The Dallas Cowboys have won 12 games for the second straight season, which is something they haven’t done since the 1994-1995 NFL seasons. The 1995 NFL season was the last in which Jerry Jones’ team won a Super Bowl, so if you’re looking for good omens, Cowboys fans, there’s that.
A not-so-good omen is the interception rate of quarterback Dak Prescott. Before this season, Prescott had been one of the league’s safest quarterbacks when it came to throwing interceptions in bunches. His interception rate of 1.7% (50 picks on 2,889 attempts) from 2016-2021 is tied with Alex Smith’s for the fifth-lowest with Alex Smith among quarterbacks with at least 1,000 passing attempts over that time. And it’s not as if Prescott has been risk-averse over that period — his yards per attempt of 7.6 over his first six NFL seasons ranks seventh in the NFL.
This season, however, has been very different. Prescott is tied with Derek Carr of the Las Vegas Raiders and Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings for the league lead in interceptions with 14, and that’s despite the fact that he’s missed five games early in the season with a fractured thumb. His interception rate of 3.9% is more than double what it’s been in any of his previous seasons except for 2017 (2.7%). Prescott has thrown multiple interceptions in five of his 11 starts this season, and in four of his last six.
It’s not that Prescott has been bad or a specific liability to his team outside of these alarming trends — he ranks sixth in DVOA and 11th in DYAR among quarterbacks this season — but as the playoffs approach, the air gets thinner, and every mistake can mean more, it’s certainly a concern.
The Cowboys would like to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 27 seasons. If they are to do that, their quarterback will have to throw the ball at a higher rate to his teammates, and at a lower rate to his opponents.
Seems obvious, but when it’s been going on this long, it’s worth doing what Prescott and his coaches are also doing — grinding the tape, getting to the roots of the problems, and trying to solve them.
“I can promise you, we’re coaching it,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said after Dallas’ 27-13 Week 17 win over the Tennessee TItans, in which Prescott threw two interceptions to safety Kevin Byard. “We’re emphasizing it. He’s wired the right way. Our players are wired the right way. So, unfortunately, you go through ups and downs in this league. That’s the beauty of how competitive this league is. This was a game we needed to get and we got it done. So whether we don’t get any style points, that’s OK. But we’re still at 12 wins.”
Style points are not the point, and McCarthy knows that. But he’s got to help his quarterback get to the other side of a worrisome problem.
So, here it is: Why the heck, after so many years as one of the NFL’s more efficient quarterbacks, is one Rayne Dakota Prescott barfing the ball all over the field in such unusual ways? Or, is there more to the story than Prescott himself?
Pressure is affecting him differently.
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
In 2021, the one thing you did NOT want to do when playing the Cowboys was to blitz Prescott. He was by far the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback when facing five or more pass-rushers, with 113 completions on 178 attempts for 1,230 yards, 708 air yards, 24 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 114.0. This season, coming into the Titans game, Prescott had completed 63 of 91 passes for 624 yards, 332 air yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.2. Not horrible by any means, but not nearly as explosive, and Prescott isn’t in the same place to make defenses pay for sending extra rushers after him.
That regression isn’t just against the blitz. When pressured overall in 2021, regardless of the number of pass-rushers, Prescott completed 169 of 122 passes for 1,051 yards, nine touchdowns, four interceptions, and a passer rating of 78.3. This season, he’s completed 100 of 125 passes for 640 yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions, and a passer rating of 71.3.
Prescott threw two interceptions in Dallas’ 40-34 overtime loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 15. The first was a direct result of pressure. With 3:04 left in the third quarter, Prescott got pressure to his front side after end K’Lavon Chaisson and defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris ran a stunt. Tight end Dalton Schultz ran a hook route to expose a void in Jacksonville’s Cover-4, but both Chaisson and Robertson-Harris did a great job of sticking with Prescott as he bailed the pocket, and affecting the throw with their own efforts. The result was a pleasant surprise for safety Rayshawn Jenkins, who was only getting started.
“[I] was trying to throw it to Dalton and kind of got grabbed from the back at the same time as I was throwing the ball; just came out of my hand, actually high,” Prescott said about this play. Yeah, unfortunate.”
Indeed. Prescott later expounded on the process of that first pick.
“To end the game on a pick-six, yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough. It’s frustrating. Not only that, as I said, the first one, yeah, I’ve just got to not even try to throw the ball right there, feeling the guy grab me and just tuck the ball and take the sack and just move on, move on to the next play. That’s that balance. Obviously, I’ll learn from it and tuck it next time. It’s tough. It’s tough treading that line, trying to make a play, trying to be aggressive, and at the same time not putting the ball at risk.”
So, maybe there’s also an element of trying to do too much here.
Prescott's receivers are letting him down.
(Syndication: The Tennessean)
When looking at a quarterback’s interception totals, the key is to do just that — to watch every interception and to deduce the primary reason for the mistake. In Prescott’s case this season, too many of his interceptions have come as the result of his receiver corps failing to make the catches they need to make. This was obviously the cause of Prescott’s first interception against the Titans. He had tight end Peyton Hendershot on a route designed to exploit the voids in the Titans’ Cover-3, he made the throw on time, and not only could Hendershot not bring it in, but also delivered the ball to Byard.
“Crossing route,” Prescott said. “[I] was throwing it low on purpose and I just wasn’t able to make the play and the connection between us two [Brown], and obviously tips up and the guy [Jenkins] makes a great catch right there above the ground and ends the game.”
The decision-making has not always been great.
(Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports)
Prescott has had stretches this season in which he seems to struggle with what coverages defenses are throwing at him. Which is highly unusual, to say the least. Prescott has developed into one of the game’s truly great pre- and post-snap processors. But the two interceptions he threw against the Houston Texans in Week 14 were each evidence of this unsettling phenomenon. Prescott spoke after the game of coverage disguises both expected and not. This interception to cornerback Tremon Smith came against Cover-2; perhaps Prescott expected something more aggressive as the Cowboys were backed up at their own three-yard line.
Sometimes, you just have to tip your hat, but Prescott’s comments about those Houston coverages are a bit disconcerting.
“They played soft zones and made me throw in tight windows. [Receivers] know that, so they are more heads up to jump and try to get hands on the ball. That is their whole deal, getting turnovers. Obviously, we gave them a couple and it made it hard for us.
“We knew that they had a decent disguise coming into the game. However, they were going to get a couple coverages and I feel like they added a couple more tonight. When you do that and haven’t shown it on film, it gives you a heads up there. Whether it be the play calling that wasn’t the best at the time or my reads were a bit slower because they disguised it well and got in something they hadn’t been in.”
Then, there was the interception Prescott threw in Dallas’ 54-19 Week 13 win over the Indianapolis Colts. That happened with 2:56 left in the first half. The Cowboys were at their own 35-yard line with second-and-10, and they were up 14-10. So, there was no reason to get weird here, which Prescott did. He was trying to hit receiver Michael Gallup, who was covered tight by cornerback Stephon Gilmore, on a backside route up the numbers. Gilmore had Gallup on lock through the route, and Prescott could have dumped it off to Schultz, who had leaked out open to his front side. Maybe Schultz gets the first down; he certainly gets yardage here. Either way, it would have been a better option than throwing it to Gilmore, who just dominated this rep.
“My game was ‘eh,’” Prescott concluded after the Colts game. “That’s what we have to do, when our defense is playing that way — giving us turnovers and short fields – we have to go get touchdowns. The run game was amazing tonight; the offensive line set the tone. Great team win, all the way around.”
Turning it around.
(Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports)
“I don’t worry about that,” Prescott said after the Titans game, when asked if he’s worried about this affecting his team in the playoffs. “I don’t sit there and think of that, ‘Oh, this is going to continue to happen.’ As much as anything I have got to fix the ones on my end and I’ve just got to make sure the receivers and everybody that may take part in them are focused and understand that we don’t have a lot of opportunities as we move forward these last games and all these playoffs games. Every drive matters, and we have to play every play, every drive, like it is to win the game and that’s the reality of it when you get to the postseason. So, it is just heightening our focus, and understanding, for me, the risk versus the reward, rather it is a tight window or not. Everybody being on the same page understanding the magnitude of each play.”
Sunday’s game against the Washington Commanders isn’t a playoff game, but it is a “play-in” game to a point. Dallas currently has the NFC’s fifth seed. If they win, the San Francisco 49ers lose to the Arizona Cardinals, and the Philadelphia Eagles lose to the New York Giants, the Cowboys would have the NFC’s one-seed, and the conference’s only first-round bye.
The Commanders will start rookie Sam Howell at quarterback, so it’s unlikely that Dallas will have to put a forty-burger on the board to take care of their own business. But there’s still a lot for Prescott to improve in a short space of time. It’s more likely that he’ll be somewhere in the wild-card round, so the future is now.
Prescott must do a better job of taking what defenses give him. His receivers are what they are, so betting on contested-catch situations isn’t really the way. He needs to read the field more clearly, and avoid forcing throws. This short crosser to T.Y. Hilton in the Titans game was a four-yard throw that became a 28-yard play, because Hilton was in a position to create after the catch against Tennessee’s undermanned defense.
The Cowboys are in a fortunate position in that they don’t need their quarterback to be a superhero. Prescott needs to take that in, and stay within himself. If that happens, Dallas should be fine. Any hero-ball deviation from structure at this point could be a real problem.
Dak Prescott is talented enough to do just about anything on a football field. As long as he doesn’t try to do everything.