You’d be forgiven if you thought the Dallas Cowboys would struggle this season after it was learned starting quarterback Tony Romo would miss six to 10 weeks after suffering a broken bone in his back during a preseason game. After all, the team was 1-11 last season — six of those losses decided by one score — with Romo out with separate clavicle injuries.
However, Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NFL draft, got his second start at quarterback for Dallas on Sunday against division rival Washington Redskins and continued to show why he is the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future.
In Week 1 against the New York Giants, Prescott completed 25 of 45 passes for 227 yards, but no touchdowns. Normally you’d consider that a lackluster performance, but for a rookie who was the eighth passer taken in the draft, it was a solid first effort. One area that needed improvement was his poise in the pocket. Per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, he completed just 3 of 13 passes for 28 yards under pressure and saw his passer rating drop from 85.2 to 39.6 when facing the Giants’ pass rush.
In Week 2 against Washington, Prescott improved. He was 22 for 30 for 292 yards and again threw no touchdown passes, but ran one in for a score and completed 6 of 8 passes under pressure for 75 yards.
Prescott still has yet to go up against an elite defense — the Giants and Redskins rank No. 20 and No. 27, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ most recent Defense-adjusted Value Over Average ratings — but there haven’t been any rookie jitters you’d expect either. In fact, he has yet to throw an interception in either of his two NFL starts, breaking the NFL record for most attempts without an interception over a passer’s first two games set by Warren Moon in 1984.
Prescott was at the helm for three long touchdown drives of 94, 75, and 80 yards against Washington and spread the ball around to seven different receivers with Dez Bryant, who had five targets for eight yards in Week 1, leading the team with 11 targets for 102 yards in Week 2. Prescott also showed budding chemistry with Cole Beasley, who caught 5 of 6 targets for 75 yards.
Prescott averaged 9.7 yards per pass, but his coaches continued to play it safe. In Week 1, he attempted 45 passes but only 15 were targets of more than 10 yards; in Week 2 just 10 of 36 passes were 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage with none farther than 19 yards. Instead, the coaching staff is using plays Prescott is familiar with from college and play-action plays to help keep him protected.
So far this season, more than a quarter of his dropbacks (28.4 percent) have involved play action, and on those plays, his completion percentage rises to 81 percent, significantly higher than on those plays without play action (55.6 percent).
During Romo’s last fully healthy season, his 2014 Pro Bowl campaign, he was used in play action just 17.9 percent of the time and was equally productive both with (102.0 passer rating) and without (115.6) play action. But Prescott has a few more weeks to get comfortable in the pocket as a traditional passer, and if he can continue to progress, will only move up his timetable of becoming the team’s undisputed No. 1 starting quarterback.