Interceptions were an issue for Dak Prescott in 2023. Despite missing five games, he managed to tie for the NFL lead in this worrisome category. His 15 picks in 12 games were a career high for Prescott and became the basis of many offseason conversations regarding the Cowboys’ ceiling in 2023.
Mike McCarthy discussed it often, making turnovers a point of emphasis for the Dallas offense. After dispatching Kellen Moore to different, possibly greener pastures, McCarthy took a more hands-on approach to the design of the Cowboys’ offense.
Calling it “Texas Coast” he merged his old west coast offensive principles with the longstanding Air Coryell system to put Prescott and his offense in position to succeed. Simplifying route options and becoming more timing-based was a logical way to eliminate potentially harmful variables such as WR error.
No one will argue turnovers play an important part in determining winners and losers in the NFL. In a study focusing on defensive instability, Josh Hermsmeyer at FiveThirtyEight discussed the enormous role turnovers play each week.
Turnovers often make the difference in an NFL game. How much? Enough to close most point spreads pic.twitter.com/jgihZ7xH1D
— Reid D Hanson (@ReidDHanson) September 5, 2023
Overall, teams with a positive turnover differential win 78 percent of the time.
Down and distance, timing, and field position matter, but generally speaking an interception is estimated to be worth -4.34 in expected points added (EPA), serving as one of the most impactful plays of an NFL game.
Does this mean the Cowboys should shift to a more conservative gameplan?
That’s the question we ask today. They won four games with Cooper Rush at the helm, and he provided next to no value as a passer (measured in EPA/dropback and CPOE). It’s a preposterous statement to make but if limiting interceptions is the top goal of some, the impact may be worth exploring.
What kinds of passes get intercepted?
Conventional wisdom says a short conservative passing attack leads to less interceptions, and in some ways that’s true. But that implies short passes are inherently safer and long passes are more dangerous, when the actual numbers paint an entirely different picture.
Ryan Weisman at PFF found a 60-yard pass only has an eight percent chance of being intercepted. Long-balls are often regarded as gambles but the numbers show they are low-risk and high-reward. The success rate is lower than short and intermediate passes but the chances of it being picked off is still very unlikely.
Looking at Weisman’s probabilities, batted passes are the most likely pass to be intercepted. A pass delivered while the passer getting hit come in at No. 2, followed by various forms of WR error as the next three highest causes of an INT.
The numbers show the five highest interception probabilities has more to do with the players around the QB than the pass itself.
Perhaps Prescott shouldn’t be the focus after all.
Does McCarthy have unrealistic expectations?
One could say McCarthy has been spoiled. Throughout his coaching career McCarthy has had the fortune of coaching Joe Montana, Brett Farve and Aaron Rodgers. The bulk of McCarthy’s success as a head coach has come with Rodgers under center and Rodgers essentially wrote the book on ball security.
Despite being one of the highest volume passers in the NFL, Rodgers only posted double-digit INTs three times in his 18-year career (one coming his first year as a starter and another coming in 2022 after McCarthy had left).
Rodgers even set an NFL record in 2011 by posting the lowest interception percentage rate to-date (at 1.2 percent) in arguably their most successful regular season campaign they had together (15-1 record).
While TD:INT ratio is possibly the most overrated stat cited by popular media, it’s not without meaning. When packaged with things like EPA, CPOE and success rate, it can explain quality, impact, and volume in relation to ball security.
Safe gameplans may not lose many games, but they don’t win many either. Ball security can’t come at the cost of overall production. Which is exactly what the Cowboys need to keep in mind.
They can’t be so hyper-focused on reducing turnovers that it comes at the cost of Prescott’s ability to produce.
The Aaron Rodgers career lull
Before Rodgers’ resurgence under Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay passer was actually in a multi-year decline. Surviving largely on reputation and the occasional dazingly play, many stats and film studies pointed to a declining passer.
Ben Baldwin, a fearless critic of Rodgers during that time, pointed to his performance from 2015 to 2019 and how it was fledging in the waters of average rather than greatness.
Despite having one of the highest-rated offensive lines, a consistent top-10 running game, and one of the best WRs in the league in Davante Adams, his accuracy and effectiveness slipped, leading to a spike in throw-aways and ultimately the end of McCarthy’s career in Green Bay.
The cause for Rodgers’ decline during that period remains unexplained but perhaps the focus on INTs and the avoidance of the high-reward nature of downfield passing played a part.
Jokes were made at that time, Rodgers’ favorite receiver during those years was the sideline, given the number of checkdowns and throwaways he tossed each week.
It’s possible in Dallas, McCarthy’s obsession over reducing interceptions stem from unrealistic (and possibly damaging) expectations set by Rodgers in Green Bay.
Is the focus on INTs making a mountain out of a molehill?
It’s understandable the national media has latched onto the turnover narrative. Keeping the Cowboys in the news is good business and 15 picks in 12 games is undeniably too many. But are the Cowboys making a mountain out of a molehill here?
Last season was an outlier for Prescott. He’s always had a nice grasp of risk and reward and historically has kept his turnovers in check. Multiple analysts have broken down the film in 2022 and spread out the blame throughout the roster accordingly.
Including the postseason, Dak Prescott threw 17 interceptions last season… but how many were his fault?
Mike Martz breaks down every pick and illustrates how undisciplined routes and shaky schematics were key contributors to the turnovers
— The 33rd Team (@The33rdTeamFB) April 7, 2023
Deep analysis of 2022 showed Prescott’s interceptions weren’t simply a result of his recklessness but rather a team effort.
And as PFF broke down over the offseason, since entering the league Prescott has a league-leading nine interceptions off dropped balls, making him one of the unluckiest passers in the NFL.
Last season was no exception, with the blame of roughly half of his interceptions falling on his teammates. His 3.8% interception-worthy pass rate marked a career high, but only marginally. He’s still a reserved passer who appreciates the risk and reward nature of the game without being careless.
Given 2022 was an outlier for Prescott in both INTs and interception-worthy passes, regression to the mean seems like a probability in 2023.
The revamped WR corps will likely help (remember, three of the top-five highest INT probabilities steam from WR error) and McCarthy’s move to the Texas Coast offense can’t hurt either.
Prescott’s ability to accept the occasional turnover allows him to maximize his production through the air. Playing scared isn’t in his DNA and forcing him to think twice about every pass downfield comes at the cost of big plays downfield.
Focusing on INTs could do more harm than good to the Cowboys offense. It’s fixing a problem that doesn’t exist because virtually all evidence points to 2022 as an anomaly.
With the improved pass protection (less batted passes), less time in the pocket (Texas Coast offense), and better WR play (more talented group with simplifies tasks), the Cowboys have already set the stage for significant drop. They don’t need Prescott to change his DNA.