Dak Prescott Has Been Great, and We Need to Talk About It
When long-time Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback Tony Romo was hurt in a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks in late August, flashbacks to the 2015 season became justified for any worried fans.
The Cowboys lost Romo and star wide receiver Dez Bryant to injury last season, en route to a 4-12 campaign, one that saw them ranked 27th in nERD, the expected point differential compared to an average opponent on a neutral field.
Their -6.01 nERD implied they were a touchdown worse than an average squad, and no matter how much you believed in Dak Prescott's preseason, losing Romo justifiably put their 2016 season in question.
But through four weeks, the team sits 3-1.
You can say whatever you'd like about the running game or defense, but Prescott's play has been otherworldly relative to their passers from 2015, and we need to discuss it.
2015's Quarterback Debacle
In 2015, the Cowboys boasted the third-worst passing offense in the NFL according to our schedule-adjusted Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which quantifies a team's performance compared to expectation-level.
A 10-yard completion flat out isn't as important on 3rd-and-5 to enter the red zone as it is on 3rd-and-20 inside your own 20 leading to a punt, and that's part of why NEP helps us see a clearer picture of on-field performance compared to traditional stats.
But let's be clear from the get-go: Romo wasn't good last year.
His Passing NEP of -4.80 ranked 36th among 46 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs last season. Over his 127 drop backs, he maintained a per-play average of -0.04. The league average was a positive 0.11 in 2015.
By contrast, Kellen Moore posted a 9.83 Passing NEP over 109 drop backs (0.09 per drop back). That per-play rate ranked him 22nd among the 46 qualified passers. Brandon Weeden lost just 0.79 over 98 drop backs.
But Matt Cassel posted a -0.14 Passing NEP per drop back over 218 attempts, ultimately losing Dallas 31.24 points of expected scoring. Things were bad enough, but Cassel was flat out dreadful.
The end result, of course, was not good.
Dak Prescott has been better this year. And it's not remotely close.
|Cowboys Quarterback Play||Dallas Quarterbacks (2015)||Dak Prescott (2016)|
|Passing NEP per Drop Back||-0.05||0.33|
|Successful Drop Backs||258||74|
|Passing Success Rate||46.74%||54.01%|
Rushing Game Improvement(?)
In 2015, the Cowboys ranked ninth in schedule-adjusted Rushing NEP per play as a team. In 2014, when DeMarco Murray ran for 1,845 yards, they were also ninth.
Let that sink in for a moment.
McFadden (-0.02) and Randle (-0.02) graded out above league-average (-0.04) on a per-carry basis in terms of Rushing NEP. No, that's not fantastic, but above-average was pretty damn good compared to their quarterback situation.
This year, fourth-overall selection Ezekiel Elliott has maintained a Rushing NEP per carry of 0.02 on his 94 attempts for a total Rushing NEP of 1.74 points.
In all, Dallas' running backs lost 8.44 points last season on their carries, so Elliott has been worth 10.18 points more than last year's group on the ground.
Of course, Prescott's passing has been worth 70.92 points compared to their quarterbacks from 2015. When factoring in his Rushing NEP (7.51), Prescott has provided a 79.09-point swing over the Cowboys' 2015 quarterback group.
Ezekiel Elliott has been great. He leads the NFL in rushing yards, and he's producing above-average analytics.
But Prescott has been phenomenal.
And even though the team thought that Elliott would help this defense, they have dropped in overall efficiency from 20th last season to 25th so far this year.
Things in Dallas are looking better, but the rushing situation and defense aren't drastically better or worse than they were in 2015. We don't need to diminish what the defense and Elliott have done so far. That's not the point.
But the biggest difference in Big D has been Prescott, and we shouldn't keep overlooking that.