Dak Prescott Took Big Steps in the Right Direction Last Season

Last offseason, I wrote that Dak Prescott is a good quarterback, but not elite. The reasons were simple: He did not consistently anticipate, see the field, or play with precision. Last season, however, much of that changed.

Yes, it was only 5 games. But the Dak Prescott I watched in 2020 wasn’t just putting up good numbers. In fact, his numbers didn’t really jump out at all – they were basically in line with his performance from 2019. No, the Prescott I watched impressed me because he was more often displaying traits that we hadn’t always seen through his first four seasons. Quite frankly, he looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Dak showed the ability to throw with anticipation more often. The below completion against the Rams is a great example. On this play, he had to get rid of the ball sooner than he ideally would have liked to because of the pass rush. This is where the ability to anticipate becomes so critical.

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Look where the intended receiver was in relation to the coverage at the point that Prescott made the decision to throw and had started his motion.

Dak 2020 Feature
Screen Shot Courtesy of NFL.com Gamepass

The window there wasn’t entirely defined for Prescott, yet he was still able to complete the pass. That’s a ball you only throw if you can understand where the defense WILL BE, not where the defense CURRENTLY IS, in relation to your receivers’ routes.

This play was strikingly similar to a throw we highlighted from the 2019 season showing Dak’s inability to see the field and anticipate. Keep your eyes on the slot receiver to the left.

2019vsBUF_DakPrescott_BadSack1SL

That receiver was more open than on the above play against the Rams. Yes, Prescott was under duress, but he had enough time to make this throw if he recognized the coverage and felt comfortable anticipating.

2019 Dak didn’t pull the trigger. 2020 Dak did. It’s great to see a quarterback refine his skills over time. This was just one example, but there were multiple others showing improved anticipation during his 5 games in 2020.

Dak’s precision and ball placement also improved last season. You can see that on this quick slant below, a seemingly easy pass to complete.

4_2020Wk2DalOSEAD_DakBallPlacement_EZ

Dak hit his man perfectly in stride and that made all the difference between this being a mere completion and a big play. Last offseason, we highlighted how he missed too many of these short throws that could have kept the offense on schedule and even led to more big plays. Hitting these throws and maximizing yards after the catch are the types of completions that lead to more consistency.

Dak’s precision on downfield throws was better in 2020 as well:

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The end zone angle gives you an even better view of his improved ability to thread the needle.

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The below touchdown is another great example of Prescott’s improved ball placement.

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That ball was in a perfect spot. The coverage was tight, but Dak decided to pull the trigger because he saw that the defender in coverage had his back turned. He correctly deemed that he would not be a factor. This is the type of play that separates the good quarterbacks from the great ones. Any quarterback at the NFL level can complete passes to wide-open receivers. The great ones find completions where others don’t without being reckless.

It was encouraging to see this attribute in Prescott’s game last season. For much of his career, we’d seen him be unwilling to pull the trigger unless he had a clear, wide-open receiver. That wasn’t quite the case in 2020, as you could see on the above throws. He was ready and more willing to let it go if he saw just a little separation:

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Who knows exactly why Dak looked like an improved player in 2020. Was it the added weapons at wide receiver? The impact of Mike McCarthy? Dak’s drive and work ethic? After all, he had shown the ability to improve throughout his career prior to last season.

Maybe it was the understanding that, for really the first time in his career, Prescott knew he couldn’t play a safe game and still win given how bad his defense was. During his first 64 starts, the Cowboys allowed the 4th fewest points in the NFL, keeping Dallas in most games. In 2020, Prescott had to take more risks to win shootout-style games and attempt big comebacks. The freedom to let it go instead of merely playing to avoid mistakes sometimes helps quarterbacks make the jump they need to play to their potential.

Small sample size could have also been the key factor. We’ve seen Prescott have good 5-game stretches before. Personally, I don’t think this was the case, though. This wasn’t just a 5-game stretch where Dak put up big numbers. The traits he showed were the traits needed to play the position at the highest level. They were the traits he hadn’t really shown in the past. This was an improvement in ability, not just performance.

No, I still don’t think Dak is an elite quarterback. But he is a very good one, and he appears to be headed in the right direction. It was a shame that he missed 11 games with his season-ending foot injury. Hopefully for the Cowboys, he can brush off any lingering effects and pick up where he left off.

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