Dak Prescott is the real deal

In recent years, the NFL has seen a spate of rookie quarterbacks, or first-year starters, who’ve gone on to struggle following early success. The likes of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles all had scintillating starts to their careers, before succumbing to obvious flaws in their games.

No quarterback has had a more impressive first season than the one Dak Prescott just put together. Dallas’ rookie put up unprecedented numbers for a first-time signal caller and showcased all the traits that point to him being a special talent.

Despite that, it feels as though he’s received less attention and less credit compared to some of the star rookies who’ve come before him. It makes some sense, he’s surrounded by an awesome supporting cast that features a top-level offensive line, a generational running back and talented weapons on the outside. But dig deeper through Prescott’s rookie campaign and you’ll find defining attributes that have less to do with his supporting cast than his own ability.

Most rookies who fall off a cliff after an impressive first season do so because their flaws are exposed. Colin Kaepernick lacked the ability to throw with touch or accuracy, limiting what the 49ers could do with their offense and heightening his poor decision-making. RGIII had a similar struggle, his loss of mobility was apparent, but more than anything he fell apart due to his inability to make basic rhythm and timing throws. And, yes, bad decision-making.

Prescott is different. Some of his best attributes are obvious: poise, mobility, decision-making and accuracy. But his skill-set goes far beyond that, with traits you rarely see from a rookie, let alone one drafted in the fourth round.

Let’s start with the most impressive one: manipulating the defense with his eyes. I’ve never evaluated a rookie quarterback this advanced at moving safeties and linebackers with his eyes. Sure, someone like Andrew Luck had this tool in his box, but it wasn’t this developed.

Prescott has mastered the art of manipulating zone coverages and moving safeties to where he needs them.

This is a good example from the Cowboys’ divisional playoff game against the Packers. Here, Prescott was working against a single-high safety look. Dez Bryant was isolated on one side of the formation, and there were two receivers and tight end Jason Witten on the other side.

Prescott was working against the safety, attempting to get a 1-on-1 matchup for Bryant against an inferior corner. If the safety had rotated over to double-team Bryant, Prescott would have a series of 1-on-1 matchups on the opposite side of the field. If the safety rotated to the trips side, Prescott would have a 1-on-1 with his star receiver.

At the snap, Prescott used his eyes to hold the safety in the middle of the field before flashing his eyes to his right and moving safety Morgan Burnett of his spot. Burnett followed Prescott’s eyes, opening up as though he was driving toward the trips side. That movement gave Prescott the opening he needed, working quickly back toward Bryant and uncorking a touchdown throw 40 yards down the field.

The end zone shot is equally important (included in the above video). It highlights two extra things: A) How Prescott doesn’t move his head as he drops, holding the safety where he needs him, and B) His ability to make throws while under pressure. When he released the ball, he had a blitzing Packer right in his lap, but he stood in, took the shot, and delivered the perfect ball downfield.

Prescott’s poise is often cited in terms of a young player stepping onto a championship-level team and not blinking. Yet it’s more appropriate when discussing how he deals with pressure within the pocket. Like many of the greats, things appear to slow down for him even when he’s coming under fire.

Accuracy to all levels was something Prescott had shown back at Mississippi State. Throughout his college career, but there was a particularly jump between his junior year and senior year, Prescott showed his understanding of trajectories and velocities, mixing up his throws to complete every type that was needed: Rhythm, bucket, touch, drive, whatever’s needed, he can deliver it.

Pairing that accuracy, with his poise under pressure was crucial in his first year. Stunningly, he finished third in the league in passer rating outside the numbers, behind only Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. For a rookie, that’s unheard of. Again, it wasn’t just the physical abilities, it’s the mental ones.

This throw against the Steelers from back in Week 9 is maybe the best play Prescott made all season. His mobility outside of the pocket and in the run game are feature elements of the Cowboys offense, but it’s his mobility within the pocket that’s special for a young starter.

Knowing when to stick-and-slide — moving within the pocket to evade pressure and find a good throwing lane — is a difficult skill for any quarterback to master, particularly those with the wheels to bail the pocket and create a positive play. Russell Wilson, RGIII, Johnny Manziel, the list goes on and on of guys who’ll turn and move out of pressure, rather than sliding and climbing into a throw (Russell Wilson has developed greatly in this area and is exempt from 2016 because of the line he was playing behind).

It doesn’t get much better than this one:

Prescott was again facing a single-high safety. It’s a similar look to the one in which he hit Dez Bryant in the divisional game. There’s Bryant isolated on one side of the formation and two receivers split out to the opposite side. If Prescott was able to hold the safety, and prevent him from giving help to the Bryant side, Dallas would have a 1-on-1 matchup with their top receiver on a rookie cornerback.

Again, Prescott was able to hold the safety as he dropped, then move him with his eyes. The flash of Prescott’s eyes to the two-receiver side of the formation forced the safety to move, creating the matchup he wanted for Bryant, and they were able to connect for another big touchdown throw.

What made this a special throw was the quarterback’s discipline, composure and mobility inside the pocket.

The Steelers sent the house: sending a linebacker cross-blitz and a safety who came from deep. As Prescott dropped (end zone view in the video above), Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier burst through the line. Cowboys’ running back Lance Dunbar was able to get in the linebacker’s way, but didn’t land a clean shot and Shazier was in the backfield. Prescott never panicked. Instead, it was stick, slide, climb, touchdown.

It was a beautiful play. And what capped it off was Prescott’s anticipation. He was readying to let the ball go as soon as he hit the top of his drop, knowing he’d manipulated the safety and fashioned the matchup he wanted. But with pressure in his face, he couldn’t let it go cleanly. As he moved and climbed in the pocket, the temptation would be to get another look at the matchup — many quarterbacks like Joe Flacco fall victim to this, often gifting the defense too much time to recover. But Prescott made it all one seamless move, going from under duress to climbing into a touchdown throw in one motion.

Throughout the year, Prescott showed he could manipulate and make throws against every kind of look and coverage that defenses threw at him. This example is from the Cowboys’ regular season game with the Packers. This time, Prescott was facing a split-safety look prior to the snap, with the Packers playing a cover-1 hole coverage — one safety rotating into a middle field zone in front of the other one. As the ball is snapped, the rotating safety is reading the quarterback’s eyes and following them to the ball, while cornerbacks play man-to-man underneath and the other safety slides to the deep middle of the field spot.

Against that coverage, Prescott’s job was to move the safety with his eyes in order to get a 1-on-1 for one of his receivers, and to not tip off where he wanted to go with the ball. As was commonplace throughout the year, he played it perfectly.

As Prescott dropped, he was able to move the Packers’ “hole” safety Kentrell Brice toward the hash mark by moving his eyes to the left side of the field. With Brice biting down, that gave the Cowboys a 1-on-1 matchup at the top of the screen with receiver Brice Butler on cornerback Ladarius Gunter.

When Prescott worked over to the Butler-Gunter matchup, Brice was left in no man’s land, unable to recover and give help to his corner. Prescott put the ball in the perfect spot where only his guy could go make a play, and Butler ran right under the ball for the score.

Playing well from the neck up is a pre-snap and post-snap requirement. The post-snap stuff, like moving safeties, is easier to identify that what goes on before the snap. But Prescott’s development in that area has been almost equally impressive.

As the season went along, the Cowboys put more and more on the rookie’s plate, allowing him to operate and command the game from the line of scrimmage.

This touchdown throw vs. Detroit in Week 16 was created before the ball was snapped.

Against a split safety look, Prescott saw something he didn’t like. As a result, he changed the play: delivering the call to each receiver and resetting his protection — prior to the snap Prescott gave a hand signal in which he rubbed his chest. That could either be the confirmation of an alert call, a signal to a receiver or a dummy signal. The Lions dropped into a three-deep coverage, and the Cowboys had the perfect coverage beater. Butler had a seam route, and was wide open down the field for the score. It wasn’t a perfect throw, but Prescott beat the coverage by controlling the offense pre-snap.

Yet for as impressive as Prescott was from the neck up, both pre- and post-snap, it’s not like Dallas was lacking for an intelligent player who could operate the game from the line with Tony Romo. So, what separates the key difference between the two? Prescott’s mobility.

Arguably, the Cowboys’ boot action game was the most diverse and potent in the league this year — right there with the Falcons. Prescott’s threat to run, be it on an option play, or carrying it on a bootleg creates a nightmare dynamic for any opposing defense.

The philosophy of option football is essentially to make the game a series of 1-on-1 hat-on-hat contests. Prescott brings that to Dallas’ ground game, and with 11 better players than most defenses — a dominant offensive line and special running back — they mauled people.

Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Scott Linehan ran an expansive quarterback run and option package, including: bootlegs, lead options, zone options and quarterback draws. The impact was felt all over the field, but it becomes extremely tough to stop once they’re down in the red zone.

Even when it’s not Prescott carrying the ball, his impact is felt. Often Dallas’ rushing offense boiled down to Ezekiel Elliott or one of its All-Pro linemen winning an individual battle. And those guys won far more than they lost.

Here’s an example in the red zone from Cowboys’ game with the Bengals. Through their formation alone, the Cowboys naturally unloaded the box, with receivers spread out and each covered by a corner. That created a hat-on-hat situation in the box, with Prescott optioning one of the Bengals’ down linemen — the strong side defensive end.

If the lineman held his position, playing Prescott, the quarterback would’ve handed the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott; eliminating the defender from the play and effectively blocking him without having to make a physical block. If, as he did, the defender crashed down to play Elliott, Prescott would pull the ball and take it himself.

On the play, Jason Witten kicked out to block the on-ball linebacker (the furthest defender to the right of the screen above). That left a huge hole for Prescott to stroll through. His impact here is tangible, but the non-tangible plays in which he’s holding linemen in similar situations and creating favorable opportunities for Elliott is immense.

Alright, about now you’re probably thinking “OK, enough with the hyperbole. He’s not perfect. There’s got to be flaws?” And you’d be right. Prescott isn’t perfect, but there’s certainly nothing that’s fundamentally broken.

Prescott’s biggest issue during his rookie campaign was the speed at which he processed his own offense. He would spend too much time stuck on his first read, before bouncing through his progression. Once he moved off that first read, he moved through his progressions fine, but too often he became married to the initial target.

Now, part of that is the luxury of having a great offensive line, but it’s also rookie growing pains.

Prescott’s worst game of the year was against the Giants in Week 14. Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo identified the flaw and attacked it specifically by blitzing over and over again. By doing so, it meant by the time Prescott had come off his first read he would be beginning to feel heat, and he was moved off his spot, making throws more erratic.

The game plan worked. Prescott struggled, completing less than 50 percent of his throws and finishing with his worst passer rating of the season.

Here’s a look at a third down play from early in the game when the Giants began to dial up the pressure. Prior to the snap they walked down one of their linebackers directly over the Cowboys’ center, and brought the other linebacker on a blitz as the ball was snapped.

On the outside, the Giants played man coverage, with their corners blanketing each of the Cowboys’ receivers. With pressure in his face — although Ezekiel Elliott picked up a decent block on a blitzing linebacker — Prescott was forced to move to his left and was unable to make an accurate throw.

The end zone view highlights the problem. Prescott locked in on Jason Witten running a seam route prior the snap. When the ball was snapped, he stuck on his first read — Witten — as the Giants brought their pressure. By the time he came off Witten and began to survey the field, he was forced to move and to create a play.

It’s a problem that can only be fixed with reps and time. The more he plays, the better feel he’ll get for the offense and which receivers are likely to be open based on the opposing personnel and scheme.

The quality of Prescott’s rookie campaign cannot be understated. And that’s why any talk of moving on from him instead of Romo — an argument made in an article on this very site — is for me, nonsensical.

Finding a quarterback, on a rookie deal, who plays like a top-10 player is one of the NFL’s great unicorns. It tips the financial scales in the team’s favor. It’s almost like the league handing out free cap space. The team gets a player worth $20-$25 million a year on a multi-year contract worth less than $1 million each year.

Tony Romo’s cap total for next season is $24.7 million, Prescott’s is just $635,000. By moving on from Romo, the Cowboys will be giving themselves an extra $24 million to improve an already loaded roster.

It’s really the Seahawks model. When they landed Russell Wilson — also a mid-round pick — who was playing like a $20 million a year player, but earning a fraction of that, they were able to go out and splash on free-agent talent. They landed players like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, two of the most crucial pieces during their recent run.

Dallas is in need of major pass rush help. Prescott’s play and contract allows the Cowboys to go after whatever they want in free agency, whether it’s splashing on a player like Jason Pierre-Paul or bringing in multiple guys. By staggering the contracts — pushing the big free-agent cap hits into the years that Prescott is on his rookie deal — the organization can set itself up to be loaded on both sides of the ball for a five-year period.

It’s not like the Cowboys will be costing themselves anything. Prescott played like one of the league’s best quarterbacks in 2016. None of it was a fluke, or entirely because of the cast around him. Prescott is the real deal. His rookie season was the best we’ve ever seen and he’s only going to get better.

Originally published at www.all22.com on January 27, 2017.

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.