I believe the Cowboys are in very good hands at QB1 these days, which is hard to believe in Year 1 without Tony Romo in the organization.