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Is Dak Prescott The MVP?

While the Dallas Cowboys and running back Ezekiel Elliot were in a contract standoff over the summer, it wasn’t clear that quarterback Dak Prescott was even the most valuable player in his own offense. But cut to the fall, and the question football fans can reasonably ask is whether Prescott is the most valuable player in the entire league.

Dallas and owner Jerry Jones made signing Elliott their No. 1 priority, appearing to agree with NFL executives who said “it is Elliott who makes Prescott” and not the other way around. Sure, Prescott was “good,” they said, but he “won’t ever be great.” Dak may want to thank the execs for promoting this kind of thinking: It could make him a much richer man.

Dak Prescott’s passing statistics through Week 11, with 2019 season and overall historical rankings

Stat 2019 2019 Rk Hist. Rk
Passing yards 3,221 1st 7th
Yards per attempt 8.82 1st 19th
Team passing play success rate 56.1% 1st 2nd
Team passing success rate in losses 53.5% 1st 2nd

Passing yards all-time rank based on a projected season total of 5,154 yards. Yards per attempt ranks are since 1970; success rate ranks are since 2006.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Dak’s tale of the tape in 2019 is history making. He’s having the greatest season ever by a Cowboys quarterback by yards per passing attempt — not bad when that history includes Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman as well as Tony Romo — and 19th best overall since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Prescott’s Cowboys lead the NFL in passing play success rate this year and actually trail only one team since ESPN began tracking the statistic in 2006: Tom Brady’s 2007 Patriots, which set passing records in an undefeated regular season. And only one team in the period has topped the Cowboys’ 2019 passing success in defeat: Peyton Manning’s Colts in 2010.

When you’re besting Hall of Famers and on par with arguably the two greatest quarterbacks who ever played, you’re making a statement that, yes, you are your team’s most important player.

For now, the major strike against Prescott postseason honors is his team’s win-loss record. How good can he be if his team isn’t dominating? But whatever the reasons for Dallas’s inability to pile up wins, don’t count Prescott among them. The Cowboys’ passing success rate in losses alone would still lead the NFL.

And note that yards per pass attempt dominance is a defining characteristic of winning teams. The 47 quarterback-seasons with over 8.5 yards per attempt since the merger have a combined 444-166-3 record, a .727 win percentage that, for Prescott and the Cowboys, would translate to 11.6 expected wins, not their current pace of 9.6.

What about the executives’ argument that, essentially, Elliott’s running commands the attention of the defense and thus makes it easier for Prescott to pass? One way to check this would be to see how many times teams load the box near the line of scrimmage with eight or more defenders, putting them closer to the action on running plays but making them more susceptible to letting passes soar over their heads.

Of Prescott’s 376 total dropbacks,1 he faced eight or more defenders in the box 20 times, a rate of 5.3 percent. That compares to 689 of 12,114 leaguewide dropbacks, or 5.7 percent. In other words, Prescott has slightly fewer dropbacks than average against the loaded boxes that, theoretically, are easier to throw against.

It seems true that the Cowboys remain more inclined to run their offense through Elliott, perhaps to justify that monster contract, instead of being a pass-dominant team by design. For example, on first-half first downs this season, when the score is less of a factor in play-calling, the Cowboys have dropped back on just 69 out of 158 snaps (43 percent). The NFL average is 51.1 percent. So Dallas has been less aggressive passing on more neutral downs despite Prescott being on pace for one of the most prolific passing seasons in NFL history.

Dallas can’t be blamed for being surprised with Prescott’s transformation into a human highlight reel, with three 400-yard passing games already and another one of 397. A $100 bet in the preseason on Prescott to lead the NFL in passing yards, like he’s currently doing, would pay $10,000. (For Tom Brady, it would be $400.) And Prescott’s passing success rate is more than 10 points better than what he averaged his prior three seasons.

The Cowboys’ salary cap specialists certainly didn’t expect this, or they would have signed Prescott over the summer.2 Dallas was said to have offered Dak $30 million a year, and he reportedly countered with a demand of $40 million per year, which would have made him the game’s highest-paid passer by a considerable margin. No progress on a new deal has been made during the season.

In the meantime, Prescott just keeps piling up numbers (841 passing yards and six touchdowns his past two games). But it is true that he’s benefited from a relatively easy schedule that will get much tougher — starting in Week 12 against New England, the league’s stingiest defense.

Which quarterbacks’ schedules will get harder?

Differences in average 2019 QB Elo defensive performance between a quarterback’s future and past opponents, ranked by tougher future defenses

Future Games Completed Games
Quarterback Team Starts QB Elo Def. Starts QB Elo Def. Diff.
1 Lamar Jackson BAL 6 +34.2 10 -30.3 +64.5
2 Josh Allen BUF 6 +32.4 10 -18.5 +50.9
3 Dak Prescott DAL 6 +23.2 10 -19.7 +42.9
4 Jimmy Garoppolo SF 6 +3.5 10 -37.9 +41.4
5 Kyler Murray ARI 5 +20.6 11 -10.0 +30.6
6 Patrick Mahomes KC 5 +16.8 9 -13.7 +30.5
7 Derek Carr OAK 6 +3.3 10 -20.6 +23.9
8 Daniel Jones NYG 6 -6.2 8 -29.0 +22.9
9 Russell Wilson SEA 6 +9.4 10 -11.8 +21.2
10 Philip Rivers LAC 5 +4.4 11 -10.8 +15.2
11 Matt Ryan ATL 6 -1.2 9 -13.6 +12.4
12 Kyle Allen CAR 6 -16.9 8 -28.7 +11.8
13 Matthew Stafford DET 4 -14.7 8 -18.0 +3.3
14 Kirk Cousins MIN 5 -20.3 11 -13.8 -6.6
15 Deshaun Watson HOU 6 -1.8 10 +6.0 -7.8
16 Aaron Rodgers GB 6 -13.1 10 -2.5 -10.6
17 Sam Darnold NYJ 6 -11.7 7 -0.8 -10.9
18 Jacoby Brissett IND 6 -19.6 9 -6.9 -12.6
19 Mitchell Trubisky CHI 6 -14.0 9 +0.1 -14.1
20 Jared Goff LAR 6 -29.9 10 -9.1 -20.7
21 Tom Brady NE 6 -32.3 10 -1.4 -30.9
22 Mason Rudolph PIT 6 -30.5 7 +2.6 -33.1
23 Carson Wentz PHI 6 -38.7 10 -5.1 -33.6
24 Jameis Winston TB 6 -35.6 10 +0.5 -36.1
25 Ryan Fitzpatrick MIA 6 -4.2 7 +32.1 -36.3
26 Baker Mayfield CLE 6 -49.1 10 +29.4 -78.5

Quarterback Elo defense represents how many points of QB Elo a defense suppresses vs. opposing quarterbacks on average, relative to expected from their QB Elo rating.

(Minimum six completed starts and four projected future starts.)

If Prescott fares as well against that tougher schedule as he has against the rest of the league so far, it doesn’t seem outrageous for him to become the game’s top-paid quarterback. Maybe Jones could just hand him a blank check. That seemed to be the sentiment of Aikman, who offered five words of advice to his former owner.

“I say pay the man.”

Looking Ahead: Week 12

Best matchup:3 No. 8 Seattle at No. 12 Philadelphia (-0.5), 1 p.m. ET Sunday

Philly can’t stop starring in marquee matchups. Last week, it made this blurb for a game against the Patriots, and now Week 12’s top contest features the Eagles versus the Seahawks. Philadelphia has a ton on the line, as usual — it currently has a 46 percent chance of making the playoffs, which would rise to 61 percent with a win or fall to 31 percent with a loss. The Eagles will still face one of the league’s softest schedules after this, so there is some margin for error, but QB Carson Wentz — who has been subpar in three of his past four starts — must seize this opportunity to heat up against a weak Seattle pass defense. Seattle’s situation isn’t quite as dire: Its playoff probability, currently at 85 percent, wouldn’t fall lower than 75 percent with a loss. But Russell Wilson and Co. are still trying to keep pace with the division-rival 49ers, whom the Seahawks beat when last we saw them before a bye week. A win would lift Seattle’s NFC West odds from 41 percent to 53 percent, while a loss would drop that number to 30 percent. We give the Eagles, playing at home, a very slim edge (a 51 percent chance to win) here.

What to watch for in the NFL’s Week 12

NFL matchups for Week 12, ranked according to various factors

Matchup Rankings
Favorite Underdog Favorite’s Win prob Quality Evenness Importance QBs
12 Eagles vs 8 Seahawks 51.3% 4 2 2 2
2 Ravens at 10 Rams 57.6 2 4 6 3
11 Texans vs 13 Colts 60.0 5 6 1 5
24 Jets vs 20 Raiders 50.6 8 1 3 8
1 Patriots vs 9 Cowboys 72.9 1 9 8 1
6 49ers vs 7 Packers 59.8 3 5 7 4
15 Titans vs 19 Jaguars 63.3 7 7 4 7
16 Falcons vs 25 Buccaneers 70.3 9 8 13 6
14 Bills vs 27 Broncos 78.0 10 13 5 14
4 Saints vs 23 Panthers 81.0 6 14 10 12
28 Lions at 31 Redskins 53.6 14 3 14 11
17 Browns vs 29 Dolphins 78.0 11 12 11 9
21 Bears vs 30 Giants 75.6 12 10 12 10
18 Steelers at 32 Bengals 77.3 13 11 9 13

Game Quality is based on the Elo Ratings of both teams. Evenness is based on how close the game is to 50-50 pregame odds. A game’s importance is based on how much it swings the playoff odds of the teams involved. A game’s Quarterbacks are judged on the QB Elo ratings of the two starters.

Biggest playoff implications: No. 13 Indianapolis at No. 11 Houston (-3), 8:20 p.m. ET Thursday

Potential shift in playoff odds: 40.9 total percentage points

The AFC South continues to be a pressure cooker of playoff leverage, this time thanks to another crucial matchup between the Colts and Texans. Indianapolis QB Jacoby Brissett returned from injury to help the team beat Jacksonville in last week’s most important game, holding the Colts’ playoff odds at 54 percent — but Indy isn’t out of the woods yet. It would lose 19 points of playoff probability with a loss here, making the team more likely than not to miss the playoffs. (Then again, the Colts could also gain a whopping 29 points of playoff probability with a win.) As for Houston, it doesn’t have much time to regroup after being totally outclassed in Deshaun Watson’s much-ballyhooed QB showdown against Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson. The Texans still have a solid 71 percent shot at the postseason, but a loss to Indy would knock that number down to 48 percent. According to our simulations, the winner of this game goes on to win the division 74 percent of the time, so we could be looking at a virtual play-in game for a playoff slot on Thursday night.

Best QB duels: No. 3 Dak Prescott (DAL) vs. No. 10 Tom Brady (NE); No. 4 Russell Wilson (SEA) vs. No. 16 Carson Wentz (PHI); No. 2 Lamar Jackson (BAL) vs. No. 21 Jared Goff (LAR)

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.) 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 11

Average difference between points won by readers and by Elo in Week 11 matchups in FiveThirtyEight’s NFL prediction game

OUR PREDICTION (ELO) READERS’ PREDICTION
PICK WIN PROB. PICK WIN PROB. Result READERS’ NET PTS
NE 57% NE 64% NE 17, PHI 10 +2.9
BUF 61 BUF 67 BUF 37, MIA 20 +2.0
NYJ 51 NYJ 54 NYJ 34, WSH 17 +1.1
NO 69 NO 71 NO 34, TB 17 -1.1
BAL 62 BAL 63 BAL 41, HOU 7 -1.5
KC 68 KC 69 KC 24, LAC 17 -1.8
CAR 63 CAR 63 ATL 29, CAR 3 -2.1
OAK 86 OAK 83 OAK 17, CIN 10 -2.6
MIN 85 MIN 82 MIN 27, DEN 23 -2.7
SF 85 SF 82 SF 36, ARI 26 -2.8
LAR 65 LAR 63 LAR 17, CHI 7 -3.7
IND 56 IND 53 IND 33, JAX 13 -4.5
DAL 75 DAL 70 DAL 35, DET 27 -5.1
CLE 50 PIT 54 CLE 21, PIT 7 -5.9

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.

None of the Week 11 games swung things massively in either direction. The readers’ best pick was its extra confidence that New England would beat Philly, while Elo’s best call was setting the Browns and Steelers as a pick ’em. But overall, Elo came out ahead on most games of the week, with the average reader gaining points from only three contests: New England-Philadelphia, Buffalo-Miami and Washington against the Jets. Because of this, the average user lost 27.8 points to the algorithm for the week, marking Elo’s seventh straight week ahead of the field (and its ninth win in 11 weeks overall).

Congratulations are in order, though, to Tyler Baumann, who led all identified readers in Week 11 with 254.0 points, and to Aaron DiGenova, who sits atop the full-season contest again with 829.4 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 11.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Including sacks but excluding scrambles and spikes.

  2. Earlier estimates of his salary had placed it around $145 million over five years with $58 million guaranteed.

  3. Based on a combination of matchup evenness, or how close to 50-50 odds the game has; matchup quality, in terms of the harmonic mean of both teams’ QB-adjusted Elo ratings; playoff impact; and the quality of the opposing starting QBs.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on The Athletic and the Wall Street Journal.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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