Dak Prescott was heading into his career year when he sustained a serious ankle injury in week six of last season. After one year of crying while coming off the field against the Giants and needing surgery, he resumed where he left off.
At 28 in his fifth year, it should come as no surprise that the quarterback came with Prescott’s talent at his prime. But he also evolved into an elite bystander.
Prescott was a rookie spotter who took charge of Tony Romo in 2016. Entering the league with his close friend and fellow strongman Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys delivered an effective all-out attack with a strong running game. Prior to 2021, that came with his career-high rating of 104.9.
This season, Prescott is rated excellent 116.9. He does so while completing 73.9 percent of his passes with 9.0 adjusted yards per attempt, as well as new career highs. Most importantly, due to his better play and assist from defense, the Cowboys are 4-1 and have a chance of emulating a 13-3 of 16 team.
As the saying goes, Prescott’s biggest setback turned out to be the setting for a great comeback. Here’s a look at why Prescott made the jump to the top tier of the NFL for good:
Dak Prescott was in the third year of the same dynamic crime
Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have gone from a young experimental mix to a simpatico-dominant. Moore excelled at striking the right balance between a top-notch running game and an explosive scrolling game. There are elements of what Prescott did before Moore called up the plays but he took it to the next level with an adaptable approach based on opponents.
Long gone are the days of conservative clock-crunching under Jason Jarrett. Not only does Moore make cowboys more diverse and versatile – and therefore very difficult to defend – but they are also aggressive. They have complete confidence in Prescott to pass him relentlessly to keep opponents away. Forget ball control. The Cowboys follows old school meets new school feel of “Pass to score, run to win” with Prescott.
Prescott’s experience with the scheme allows him to better see the entire field and execute it with confidence. Prescott came to the league and was praised for his physical strength, but he didn’t get enough recognition to cement him in the mental parts of the game with his work ethic. Having an established relationship with Moore—credit coach Mike McCarthy for not breaking that—put Prescott into the rare caller relationship we’ve seen with Tom Brady, Drew Bryce and Patrick Mahomes.
Dak Prescott spreads the ball like never before
With his wide receivers being top-tier Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, it would be surprising to many to know that it’s Dalton Schultz who leads the Cowboys at 26 receptions after five games. Cooper has 25 and Lamb 24.
Michael Gallup hasn’t played his third wide-reaching leg since injuring his leg against the Buccaneers in week one, but Prescott did get some big plays from substitute Cedric Wilson when needed. Off the field, Elliott and talented student Tony Pollard gathered for a 21 reception.
Back as a novice, Dez Bryant was Prescott’s go-to guy. Prescott started falling off as Bryant faded and there was no real number 1. That changed when the Cowboys made a huge trade with the Raiders to acquire Cooper three years ago. Although Cooper and Gallup were a good duo. Adding Lamb in the 2020 draft was not a “luxury choice” for Jerry Jones. Dallas has given ample interchangeable space with the Cooper, one can run all the roads inside out in good hands.
Teams can’t take both Cooper and Lamb, and the Cowboys will be more dangerous when Gallup’s circumferential speed must be factored into coverage. Schultz’s appearance brought back a short-to-medium presence similar to that of Jason Whitten. Pollard gives them an extra tool in checks when Elliott isn’t in the game.
Prescott presses the right buttons in targeting players with the best matches with Moore’s help. Although Cooper and Lamb can still take over the games, the Cowboys don’t need to be forced to feed them the ball with myriad options and the basis for a dominant running game again. Everyone is now Prescott’s favorite guy and is more than willing to be patient and throw all over the field.
Dak Prescott is less dependent on running himself
Prescott averages just 12 yards per game, which is a career low. Although he was never a reading-type runner, he was quick to choose where to compete at times. He’s also made dashing a huge part of his success in the red in the past.
Don’t confuse this with Prescott being shy about running due to his ankle injury. This is by designing the offense, as Prescott becomes more dangerous by using his foot and mobility to buy time to override each of his advances. The difference is that for the most part someone is open and doesn’t need to turn their legs outside the line of scrimmage.
Prescott’s offensive streak comes again. Adjusting from the extra game in the 2021 schedule, Prescott is running for dismissal just 25 times in 16 games – which would have matched his rookie season total. Protection was good, but Prescott was also improved when overpressure. He is confident that he can stick to the pocket or move around a bit and pass the ball where he pleases.
Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen all go through the same two-step development as the top young players, where they are not a single receiver and do not rely on self-running to advance the ball for the necessary gains.
Dak Prescott’s motivation was even greater by losing almost everything
Brees is a future elite Hall of Famer now, but it’s easy to forget that his long, successful career with the Saints may never have happened. Last week on NBC’s “Football Night in America,” Bryce likened Prescott’s ankle injury to the shoulder anxiety he was experiencing after his final season with the Charger in 2005.
There was some belief that Brees might never properly look like a passer or play another role in the NFL. So when he landed with the Saints in 2006, Bryce said he was a solid captain, ready to make the most of his second chance on attacking Sean Payton. He turned the corner from just a bystander to an all-around prolific player.
Prescott admitted that he had some of those thoughts of ending his life. Keep in mind that before facing the Giants, Prescott was one of the strongest quarterbacks in the league, starting every game since he was a rookie.
Prescott went out the window while facing his death in football. The Cowboys rewarded him with a lucrative long-term contract regardless of injury because they believed in him to make every effort to come back better than ever, without taking anything for granted.
The result was highly focused and locked into Prescott. The scary part is that he’s still shedding quite a bit of rust and could step into a bigger groove in the second half of the season once Gallup returns.
Whatever it means to be an “elite” quarterback, Prescott has provided plenty of evidence this season that he belongs in that company with his young teammates.