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Dak Prescott Is Already Playing About As Well As Tony Romo Ever Has

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is sailing into uncharted territory for a rookie passer. Prescott shined again in Dallas’s 35-10 rout of the Cleveland Browns Sunday, completing 21 of 27 passes for 247 yards (9.1 per attempt), three touchdowns and zero interceptions. According to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), Prescott had the NFL’s top quarterbacking performance of the week,1 the second time in nine weeks he’s claimed top honors. All told, Prescott’s first eight starts are easily the best of any rookie signal-caller since ESPN began tracking QBR in 2006:

POINTS ABOVE…
PLAYER YEAR PLAYS AVERAGE REPLACEMENT TOTAL QBR
1 Dak Prescott 2016 304 +38.5 +62.0 80.2
2 Andrew Luck 2012 399 +23.3 +54.4 67.0
3 Robert Griffin III 2012 320 +18.7 +43.7 63.6
4 Cam Newton 2011 381 +18.8 +48.5 63.5
5 Matt Ryan 2008 273 +9.9 +30.9 61.8
6 Matt Leinart 2006 343 +4.4 +31.0 58.7
7 Ryan Tannehill 2012 289 +0.5 +23.1 58.4
8 Mike Glennon 2013 327 +8.3 +33.8 56.9
9 Andy Dalton 2011 306 +4.8 +28.4 55.7
10 Russell Wilson 2012 287 +5.0 +27.3 53.4
11 Sam Bradford 2010 353 +3.9 +31.2 52.7
12 Derek Carr 2014 327 +1.3 +26.6 52.6
13 Teddy Bridgewater 2014 327 +2.1 +27.4 52.1
14 Marcus Mariota 2015 324 +5.9 +31.2 51.6
15 Colt McCoy 2010 274 +2.8 +24.1 50.1
Best rookies through first 8 starts, 2006-2016

Source: ESPN Stats & Info

Although we don’t have QBR before 2006, Prescott also has the third-highest adjusted yards per attempt of any qualified2 rookie passer through his team’s first eight games since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. He trails only Mark Rypien and Dan Marino, and although those two produced their numbers in a less passer-friendly environment than today’s NFL, they also threw less than half as many passes as Prescott has. Given all that, it’s tough to find a QB in history whose career has gotten off to a faster start than Prescott’s.

Prescott has played so well, in fact, that he’s put the return of incumbent Cowboys starter Tony Romo on holdperhaps indefinitely.

As a stathead, I never bought into those silly arguments that Romo isn’t clutch, or that Dallas could never win a Super Bowl with him under center. Underneath all the hot takes he attracts, Romo has been one of his generation’s finest quarterbacks and one of the most efficient passers of all time — even after adjusting for the high-octane passing environment of the modern game. In terms of individual accomplishments, Romo has few quarterbacking peers.

And yet, the case can be made that Prescott’s first eight starts have been as good as any eight (consecutive) starts Romo made in his entire career. According to QBR, Romo’s best set of eight straight starts came in 2007, between Weeks 3 and 11 of the 2007 season, when Romo posted an 82.1 mark on QBR’s 0-to-100 scale while throwing to Terrell Owens. That was the sole eight-start stretch of Romo’s career that was better than the only eight NFL starts Prescott has ever made:

DATE RANGE STATS DURING 8 GAMES
PLAYER START END PLAYS PAA PAR TOTAL QBR
Tony Romo 9/23/07 11/18/07 310 42.8 67.0 82.1
Dak Prescott 9/11/16 11/6/16 304 38.5 62.0 80.2
Tony Romo 9/21/14 11/23/14 260 36.6 56.9 80.0
Tony Romo 12/6/09 9/26/10 353 33.7 61.1 77.2
Tony Romo 11/6/11 12/24/11 273 34.0 55.3 76.1
The best 8-start stretches of Tony Romo and Dak Prescott’s careers

PAA = Points above average
PAR = Points above replacement
Results were filtered to remove stretches that included games contained in a higher-ranking stretch.

Source: ESPN Stats & Info

Romo’s 2007 stretch was actually preceded by two additional excellent starts (if we included overlapping stretches, parts of ’07 would show up as three of Romo’s top four stretches), so Prescott has to keep this up for a few more games to truly match Romo’s best stretch, but through eight games, he’s right there.3

Prescott’s no mere game manager, either. In addition to ranking highly in QBR, he also ranks highly in stats that focus more on production — meaning yards, touchdowns and first downs. According to expected points added (EPA) relative to both the league average and the replacement level, Prescott’s current eight-start run is better than all but one of Romo’s eight-game stretches — that same 2007 period mentioned above. Rather than riding his teammates’ coattails, Prescott’s play has been one of the driving forces behind a squad that ranks second in offensive EPA but only 14th in EPA on both defense and special teams.

YEAR RECORD ELO RATING
1994 7-1-0 1741
1993 6-2-0 1734
1995 7-1-0 1723
1992 7-1-0 1663
1996 5-3-0 1662
2007 7-1-0 1619
2009 6-2-0 1617
2016 7-1-0 1595
2014 6-2-0 1585
1997 4-4-0 1579
Best Cowboys teams through 8 games by Elo Rating, 1992-2016

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Speaking of which, the Cowboys are also off to one of their best starts in recent memory. This is the first time Dallas has won seven of its first eight games since 2007, and only the second time since 1995, the last time the team won the Super Bowl. And the Cowboys’ current Elo rating (our pet metric for estimating a team’s strength at a given moment) through eight weeks is the third-highest it’s been since Dallas’s dynasty days of the mid-1990s.

Prescott is hardly the only Cowboy having a great season. Running back Ezekiel Elliott also leads the NFL in rushing yards, helping to power the second-best rushing attack in the league according to EPA. And, given his track record and what we know about his recovery so far, Romo would likely also be successful if he were slotted into Dallas’s lineup. (Though individual football players are often so interconnected with each other that it’s difficult to predict what will happen to the team when personnel changes.)

But right now, Prescott has made just about as strong a case as possible that the Cowboys should stick with him going forward. Not only has he produced one of the best-ever first halves by a rookie QB, but he has also instantly played as well as Romo ever has. Now the only question is what he has in store for the back half of Dallas’s schedule.

Footnotes

  1. Pending stats from Monday night’s Seahawks-Bills tilt.

  2. Minimum 100 pass attempts (or about 12.5 per team game).

  3. It’s also worth noting that Romo’s best stretch came early in his career — his second year as starter — so Prescott’s best days could be front-loaded as well.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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