A year ago, after the Cowboys were eliminated by the 49ers, I wrote that their championship window with Dak Prescott had been slammed shut. More specifically, I wrote the following:
“I have a really hard time, however, imagining a scenario where Prescott improves in his 30s. His mobility is shot. His arm is solid, but will never be spectacular. Even if the interceptions prove to be fluky and he solves the blueprint that’s worked against him since the 2021-22 season, the upside is only so high.”
The crux of that column was that the Cowboys quarterback was good but not good enough to outduel other top-tier signal-callers, which tends to be requisite for postseason success. And to be fair, we still have not seen him do that in the playoffs. But even acknowledging that fact, it’s time to appreciate what we just watched. Dak Prescott just authored the best season of his career at age 30. And he did so at a time when many people (me) assumed we had already seen the best that Prescott had to offer: good, not great.
Prescott touched greatness this season. He posted the highest completion percentage of his career, the most touchdowns of his career, and the lowest interception percentage since his rookie season. He finished the season as the NFL’s highest graded passer according to Pro Football Focus. His QBR was second overall, just behind San Francisco’s Brock Purdy.
He achieved this despite a shockingly conservative first few weeks of the season, when it felt like Prescott and the coaching staff were spooked by the fact that he led the league in interceptions last year. But coming out of the bye week, the game changed. For the year, his stats on things like average depth of target and air yards ended up roughly in line with his career average, but he was able to marry peak efficiency, explosiveness, and risk aversion all at once.
No one would assert that his athleticism is anywhere near where it was early in his career. But Prescott had more charted scrambles this year than any other as a pro, even his rookie season. He picked up as many first downs on the ground as he did back in 2016, and he had nearly as many rushing yards. He led the league in passing yards on throws that PFF charted as rollouts or scrambles. That is a major development considering it seemed as if he was not as willing to throw on the move as often following that season-ending ankle injury in 2020. Whether he was simply less banged up, he decided to just trust his body, or likely a combination of both, his legs were a much bigger factor this season than they have been in some time.
The real test is still to come, of course, however silly it is that the perception of an entire career comes down to a handful of games every January. Prescott and Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys are tied for the second-most regular season wins over the last three seasons, yet chatter still percolates about whether to extend the quarterback and fire the coach. Obviously a loss in the first round to the Packers would be considered a catastrophe. But with this quarterback and this defense and nearly 30 years of waiting, the club needs to reach the conference championship game.
It’s hard to see Dallas putting together that kind of run without Prescott continuing to play at or near the level he’s been all year. But that mandate also comes with upside: merely winning the next two games, both of which will be at home, would change the way people talk about Prescott a decade from now. He would have advanced further in the postseason than Tony Romo ever did, and would have two more playoff wins to his name. If he never played another down of football, Prescott would be regarded by most as a step above his predecessor, who in his prime was a perennial top-10 quarterback. Fair or not, the playoffs are how we remember teams and players. Prescott will have created more moments that live on.
Of course, the flip side is equally heavy. A dud over the next couple of weeks will be a huge piece of how Prescott is remembered, perhaps going so far as to invalidate all that greatness from the past five months. What would it say about him that he raised his game so highly, so unexpectedly, except in the few moments that decide everything? That question may be unfair—bad postseason quarterback play is rarely just about the quarterback—but that never prevented Romo from being scrutinized for well over a decade.
No matter how this ends, I hope we can all appreciate just how ridiculous Prescott was this season. Usually, when you think you’ve seen the best of a quarterback, you have. There have been quarterbacks who suddenly turned in MVP seasons in their 30s, but the list mostly consists of players who were backups for much of their careers—Rich Gannon, Steve Young—not ones who have been starting games since the moment they arrived in the NFL at age 23.
Yet here is Prescott, who not only revamped his game at age 30 but did it well enough to play at an MVP level and lead his team to a division title. We thought we knew what he was, and that he couldn’t get much better. Turns out, we didn’t know. He did. And if he keeps this up, the Cowboys’ deserved reputation as postseason failures might not hold up much longer, either.