Dak Prescott acquitted himself well Sunday afternoon, especially for a rookie starting in Week 1. He committed no turnovers, made sound decisions, commanded the Dallas Cowboys’ offense with calm and may have led a last-minute, game-winning drive if not for a teammate’s bone-headed play. But if the Cowboys do not let Prescott do more, or if he is unable of doing more, then the Cowboys are in trouble until starter Tony Romo returns.
Prescott came from a spread system at Mississippi State, and he only became the Cowboys’ starter when Romo suffered a broken back in the preseason. He could not have a complete handle on the Cowboys’ playbook yet, and so time should bring improvement. But in his regular season debut, a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants, which followed a scintillating preseason, he appeared to operate a limited attack lacking deep passes and incapable of incorporating Dez Bryant, Dallas’s best player.
Once the New York Giants figured it out, they rendered Prescott ineffective. Other teams will, too, if he does not show improvement or receive more chances to stretch the field.
Prescott had one glaring problem. He barely passed deep, and when he tried, he usually failed. In total, Prescott completed 25 of 44 passes for 227 yards — a paltry 5.15 yards per attempt. Almost all the damage he did came in small doses. Prescott attempted seven deep passes and completed only one of them, a 21-yard corner pattern in the second quarter, his longest completion of the game.
As Prescott rarely tried to throw deep — while proving incapable when he did — the Giants compressed their defense to stop short passes. In the second half, Prescott did not gain more than 11 yards until the final drive, when he dumped a pass to Lance Dunbar and the running back scampered ahead for 16 yards. In the second half, Prescott completed 10 of 21 passes for just 84 yards, 4.0 yards per attempt.
The Cowboys’ offense was a procession of screens, slants and check downs. In other words, it did not fit Bryant’s skill set at all. Prescott targeted Bryant five times and completed only one of those passes, an eight-yard out for his first completion of the game. Prescott lacked accuracy on his deep balls all game, and the Cowboys didn’t call many, which turned their best player into a hood ornament.
It’s telling that Prescott threw 14 passes in tight end Jason Witten’s direction and 12 to slot receiver Cole Beasley. The entire Dallas passing offense came in short bursts in the middle of the field. NFL defenses are too good for that to work an entire game.
The Cowboys may have to be creative in order to coax more deep passes out of Prescott. In the second quarter, he hit backup tight end Geoff Swaim for 21 yards on a play-action, rollout pass. Prescott faked the handoff, scooted left and fired across his body. The rollout enabled Prescott to read only half the field, and the pattern — two short options and Swaim deep — made it easy for the rookie to read.
Prescott showed why the Cowboys have such confidence in him. On the final drive, he still used check downs mostly, although he rifled a 15-yard out to Beasley for a crucial first down on third and long — the longest pass he completed through the air all half. He might have become an instant hero had Terrance Williams not taken one of his dump-offs upfield rather than going out of bounds. The clock expired, never giving dynamite-legged Dallas place kicker Dan Bailey a chance.
It’s possible experience and continued comfort from Dallas coaches will allow Prescott to express his full talent. He has plenty of arm strength, and in the preseason he showed touch on deep balls. But his actual debut left one clear takeaway: Prescott is a poised quarterback who needs to throw deep more often, whether that means coaches have to let him or he needs to improve. Fast.