Dak Prescott and the Nuances of Quarterbacking
Dak Prescott has already made his imprint on NFL history, both with his story and his play. A fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Prescott was a last resort for the Dallas Cowboys. The team tried multiple times to trade up for different quarterbacks, including Paxton Lynch (Broncos) and Connor Cook (Raiders), and tried to bury Prescott on the depth chart until injuries to Tony Romo and backup Kellen Moore forced the rookie into the spotlight. It didn’t take long for Prescott to assert himself as a star.
After stumbling through a Week 1 loss to the New York Giants, Prescott zipped through the next four opponents by completing over 70 percent of his passes in each game and avoiding interceptions in all four games. Prescott scored a total of seven times, three of which were rushing touchdowns. The Mississippi State alum called for checks at the line, making heads-up throws, and keeping a talented offense on pace. He was doing it all. Whereas most rookies are a roller coaster of wows and oh-nos, Prescott was a model of consistency.
No rookie quarterback has ever been as efficient as Prescott was last season. Among rookies who started at least eight games since the 1970 merger, Prescott has the highest adjusted-net yards per attempt (ANY/A), the highest completion percentage, the highest passer rating, and the lowest interception percentage. Prescott also broke Tom Brady’s record for most pass attempts without throwing an interception, putting the new mark at 176 attempts. Prescott was historically good across the board.
Part of Prescott’s prominence is his footwork and overall mechanics. Maintaining consistent mechanics and smooth throwing platforms will significantly increase how accurate a quarterback is and can be. Prescott always finds a way to throw properly.
In the play above, Prescott displays his control and composure under pressure. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier blitzes through the heart of the offensive line and, after some scrapping, finds his way into Prescott’s vicinity. Prescott feels the linebacker’s presence and moves to his left to evade the pass rush. Once Prescott dances away, he quickly stops his momentum, squares his shoulders to the line of scrimmage, and proceeds to reset his throwing base. In what feels like one harmonic motion, Prescott is able to come full stop after evading a pass rusher and put himself into a perfect throwing position. The pass flies out of Prescott’s hand and directly into Dez Bryant’s mitts for a touchdown.
Prescott consistently maintains good mechanics on the move, too. Given his athleticism, Prescott is often rolled out of the pocket or vacated the pocket by his own will. Prescott is excellent when throwing outside of the pocket because of how well he squares his shoulders to his target.
Quarterbacks don’t get to use their feet when throwing on the move. They have to push off of their strong foot (right foot for most every quarterback in the league) and use solely their torso to generate velocity. In doing so, quarterbacks have to show the body control to keep their shoulders parallel while still bringing their arm around and giving the pass some pop on its way out. It’s a process that requires great core strength and dexterity.
Prescott makes an exemplary throw on the move in the play above. After checking his options to his right, Prescott scans back to his left and quickly finds wide receiver Cole Beasley. However, Beasley isn’t open yet when Prescott finds him. Prescott decides to roll slightly to his left, both to buy time away from the defenders and to create a better passing angle. As he’s moving to his left, Prescott keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, allowing him to do the same as he goes to make the throw. Prescott is able to sling a quick pass to Beasley while maintaining strong, stable upper body mechanics. The completion set up the Cowboys for a manageable third-down situation that they went on to convert.
Prescott’s intelligence also helped propel him on his journey to a Rookie of the Year trophy. Despite being a fresh face in the NFL, Prescott picked up the intricacies of Scott Linehan’s offense and executed it to its fullest extent. Prescott regularly made smart decisions and made necessary adjustments in his parade of efficiency and ball security.
The above play is one of many examples of Prescott making his best effort to keep the offense on schedule. This is the type of quarterbacking one would desire from a top-five pick. Here, Prescott shifts over one of his tight ends from the left side of the line of scrimmage to the right. For any number of reasons depending on the play call, Prescott “kills” the initial concept that the Cowboys were going to run. Prescott probably didn’t get the defensive adjustment he wanted in reaction to moving the tight end. No need to fret.
With the secondary play call now dialed up, Prescott fakes a hand-off to his running back and rolls out to his right. The defensive front bites on the fake and Prescott comfortably continues his roll out. As one defender finally catches up, Prescott then has to decide whether to throw to tight end Jason Witten, who is moving in unison with Prescott, or simply tuck the ball. Prescott doesn’t like the position of the defender near Witten, so he decides to scurry out of bounds after picking up a few yards by himself. Prescott could have tested this throw, and maybe a more experienced version of him will, but he made a conscious decision to live for the next down, take what he could, and avoid putting up the ball in a situation where he didn’t need to.
Furthermore, Prescott’s knack for moving in the pocket is admirable. Prescott can fall victim to being too patient in the pocket and invite pressure, but more often than not, he is preparing himself well to make throws. Prescott’s understanding of how to move in the pocket relative to a specific route combination was fascinating to watch last season.
In the play above, Prescott shows veteran-level awareness and pocket movement. Linehan’s play call brings a Y-cross over the top of a short in/stop route from the tight end lined up on the opposite side of the formation. Prescott initially opens up to his left to check how the defense is covering the in/stop route. Two defenders jump the short route, leaving a valley for the crossing receiver to run into. Prescott knows that the intermediate crossing route is his next look, and that by the time he’ll get the ball there, the receiver will be near the numbers to the left side of the field. With a couple of short steps to his left, Prescott resets the throwing lane and throwing angle. He frees himself of the pass rusher breaking through the interior of the pocket and creates a more favorable angle to throw from.
The awareness, coordination, and patience that it takes to make such a subtle, yet critical adjustment in the pocket is something seldom seen from a rookie quarterback, much less a fourth-round rookie quarterback. Prescott surprised the league and all of its constituents with his savvy.
While Prescott made his fair share of explosive plays, it was his veteran-like play style and record-breaking efficiency that made him a menace to opposing defenses. He plays with a heightened understanding and composure that is rarely seen from rookies. As he moves forward, Prescott is only going to improve his vision, decision making, and overall football IQ. Prescott established an outstanding foundation for both himself and for the Dallas Cowboys franchise—a foundation that lends to him developing into one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL.