The Dallas Cowboys passing offense is broken with Dak Prescott

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys thought they had the answer to Tony Romo with Dak Prescott after a sensational rookie year. Turns out that might not be the case.

For the first time since 2006, the Dallas Cowboys have a real problem at quarterback. For the last decade plus, the Cowboys have entered the season with a true franchise quarterback on their roster.

Now, they have had some bad luck with injuries, specifically to Tony Romo, but there was really never a question about the caliber of play from the quarterback position. However, all of a sudden, there are serious questions about the team’s current quarterback in Dak Prescott.

In Prescott’s first 24 games of his career, he performed at a Hall of Fame level, completing more than 66% of his passes while maintaining a passer rating of over 102. He went toe-to-toe with the best quarterbacks in the league and it was almost assumed that he would be the face of the NFL. He seemed like he could do no wrong and he was in the discussion as a top-five passer in the NFL.

But those days seem like they were long, long ago. Since his magical start, something has happened to Prescott. Over his last 11 games, he’s thrown more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (8), is averaging less than 185 passing yards per game and his passer rating has dropped all the way down to 74.2.

His passer rating during that time frame is one of the worst in the league. Many of the quarterbacks who have performed as poorly as him (Sam Bradford, Tyrod Taylor,  DeShone Kizer) have already been benched. What happened to Prescott? Did he turn into a pumpkin? Did teams catch up to him? Or, is he just in the middle of a bad slump? All of these are fair questions that are difficult to answer at this time.

If nothing else, one thing is clear; the Cowboys’ passing offense is broken. They aren’t throwing the ball down the field. They aren’t passing well on first down and they can’t convert on third down. That’s a pretty bad combination. By nearly every metric, the Cowboys have one of the bottom-five passing offenses in the NFL. What has happened to this once potent passing attack?

Let’s first start with what we know. The Cowboys offense is far too predictable. Opponents have a beat on everything Dallas is doing right now. They know exactly what to expect in every situation, right down to the snap count the team uses.

Take a look at this play from the team’s first play of the second quarter. The Cowboys are running a play-action bootleg, a staple of their offense. But Seattle knows this too and the backside defender, Barkevious Mingo reads this perfectly. He eyes Prescott the entire time, never even looking at the running back or the play-action. Instead, he bolts right to the quarterback, makes the sack and essentially ends the Cowboys’ drive.

Under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys haven’t cared whether or not they were predictable. Their philosophy has always been that their talent will eventually win out. However, Dallas doesn’t have the same amount of talent on their offense as in year’s past. Now, they need to rely on their scheme to keep defenses on their heels and that’s just not happening.

Dallas is one of the most run-heavy teams in the league on first down and teams are now doing everything they can to stop the run in order to get Prescott and the Cowboys into passing downs. Their predictability is putting them into situations that are making it difficult for Prescott to succeed.

Fact No.1 was that  Dallas is too predictable on offense. Fact No.2 is that the Cowboys aren’t throwing the ball down the field. Not at all. In the team’s last three games, Prescott has completed just three passes beyond 15 yards. Dallas isn’t making plays down the field and that’s forcing the Cowboys to put together long drives in order to score points. That, in itself, is very difficult.

Another problem when you don’t throw the ball down the field is that defense aren’t forced to defend the long pass. Instead, the safeties can inch closer and closer to the line of scrimmage, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball into traffic more frequently.

On both of Prescott’s interceptions, free safety Earl Thomas was playing near the first down marker rather than in his traditional deep free safety spot. That is a product of the team’s lack of a deep passing game.

Take a look at how Seattle was defending Dallas here on 1st and 10. Every single defender was within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and 10 were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. They weren’t afraid to get beat deep at all in this one.

Here is the problem. When you study the All-22 tape, you do see receivers open or at least looking open down the field. Dallas doesn’t have premiere deep-threats, but there have been times when they were open enough to garner a target. But for whatever reason, the quarterback choose not to pull the trigger. Is this a case of the quarterback executing a conservative game-plan or is Prescott scared to throw the ball down the field? That’s something we may not have the answer to.

Not throwing the ball down the field has been a problem. But another problem with Prescott is that he’s just missing open receivers. The Cowboys’ offense doesn’t create lay-up throws. Instead, they force him to make difficult throws to the sideline.  These routes aren’t always open, but when they are, Prescott needs to make the throw. Here is an example of an open receiver that Prescott not only misses but misses badly.

Rookie Michael Gallup runs a nice route here to create separation, but the throw is so off-target and late that it doesn’t give the receiver any chance to make a play on the ball. In the first year-and-a-half of Prescott’s career, these were routine throws. However, these passes feel like they are rarely completed.

In the Cowboys offense, these are throws to have to be made and completed. Troy Aikman used to brag that he and Michael Irvin could make this play blindfolded in practice. Sometimes, it appears Prescott is trying to do the same on gameday.

What are some possible suggestions to help Prescott and the passing attack? One idea would be to put him in some more favorable down and distance situations. Too often, Prescott is faced with 2nd and 10 or more due to a lack of running success. If the Cowboys ran more screens or designed more passes to the running backs on earlier downs, it would help Prescott get into more manageable down and distances. It also may help boost his confidence by getting him into a rhythm earlier in games.

Another thing that isn’t helping is that the Cowboys’ protection is breaking down far too often. The offensive line isn’t performing to the level we are accustomed to seeing. And due to the lack of talent at receiver, Prescott is forced to hold onto the ball too long. To counter this, Dallas would be wise to use more play-action on early downs and throw the ball deep, even if it’s just to keep defenses honest. If they can back safeties up a few yards, it should help open up the underneath routes.

Dallas will take on the Detroit Lions in Week 4 in a critical NFC matchup. If the passing game, especially Dak Prescott, continue to trend in the direction we have seen in the last 11 weeks, it’s possible the team may make a coaching or quarterback change. Or maybe even both. They have one of the worst passing offenses in the entire league. Something needs to change.

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