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Is Dak Prescott Finally Ready To Be Consistently Great?

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson stole the show on the NFL’s opening Sunday with a passer rating of 158.3, the maximum number possible. But Jackson wasn’t the only QB with a perfect 158.3 mark Sunday. He was joined by Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who went 25 for 32 with 405 yards, four touchdowns and zero picks against the rival New York Giants. It was the first time ever that two passers had perfect games in the same week1 — and in fact, Prescott’s game may have been the superior perfect outing.

At least, that’s according to our new Elo QB ratings, which saw Prescott outperform both Jackson and Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes for the best game of Week 1, after adjusting for the opposing defenses each faced. Our model considered it to be the best game of Prescott’s entire career, easily surpassing his effort against the Ravens in Week 11 of 2016 — and there’s nothing the Cowboys would welcome more than a return to form of that (mostly) storybook season, both as a team and for Prescott individually.

Dallas had high hopes Prescott would be a fixture atop these kinds of rankings ever since 2016, when he produced one of the greatest rookie QB campaigns in NFL history en route to a 13-3 record as the starter. Thanks to that immediate success, Prescott went into 2017 with the ninth-highest Elo rating of any starting QB, and he eventually rose to No. 5 in the league by Week 9, when the Cowboys had a 5-3 record and a legitimate chance of winning the Super Bowl.2 It was the best a Dallas quarterback had rated in Elo (relative to league average) since Tony Romo in the middle of the 2013 season.

From that moment onward, however, Prescott has been all over the place. Over his following 26 starts — taking him through the end of the 2018 season — Prescott’s average game-to-game performance was about 11 points of Elo value below that of an ordinary starter, while he registered exactly 13 above-average starts against 13 below-average ones.

But we’re just scratching the surface of how up-and-down Prescott has been.

Over an eight-start period from Dec. 24, 2017, to Oct. 14, 2018, Prescott alternated between an above- and below-average QB Elo performance every single game. Then he strung together two consecutive above-average starts… before embarking on a separate stretch of nine more starts in a row in which every single game alternated between an above- and below-average performance.

It was one of the most erratic runs in pro football history. Seahawks QB Russell Wilson once had an incredible 17 consecutive starts (!) waver between positive and negative during the 2014 and 2015 seasons,3 so Prescott wasn’t quite at that level of inconsistency. But he, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and Matt Schaub are the only QBs in our dataset (since 1950) to have two separate streaks in their careers with at least eight consecutive starts that seesawed between above- and below-average performance every game.

The kings of inconsistent quarterbacking

Quarterbacks with the longest streaks of their Elo values per game alternating between above average and below average, 1950-2019

Longest streaks of alternating above- and below-average performance
Seasons Team Quarterback Number of games
1 2014-15 SEA Russell Wilson 17
2 1994-95 ATL Jeff George 14
3 1973-74 CLE Mike Phipps 13
T-4 2003-04 ATL Michael Vick 11
T-4 2015-16 BUF Tyrod Taylor 11
T-15 2018 DAL Dak Prescott 9
T-26 2017-18 DAL Dak Prescott 8
Quarterbacks with at least two streaks of at least eight games of alternating performance
Season Team Quarterback Number of games
2012 CAR Cam Newton 10
2013 CAR Cam Newton 10
2018 DAL Dak Prescott 9
2017-18 DAL Dak Prescott 8
2009-10 HOU Matt Schaub 9
2012 HOU Matt Schaub 8
2016-17 DET Matthew Stafford 10
2014-15 DET Matthew Stafford 8

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Prescott finally broke the cycle late last season, stringing together four consecutive starts with positive value to close the year (including the playoffs). That’s how Prescott already had entered this season with the ninth-best Elo rating of any starting quarterback in the league, a big improvement over his No. 22 ranking going into 2018. And after Sunday’s impressive outing, he now ranks sixth — behind only Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. According to our Elo values, Prescott’s performance against New York was the fourth-best game by a Dallas starting QB (relative to league average) in Cowboys history:

Dak’s place among the best Cowboy QB games ever

Best single-game performances for Dallas Cowboys starting quarterbacks according to QB Elo value relative to league average, 1960-2019

Quarterback Date Opponent Result QB Elo value vs. Avg
Don Meredith 10/9/1966 vs. PHI W, 56-7 481 +389
Troy Aikman 1/31/1993 vs. BUF* W, 52-17 418 +348
Don Meredith 11/13/1966 at WSH W, 31-30 439 +346
Dak Prescott 9/8/2019 vs. NYG W, 35-17 504 +340
Craig Morton 12/20/1970 vs. TEN W, 52-10 411 +331
Don Meredith 9/18/1966 vs. NYG W, 52-7 423 +330
Troy Aikman 10/27/1996 at MIA W, 29-10 421 +329
Don Meredith 11/10/1963 at SF L, 24-31 390 +304
Roger Staubach 12/12/1977 at SF W, 42-35 371 +299
Tony Romo 12/6/2009 at NYG L, 24-31 411 +296

* Super Bowl

Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com, ESPN

The only question now is, can Prescott keep this up and put his old inconsistent ways behind him? Although our QB values are adjusted for the quality of opposing defenses, it’s still valid to wonder how much a stellar performance against the Giants — whose defense ranked last in the league according to preseason projections from ESPN’s Football Power Index — will translate against better opponents such as, say, the Vikings (who tied for ESPN’s No. 1 preseason defense) in Week 10.

But there are also reasons to think Prescott’s breakout might endure throughout the season. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore already has added new wrinkles to the Cowboys’ scheme that were absent under Scott Linehan in previous years. Prescott also has a new(ish) set of primary targets, with Amari Cooper present from the start of the season — after averaging 80.6 yards per game upon his midseason arrival in Dallas last year — plus Michael Gallup graduating to No. 2-target status after Cole Beasley’s departure, and former Pro Bowl WR Randall Cobb coming over from the Packers. (Future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten is also back after a much-maligned year in the broadcast booth.)

After throwing for a below-average 7.69 air yards per attempt in 2017 and 2018, Prescott was up to 9.34 air yards per throw against the Giants, with 19 percent of his passes traveling at least 20 yards — including completions of 35 and 21 yards downfield to Cooper, 30 yards to Gallup, 22 yards to Cobb and 22 yards to tight end Blake Jarwin.

Again, those were against the Giants, so it’s important not to draw too many conclusions from Prescott’s Week 1 numbers, impressive as they were. But for a team that ranked ninth in defensive efficiency (via Football Outsiders) but only 26th in passing efficiency last season, an improvement from Prescott could vault the Cowboys to the top of the NFC East — and maybe beyond.

Looking Ahead: Week 2

Best matchup: No. 3 New Orleans at No. 5 L.A. Rams (-1.5)

Matchup quality: 97th percentile4

Matchup evenness: 76th percentile

The Rams and Saints will meet on Sunday afternoon in a rematch of that infamous NFC Championship game. Both teams won in Week 1 by slim margins, and Elo has the Saints ranked third in the NFL while the Rams are ranked fifth. A big part of that difference comes down to the quarterbacks: New Orleans’ Drew Brees ranks third in our ratings, but L.A.’s Jared Goff ranks only 26th after another subpar game (on the heels of a terrible Super Bowl and a string of mediocre outings late last season). Goff has a lot to prove, but he’ll also have a big opportunity against a Saints defense that FPI ranks just 28th in the league.

See also: Philadelphia at Atlanta (80th/81st); Minnesota at Green Bay (77th/75th).

Biggest playoff implications: No. 9 Minnesota at No. 12 Green Bay (-1.5)

Potential shift in playoff odds: 30.7 total percentage points

In terms of playoff odds, the biggest game of Week 2 squares the Vikings off against the Packers. The teams have essentially identical chances to make the postseason (52 percent and 51 percent, respectively), and the winner would be set up well in the NFC North race. If Minnesota wins, their playoff odds go up to 69 percent; if Green Bay wins, their number would be 65 percent. In either case, the loser’s playoff percentage drops into the mid-30s.

See also: Indianapolis at Tennessee (25.0); Philadelphia at Atlanta (22.3).

Best QB duel: No. 5 Matt Ryan (ATL) vs. No. 7 Carson Wentz (PHI)

See also: 2. Roethlisberger (PIT) vs. 11. Wilson (SEA); 1. Mahomes (KC) vs. 21. Carr (OAK)

FiveThirtyEight vs. the Readers

As a weekly tradition here at FiveThirtyEight, we look at how our Elo model did against everybody who made picks in our forecasting game. (If you entered, you can find yourself on our leaderboard here. I am currently in 1,995th place!) These are the games in which Elo made its best — and worst — predictions against the field last week:

Elo’s dumbest (and smartest) picks of Week 1

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 1 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
KC 58% KC 69% KC 40, JAX 26 +5.7
BAL 61 BAL 72 BAL 59, MIA 10 +5.0
CHI 64 CHI 58 GB 10, CHI 3 +4.8
LAR 52 LAR 59 LAR 30, CAR 27 +4.3
TB 55 TB 50 SF 31, TB 17 +3.5
SEA 75 SEA 79 SEA 21, CIN 20 +0.2
DET 51 DET 53 ARI 27, DET 27 +0.0
PHI 77 PHI 80 PHI 32, WSH 27 -0.6
NYJ 55 NYJ 54 BUF 17, NYJ 16 -0.9
LAC 72 LAC 73 LAC 30, IND 24 -1.6
NO 68 NO 68 NO 30, HOU 28 -1.7
DAL 74 DAL 73 DAL 35, NYG 17 -2.3
NE 68 NE 65 NE 33, PIT 3 -4.4
MIN 59 MIN 55 MIN 28, ATL 12 -5.1
CLE 60 CLE 64 TEN 43, CLE 13 -6.9
OAK 51 DEN 55 OAK 24, DEN 16 -7.9

Home teams are in bold.

The scoring system is nonlinear, so readers’ average points don’t necessarily match the number of points that would be given to the average reader prediction.

Readers knew better than Elo in a few notable cases — although it was all about the prognosticators’ degree of confidence in the favorite, rather than differences in opinion about who would win. (Elo was too bearish on Mahomes and the Chiefs against Jacksonville, for instance.) But Elo still won the week, beating the average reader by 7.9 points, thanks to a last-minute victory in Monday night’s Raiders-Broncos game. Perhaps because of the torrent of drama over the weekend, readers thought the Broncos would pull out the road victory; instead, Carr and the Raiders managed to win in spite of the tumult — and that was exactly the margin Elo needed.

Congratulations are in order to Joe Tito, who led all (identified) readers in Week 1 with 252.3 points. Thanks to everyone who played — and if you haven’t, be sure to get in on the action! You can make picks now and try your luck against Elo, even if you missed Week 1.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. With a minimum of 20 attempts.

  2. Five percent, according to our old Elo ratings.

  3. During which time Wilson led Seattle to a Super Bowl, amazingly enough.

  4. In terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings, relative that figure for all regular-season NFL games this year.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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