Dak Prescott was headed to a career year when he went down with a serious ankle injury in Week 6 of last season. One year removed from being in tears while getting carted off the field against the Giants and needing surgery, he has picked up where he left off.
At age 28 in Year 5, it should be no surprise a quarterback with Prescott’s talent is coming through in his prime. But he’s also evolved into a transcendent elite passer.
Prescott was a rookie revelation taking over for Tony Romo in 2016. Coming into the league with his good friend and sturdy backfield mate Ezekiel Elliott, he delivered the Cowboys an efficient overall offense playing off a strong running game. Before 2021, that came with his career-high 104.9 passer rating.
This season Prescott is rated a stellar 116.9. He’s doing it while completing a 73.9 percent of his passes with a 9.0 adjusted yards per attempt, also new career highs. Most important, because of his play and better help from the defense, the Cowboys are 4-1 and have a chance to mirror the 13-3 team from ’16.
As the saying goes, Prescott’s major setback turned out to be the setup for a great comeback. Here’s looking at why Prescott has made the jump into the upper echelon of NFL quaterbacking for good:
Dak Prescott is in Year 3 of the same dynamic offense
Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have gone from an experimental young combination to simpatico domination. Moore has excelled at striking the right balance between a top-flight running game and an explosive passing game. There are elements of what Prescott did before Moore was calling the plays but taken to the next level with an adjustable approach based on opponents.
Long gone are the conservative clock-grinding days under Jason Garrett. Moore has not only made the Cowboys more versatile and multiple — and therefore extremely difficult to defend — but they also are aggressive. They have full trust in Prescott for relentless passing to put opponents away. Forget ball control; the Cowboys are following the old-school meets new-school feel of “pass to score, run to win” with Prescott.
Prescott’s experience in the scheme is allowing him to see the entire field better and execute with confidence. Prescott came into the league praised for his physical toughness, but he hasn’t gotten enough credit for nailing down the mental parts of the game with his work ethic. Having a steady rapport with Moore — credit coach Mike McCarthy for not breaking that up — has put Prescott into the rare play-caller relationship we’ve seen with Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes.
Dak Prescott is spreading the ball around like never before
Given his wide receivers are first-rounders Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, it would shock many to know that it’s tight end Dalton Schultz who leads the Cowboys with 26 receptions after five games. Cooper has 25 and Lamb has 24.
Field-stretching third wideout Michael Gallup hasn’t played since hurting his calf against the Buccaneers in Week 1, but Prescott has gotten some big plays from replacement Cedrick Wilson when needed. Out of the backfield, Ellliot and talented understudy Tony Pollard have combined for 21 receptions.
Back as a rookie, Dez Bryant was Prescott’s go-to guy. Prescott started slumping as Bryant faded and there was no true No. 1. That changed when the Cowboys made a blockbuster trade with the Raiders to acquire Cooper three years ago. Although Cooper and Gallup was a good duo. adding Lamb in the 2020 draft wasn’t a “luxury pick” by Jerry Jones. It gave Dallas an interchangeable wideout with Cooper, one could run all the routes inside-out with good hands.
Teams cannot take away both Cooper and Lamb, and the Cowboys will be even more dangerous when Gallup’s perimeter speed must be considered in coverage. The emergence of Schultz has brought back a Jason Witten-like short-to-intermediate presence. Pollard gives them an extra gear on checkdowns when Elliott is not in the game.
Prescott is pushing the right buttons in targeting the players with best matchups, helped by Moore. Although Cooper and Lamb can still take over games, the Cowboys don’t need to force-feed them ball with myriad options and the foundation of a dominant running game again. Everyone is Prescott’s go-to guy now and he’s more willing to be patient and throw all over the field.
Dak Prescott is less reliant on his own running
Prescott is averaging only 12 rushing yards per game, an easy career low. Although he’s never been a read-option type runner, he was quick to pick his spots to scramble at times. He also made rushing a big part of his red zone success in the past.
Don’t confuse this with Prescott being gun shy to run because of his ankle injury. This by the design of the offense, where Prescott has become more dangerous using his footwork and mobility to buy time to go through all of his progressions. The difference is, most of the time someone is open and he doesn’t need to resort to his legs beyond the line of scrimmage.
Prescott’s offensive line is also coming through for him again. Adjusting from the one extra game on the schedule in 2021, Prescott is on pace to be sacked only 25 times in 16 games — which would have matched the total from his rookie season. The protection has been good, but Prescott also has improved at sidestepping pressure. He’s confident he can hang in there inside the pocket or go a little on the move and pass the ball where he would like.
Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen are going through this same two-step development as younger top quarterbacks, where they are neither one-receiver nor self-running dependent to advance the ball for the necessary gains.
Dak Prescott has been further motivated by almost losing it all
Brees is an elite future Hall of Famer now, but it’s easy to forget his long successful run with the Saints may have never happened. Last week on “Football Night in America” on NBC, Brees likened Prescott’s ankle injury to the shoulder concern he had following his last season with the Chargers in 2005.
There was some thought Brees might either never look right as a passer or play another down in the NFL. So when he landed with the Saints in 2006, Brees said he was a driven QB, ready to make the most of his second chance in Sean Payton’s offense. He turned the corner from so-so passer to an all-time great proficient one.
Prescott has admitted some of those career-ending thoughts went through his mind. Consider that before going down against the Giants, Prescott had been one of the league’s most durable quarterbacks, starting every game since he was a rookie.
Any trifle of physical invincibility Prescott had went out the window while facing his football mortality. The Cowboys rewarded him with a lucrative long-term contract regardless of the injury because they had faith in him to put every effort into coming back better than ever, not taking any snap for granted.
The result has been a hyper-focused and locked in Prescott. The scary part is, he is still knocking off a little rust and he can step into a greater groove in the second half season once Gallup returns.
Whatever being an “elite” quarterback really means, Prescott has provided plenty of evidence this season that he belongs in that company with his fellow young guns.