Zwiller: Explaining Dak Prescott’s slump
Thomas Zwiller | Wednesday, February 23, 2022
On “The Dan Lebatard Show with StuGotz,” Dan and the Shipping Container posed the question: Does ESPN cover the Dallas Cowboys because the Cowboys are famous, or is Dallas popular because they are so widely covered? It is an interesting chicken-and-the-egg problem (I honestly think it is a result of the team’s popularity, but that’s for another day).
Another chicken-and-egg problem asked by my friend, a diehard Cowboys fan: Is Dak Prescott good?
This seems like a somewhat ridiculous question. Of course, Dak is good! However, when my friend asked the question, he was curious to see if Dak was good because of his offensive line and weapons or if he made his offensive line and weapons good.
That strikes me as an interesting question. It feels nearly impossible to separate a QB from his weapons; the two have a dependency on each other that feels unique. But why not try?
A brief overview of Dak
Dak had a cap hit of 17.2 million in 2021 (8.2% of the cap) and will have a hit of 34.5 million in 2022 (16.3%). This season, Dak had a QBR of 54.6, down from 73.1 the year prior and 71.9 the year before that.
A disappointing year indeed from the odds on favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year, but not an indicator of Dak being a poor player by any means.
In fact, by adjusted passing, Dak was an above-average player (slightly). The problem with limiting the analysis to Adjusted Passing is that it is still a team stat, so it is not helpful beyond giving context to a QBs overall season.
So the first place I decided to look was at Dak’s individual Passer Rating (RTG) and compare it to the availability of his wide receivers. Dak had an average RTG of 104.98, with performances all over the place.
I compiled a list of his below-average performances (Weeks one, two, 9, 11, 13, 14 and 15) and compared the availability of wide receivers to their availability in above-average performances (Weeks three, four, five, six, 10, 12, 15, 16, 17 and 18).
CeeDee Lamb (22nd by ZLO) missed just week 12, an above-average performance. Amari Cooper (32) was a DNP in Weeks 11 and 12, one of each. Micheal Gallup (79) was a DNP for Weeks two-9, with two and 9 below but the rest above. Cedrick Wilson (88) missed Week 13 (below), and Noah Brown (252) missed Weeks one, 14-16 and 18, so one down and the rest above.
So realistically, there is not an ironclad trend unless you want to argue Micheal Gallup being gone made Dak improve (sort of like Baker Mayfield and OBJ).
The next best place to check seemed like the offensive line; maybe if Dak is getting pressured, it leads to a drop-off in play.
Pass Block Win Rate
Using ESPN’s block metrics, I took the Cowboys pass block win rate and compared it to each opponent’s pass rush win rate to develop an expected pass block for each game. For example, Tampa Bay has a Pass Rush Win Rate of 43%, and Dallas has a Pass Block Win Rate of 58%. That would lead to an expected pass block of 15%.
In that game, Dak had an RTG of 101.4, so slightly below average for his season. This made sense, given that Dak was playing against a somewhat above-average pass rush. This genuinely excited me until I ran the rest of the numbers. Some of the games where Dak should have had the best protection resulted in a few of his below-average games (Denver, NYG and NO).
And when he should have had his worst protection, he played some of his best games (Philly, Carolina and Philly).
According to his PFT Splits, Dak performs better when he has less than 2.5 seconds in the pocket versus more than 2.5.
So, I thought of one last way to look at Dak’s overall performance compared to his defensive opponent: DVOA.
I essentially did the same thing with the pass-rush win rate. And once again, it yielded nothing. There were a few games where Dak played against a good passing defense and played poorly, like in Week 13 against the Saints, but he often played above average against an excellent passing defense in Week six vs. the Patriots.
The inverse is true; he had an above-average performance when he played against the Cardinals in Week 17. And against a poor passing defense like the Chargers, he played below average.
I tried one last method. Turning to Next Gen Stats, I pulled up Dak Prescott RTG vs. League RTG map.
DAK was better than average when throwing to the left side of the field from 10 yards or deeper; anything on the left side 10 yards or shallower, he was average. The inverse is true on the right; the closer to the LOS, the better. Dak struggles throwing right by the pocket in the middle of the field is above average right above the LOS and then average in the deep middle.
That did not tell me anything like I had hoped it would. For example, with Tua, his map shows he dominates the short left side of the field. The farther right you go and the deeper you go, the worse he typically performs. That’s mainly because the Dolphins ran an RPO-based offense.
So, to answer my friends’ question, I honestly think that this is just Dak. He will have ups and downs throughout a season, but is largely inconsistent and depending upon circumstance.
However, what I did find interesting during my research was how comparable Dak is to the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins.
By averaging out the two Adjusted Passing scores, they both wind up being 112.
I think that Dak is a good QB, just like Kirk, and considering they were both taken in the 4th round, they are incredibly valuable.
However, I think Dak has been inconsistent is because he needs a perfect set of circumstances like Kirk does. The two are game maintainers; not winners.
When trailing in less than four minutes, Kirks RTG drops to 97.3, and with less than two minutes, 88.3. For Dak, his RTG drops to 95.3 with less than four minutes left and 87.6 with less than two.
Game winners, like Matthew Stafford, who, when trailing with four minutes left, see their QBR jump. For Stafford, it goes from 130.4, and with less than two left, 118.5 (up from 102.9).
So in conclusion, I do genuinely think Dak will continue to be a good player and put up good numbers. With this Dallas defense, the Cowboys could even win a Super Bowl. But I think Dak is going to be joining Kirk in the second-tier QB realm.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.