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Why Dak Prescott Isn't Worth $40 Million/Year


Before journeying into the facts and figures around Dak Prescott and the implications of a new contract, one must first consider the following questions: 

How accurate does a quarterback need to be with mid-range and deep passes in order to have long-term success in the NFL? 

Can the Cowboys remain as competitive as a team with an obligation upwards of $40 million per year (in a salary-capped league) to a quarterback who has demonstrated only that he can win games with an elite unit?

Of course, in committing to such a contract with Prescott, the Cowboys will ironically surrender a great measure of that 'elite' unit that enabled his successes in the first place, and thus they will sacrifice that surrounding cast for one athlete who, despite the risk that he's less qualified than he has appeared on film, faces the real risks of injury and underperformance, which have thus far been mitigated by that aforesaid surrounding cast. 

In the case of Dak Prescott, the Cowboys may have oddly swindled themselves into seeing what they desperately want to see, into seeing a successful quarterback who has succeeded precisely because of the system that has been arranged around him, which has been afforded to him precisely because of his limited cost on that system: like, in the extreme, an unseasoned quarterback surrounded by Hall-of-Fame talent who's mesmerized the spectators with his impressive stats and productivity, who's effectively distracted his fans from the fact that he's playing with the best possible surrounding cast. 

If the Dallas Cowboys commit such a great share of their cap room to Prescott, this monumental mistake could rival the likes of an automaker that elects to spend the bulk of its research and development budget on copying the key to the Pagani Huayra Roadster, a supercar with a starting price of $2.4 million. 

In this theoretical case, the automaker is so distracted by the performance and appeal of the vehicle that he somehow exaggerates the contribution (or value) of the key.

While the car will no doubt fail to start without a key, the rest of the system (or vehicle) is far more significant, whereas the key is both replaceable and largely irrelevant to the overall performance of the vehicle. 

That oblivious automaker, in exhausting extensive resources in order to replicate the Huayra's key, convinces himself that he will be able to compete with the Huayra on the track once he has successfully emulated its key; only, in this case, the oblivious engineer has misattributed the vehicle's performance to but one trivial component in a greater system of far more influential factors that are, as it turns out, indispensable to its performance. 


All things considered, this wager on Dak, which stands to dwarf Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles' $22-million-per-year deal, amounts not only to a tremendous opportunity cost, but to a mightily risky bet on one solitary athlete who has simply proved too little to warrant the stakes.

Given that Prescott has the athleticism, leadership qualities and debatably the awareness desired of an effective quarterback, Dak has proven consistently that he cannot connect on deep routes, and his poor accuracy has even singlehandedly contributed to an offensive playbook reformation and Dez Bryant's statistical decline and eventual release. 

The fear of the deep ball is probably more critical to gameplay than having regular success with it; however, in order to instill fear in the defense, they must believe that your quarterback can execute those passes. 

This is why Dak Prescott is not an elite passer in the National Football League. 

While this can change, it is highly unlikely that it will. 

Ultimately, Prescott entered the NFL when the Cowboys were already becoming legitimate championship contenders. 

After impressive seasons in 2007 and 2014, the 2016 campaign was Romo's best opportunity for a comeback and a serious Super Bowl run after a disappointing 2015 season had been derailed by injury. 

The team had finally secured a prolific running back, with a reliable backup, along with a stalwart offensive line, joining existing pass-catchers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten. 

One can certainly make the case that no other rookie in NFL history has entered a more accommodating situation. 

From the beginning, Dak has been called upon as a game manager, whose primary responsibility has been to feed Zeke, execute basic passes and to avoid mistakes and turnovers. 

While Dak has admirably succeeded in this role, not much else has been asked of him thus far. 

Tony Romo, while not as speedy as Dak, was arguably just as mobile and elusive; he had far greater accuracy, especially on deeper passes; he exhibited, and continues to exhibit, superior football intelligence. 

The most substantial difference between Dak and Romo stems from one of circumstance: whereas Dak has largely been tasked with managing the offense, Romo was routinely placed in positions to dictate the outcomes of games, due to lacking the surrounding cast to ease the burden. 

Even during his brief stint with DeMarco Murray (2011-2014), injuries kept Romo without his star running back; in fact, Murray would complete only one full season with the Cowboys during that four-year period, which happened to be 2014, when Murray posted 1,845 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 attempts, leading the NFL in all categories as the Cowboys won the NFC East with a 12-4 record, claiming 8 Pro Bowlers and 6 All-Pros, before their infamous 21-26 divisional-round loss to the Packers. 

As a Cowboys fan, I am disappointed that we will never know just how competitive the 2016-and-beyond Cowboys might have been under the tutelage of Tony Romo, and as a lifelong Cowboys fan, I acknowledge that Dak Prescott has yet to face the kind of adversity encountered by his predecessor. 

We do not know whether Dak can compete with an average surrounding cast, or one hampered by injury, whether he can make Pro Bowlers of non-household names. 

Based on his performance last year before the acquisition of WR Amari Cooper, it's fair to forecast that he may be ill-suited for such a task. 

Nonetheless, Dak has indisputably failed to prove that he can be reliable as an all-around passer, something all the greats — Aikman, Staubach, Montana, Brady, Marino, Manning, Rodgers, Elway, Unitas, Bradshaw, Roethlisberger, Romo, Rivers, Warner, Brees — have been able to do over the course of their careers. 

In popular media, many have asked why Prescott isn't regarded as one of the league's most clutch quarterbacks, despite his record in game-winning drives, leading the category since 2016. 

Ironically, that celebrated list consists of three quarterbacks, Case Keenum, Derek Carr and Matt Stafford, who have combined for a regular-season record of 16-32 over that period; these aren't exactly competitive teams. 

The Saints, through Drew Brees, and the Cowboys, through Prescott, are the only two contenders with quarterbacks on that list, which leads us to this ultimate conclusion: losing teams ⁠— or, in the case of the Saints, teams with disproportionately poor defensive units ⁠— tend to find themselves desperate for game-winning drives, whereas great teams and, typically, great quarterbacks don't find themselves needing a comeback or game-winning drive at the end of 42 percent of games. 

For perspective, Tom Brady has led 44 game-winning drives in his career. 

He's played in 307 games, including both the regular season and playoffs, which means that Brady has executed game-winning drives in 14 percent of his games. 

Brady has also quarterbacked his team to single-possession losses — losses by one touchdown or less — on 33 occasions, or 10 percent of his games; he's also quarterbacked his team to victory in greater than 77 percent of games, boasting a win-loss record of 237-70 during the regular season and playoffs.

Prescott, on the other hand, has executed 14 game-winning drives in just 51 career games, which means that he's executed game-winning drives in 27 percent of his games. 

He has posted a win-loss record of 33-18, between the regular season and playoffs, meaning that Prescott has quarterbacked his team to victory on just 64 percent of occasions, which is relatively low upon considering the quality and cap space of the team he inherited.

In addition to executing game-winning drives in 27 percent of his games, Prescott also quarterbacked his team to single-possession losses on seven occasions, meaning that the Prescott-led Cowboys have found themselves needing a game-winning drive in all of 42 percent of games.

For comparison, here are the percentages for the top five quarterbacks in the category of total career game-winning drives: Peyton Manning, 18 percent; Drew Brees, 17 percent; Dan Marino, 18 percent; Tom Brady, 14 percent; Brett Favre, 13 percent. 

In addition to their collective ignorance regarding the salary cap implications of a record-setting deal with the quarterback, lately some have claimed that Prescott's wins with the Cowboys are exclusively attributable to his "own doing." 

They are incorrect here as well, as, notwithstanding the performance of the rest of the offensive unit, the Cowboys defense has been remarkably reliable in limiting opposing offenses to keep games close, limiting opponents to an average of 20 points over the last three seasons. 

All things considered, the fact that the Cowboys ultimately triumphed after trailing late in so many games cannot be credited to, nor squarely blamed on, Dak.

With the spectacular performance of the team's defense over that period, however, one may safely infer that the offense has underwhelmed in relative terms.


Indeed, the facts bear this out as well: whereas the Cowboys averaged 26 points per game during the 2016 season, their output has declined to averages of 22.1 and 21.4 points per game over the past two campaigns, marking a twenty-percent decline over that period. 

So, while Prescott has executed a great number of game-winning drives over his career thus far, it appears that the under-performance of the offense is, at least, partially responsible for necessitating those drives, whereas the over-performance of the defense has offset that under-performance to grant the team the opportunity to win those games. 

Ultimately, nothing certain or actionable can positively be independently deduced from that aforementioned statistic, and any value judgment here is indeterminate, at best, or misleading, at worst, as established by the foregoing percentages and averages. 

Oddly enough, there's another quarterback who's won a number of games, and some at critical times, whose regular-season record stood at 54-26, for a 67.5-percent winning percentage, over his first five years in the league, culminating in a Super Bowl victory and Super Bowl MVP honors in that fifth year. 

He went 32-16 in his first three seasons, matching Dak's regular-season record. 

His statistics aren't as flashy as Dak's, and he's never even been named to the Pro Bowl. 

His name is Joe Flacco, known for his ability to win games and heave the deep ball early in his career. 

While the story could inspire confidence in Dak (and Cowboys) fans, the modifying distinction is that Flacco could throw the deep ball, and he was indisputably the best in the business earlier in his career. 

Finally, there are some among us who have audaciously claimed that Dak Prescott is the best Cowboys quarterback of all time, committing the common error of comparing across generations. 

Not only has gameplay changed, but so too have the rules. 

Just as with the NBA, the modern NFL is governed by rules that favor the offense and boost big-play potential and scoring. 

What's more, while Dak disciples commonly gloss over the fact that Aikman won three Super Bowls, they compare his completion percentage with that of Dak: as it turns out, however, Aikman wasn't throwing primarily in the flat, out of the backfield or short across the middle to the likes of Cole Beasley and Zeke Elliott, whose yards after catch (YAC) bolster Dak's stat sheet. Aikman was connecting for meaningful yards with Harper and Irvin. 

In fact, entering last season, Dallas was the only team in the NFL with three receivers averaging at least 5 yards-after-the-catch over their respective careers, while Dak's yards-per-pass-attempt average has markedly declined since his rookie season: from 8.0 in 2016 to 6.8 in 2017,  and 7.4 in 2018. 

For reference, between 1991 and 1995, Aikman posted marks of 7.6, 7.3, 7.9, 7.4 and 7.6, respectively. 

It is simply intellectually dishonest to even imply that Prescott is on track to surpass Aikman. 

Unsurprisingly, the modern fan never even ventures to evaluate Roger Staubach, who is the consensus favorite among authentic Cowboys fans.

During the 1970s, Staubach led America's Team to five Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl victories, earning one Super Bowl MVP to boot. 

Across his 11-year NFL career, Staubach led the league in passer rating four times and earned six trips to the Pro Bowl, retiring in 1980 with the second-highest passer rating in NFL history at the time.  

The fact of the matter is this: Staubach and Aikman are Hall-of-Fame, generational talents who would have succeeded almost anywhere, and the same could potentially apply to Romo, whose career passer rating still ranks him fifth all-time. 

Dak, on the other hand, is an unconventional quarterback who has yet to prove whether he can be reliable as a passer, let alone as a leader of an organization not tailored precisely to his needs. 

The honest Cowboys fan ranks the franchise's top five quarterbacks as follows: Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Tony Romo, Danny White, Don Meredith. 

Time will tell whether Dak can become an elite quarterback, let alone one of the franchise's greats, but he certainly hasn't proven enough yet.

If Prescott genuinely wants to make $40 million per year, it'll come at a commensurate on-field cost, which raises the question: if the Cowboys couldn't win a conference title, let alone the Super Bowl, with Prescott posting a couple of million dollars against the cap, what convinces the organization that they can be more competitive when he's costing upwards of forty million dollars each year against the cap?

As former Cowboys fullback Darryl Johnston said this week, "The [six] highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL last year weren’t in the playoffs. None of them." 

Winning is expensive, especially in a salary-capped league, and if Prescott isn't willing to pay the price, the Cowboys can opt to either replace him or naively incur the predictable losses, on the field and in the locker room.

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