The star is heavy. Every Cowboys player who wears the silver and blue is walking into the spotlight: every move closely monitored, every action judged. This is especially true for the quarterback of America’s Team.
Being the successor to Tony Romo put Dak Prescott under extra scrutiny from the time he made his first start in 2016. Heading into his seventh season under center, the debate about his play–and his ceiling–rages on. Opinions range from NFL coaches contending he is “not going to suddenly be special” to execs arguing he is “good but not great” to landing in the top 10 of nearly every quarterback skill graded by ESPN’s QB Council. The word most thrown around in the never-ending Prescott discourse is “elite.” It seems as if there are three distinct groups in this argument: those who believe Prescott is an elite quarterback, those who believe he is not and most likely never will be, and those who think he doesn’t need to be elite for the Cowboys to be successful.
Yet how do we define elite? There’s the catch-all of playoff success, which often feels like an automatic qualifier as long as a team wins because of a quarterback rather than in spite of him. But postseason wins never tell the full story. Beyond that, the easiest way is to identify the best quarterbacks from each year and average their stats together. For this exercise, we only considered quarterbacks who finished in the top six in two of three metrics: Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade, expected points added per play, and approximate value (a metric similar to wins above replacement). Unlike other ranking systems–and the fuzzy debates sparked by playoff wins–these three measurements are not influenced by opinion.
Over the past 12 years, 46 individual seasons have met this criteria. Using that as the benchmark, roughly 10 percent of starting quarterbacks put up game-changing numbers each year. Since 2010, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson have produced at least five “elite” seasons. Not surprisingly, Patrick Mahomes has been elite every year since he became a starter in 2018. Last season six quarterbacks were ranked in the top six by at least two of the metrics: Mahomes, Brady, Rodgers, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Joe Burrow. That feels like a pretty solid barometer.
Prescott’s only elite season came in his rookie year, in 2016. Granted, he was closer to that level in 2021 than he had been since that first year. But for the Cowboys to be successful this season, now more than ever Prescott must ascend to that plane. In previous years, Prescott has been aided by one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, a young Pro Bowl running back, and up to three reliable receivers. None of that is the case in 2022. The line was inconsistent last year and will most likely be worse after losing two starters in the offseason. Ezekiel Elliott is not getting any younger after three years of declining production (and there’s reason to doubt the Cowboys’ willingness to let Tony Pollard pick up the slack). And the front office did Prescott no favors by shipping out Amari Cooper and letting Cedrick Wilson walk in free agency despite knowing Michael Gallup will miss time this season as he recovers from a torn ACL.
The good news is elite quarterbacks can overcome a shaky supporting cast. Brady did it for years in New England, and Rodgers still does in Green Bay. Drew Brees elevated a number of mediocre receiving corps in New Orleans prior to the arrival of Michael Thomas. Mahomes might be asked to do the same in Kansas City now that Tyreek Hill is gone. Prescott now must do the same and salvage a flawed supporting cast for Dallas to have any hopes of winning.
What would that elite season look like?
Based on the 46-quarterback sample, Prescott isn’t too far from membership in that club. The typical quarterback in this group completes 66.5 percent of his passes for 276 yards per game. He averages eight yards per attempt with a 6.4 percent touchdown rate and a 1.7 percent interception rate. He posts 2.4 fourth-quarter comebacks per season. And he is sacked 1.9 times per game.
Last season Prescott checked nearly every one of those boxes. He was above the elite average in completion percentage and yards per game. He had a 1.7 percent interception rate and a 6.2 percent touchdown rate, and he was sacked only 1.9 times per game. But he was below the elite average in two areas: efficiency and performance with the game on the line.
Prescott’s 7.5 yards per attempt was the 10th-best in the league last season. But in the 10 games after the bye, his yards per attempt dipped to 6.9, which was slightly below league average.
Even worse than his yards per attempt was Prescott’s performance late in games. During the first three quarters, the offense scored a touchdown on 32 percent of its drives, the fourth-best rate in the league. The Cowboys were tough to beat if they had a decent lead entering the fourth quarter.
But when the offense took the field in the fourth quarter tied or facing a one-score deficit, it scored a touchdown on only 10 percent of its drives. Herbert, Rodgers, and Matthew Stafford were above a 35 percent touchdown rate when facing the same situation. The Cowboys ranked as the seventh-worst team in this metric with their one touchdown on 10 drives. Even worse for Prescott: the one drive on which Dallas scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter while facing a one-score deficit came on Cooper Rush’s late-game heroics against the Vikings. Prescott had no touchdown drives in the five games where he encountered such a situation. What’s baffling is that Prescott has historically been excellent with his back against the wall. From 2016 to ’19, Dallas was fifth in the NFL in touchdown percentage when facing a late one-score deficit.
This is not a make-or-break season for Prescott, but it should reveal the type of quarterback he is. With the weight heavier than ever, and critics and supporters champing at the bit to prove they are right, Prescott has 17 games to render a verdict. And the outcome could be the difference between the Cowboys taking a long-awaited step forward in the postseason or being doomed by the flaws of an incomplete roster.