NFL AM: Prescott’s Success in Dallas May Usher in New Era Under Center


The transition in Dallas from the Tony Romo era to the Dak Prescott era came on faster than anyone could have imagined, and there are many reasons for that. But the move has ultimately become emblematic of a trend developing around the league.

Romo began the year as the unquestioned starter for the Cowboys, Prescott just a rookie who wasn’t expected to see the field. Of course, the veteran’s failing health opened the door for the rookie to take the reins and run with them. It’s how Prescott has done that, however, by minimizing mistakes and keeping the Cowboys in a constant position of power on the field, that not only secured him the job in Dallas when Romo got healthy but created a possible template for the future of the quarterback position.

Through 12 games, Prescott has thrown 358 passes and just two of them have been intercepted. He’s minimized mistakes in a way few players around the league have been able to. For example, fellow NFC East quarterbacks Eli Manning, a veteran, and Carson Wentz, a rookie, both threw at least that many interceptions last week alone.

But this may be where the league is headed at the quarterback position. The days of the gunslinger quarterback, the guy who takes big risks with the football, often to his team’s detriment, shooting for the big reward, may be coming to an end. It’s what Romo was for the Cowboys for so many years. He was equal parts enthralling and frustrating as a quarterback. The type of player who could put up 500 yards passing and five touchdowns against a great Denver defense a few years ago, only to throw it all away on the last possession with a back-breaking interception late in the game.

With defenses becoming faster and more talented, and offenses trying to keep up, teams can’t be endorsing those type of risks with the ball anymore. Now more than ever, ball security and possession are the path to success. The Cowboys not only do it with a quarterback in Prescott who minimizes mistakes and makes smart decisions, they do it with a rushing attack that keeps the ball out of their opponent’s hands and keeps their less talented defense off the field.

But Prescott isn’t the first such quarterback in the league. He’s just the latest hot example.

The chief precedent for all of this is clearly Tom Brady. What has been able to do over the last decade and a half in New England is nothing short of remarkable. On Sunday, Brady picked up his 201st career victory, passing Peyton Manning for most all-time. Over the course of his 17-year career, Brady has thrown 447 touchdown passes and just 151 interceptions, a nearly 3-1 ratio. Comparatively, Romo has 247 TD passes and 117 interceptions over 10 seasons, basically a 2-1 ratio. And then there is the gunslinger in chief, Brett Favre. Over 20 seasons, Favre threw 508 touchdown passes but he was picked off a record 336 times, a less than 2-1 TD-INT ratio. That kind of recklessness with the football just won’t cut it in the NFL anymore.

That kind of recklessness with the football just won’t cut it in the NFL anymore.

To his credit, Romo had adapted in many ways to be more careful with the ball, and in his last full season, what might have been his best as a pro at age 34 in 2014, he threw 34 touchdown passes with just nine interceptions. However, in his two brief healthy stints last season, his reckless ways returned and he was picked off seven times in parts of four games. So it will be interesting to see when he gets an opportunity wherever he winds up next season which version of Romo we see.

A look at the NFL leaderboard in interceptions shows a bit of a correlation between quarterback play and ball security and success. Among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 100 passes this year, only Brian Hoyer, who impressively went without an interception on 200 throws for the Bears before being lost for the season, has thrown fewer picks than Brady, who has only been picked off once on just over 300 pass attempts. Prescott is right behind him with two on 358 passes. The two quarterbacks who will battle for the top spot in the AFC West, and perhaps the top seed in the conference, on Thursday night, Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Oakland’s Derek Carr, are right there with four and five respectively.

Smith has been criticized as purely a game manager in the past, but there’s no doubting he’s put the Chiefs in better position to be successful over the past few years than any of his predecessors in Kansas City. Carr still has a bit of gunslinger in him, but he’s steadily improved over the past few seasons and is having his best yet in terms of ball security. Russell Wilson of the NFC’s current No. 2 seed Seahawks and Matthew Stafford of the current No. 3 seed Lions also have each thrown just five picks. As Charlie Bernstein wrote earlier this week, Stafford’s transformation into an elite quarterback who doesn’t sling the ball around as much is a huge reason for Detroit’s success this year. Matt Ryan’s better ball security, with seven picks this year after five straight double-digit seasons where the numbers kept on rising, is also a reason Atlanta is in playoff position.

In fact, of the 12 teams currently in playoff position, only three of their starting quarterbacks rank among the league leaders in interceptions: New York’s Eli Manning and Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston have each thrown 12 and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco has tossed 11 INTs. It’s all proof that ball security is paramount to success in today’s NFL.

It’s why some panic has set in over the last few weeks in Philadelphia, where No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz has noticeably regressed. Wentz started the season as one of the league’s most efficient and mistake-free passers, setting a record for most pass attempts without an interception to start a career that was eventually eclipsed by Prescott. But over the last few games, Wentz has taken some steps back and gone more gunslinger and thrown six picks in the last three contests. It’s something the Eagles will certainly look to get a handle on as they try to develop Wentz into the type of quarterback they need.

Meanwhile, across the rest of the league, a trend is developing that is clearly separating the haves and the have-nots, and you can expect talent evaluators to take notice as we head into the offseason and draft season. At the very least, Dallas’ success with Prescott is something quarterback-needy teams are going to look to mimic in the coming months and years, and it could bring on the dawn of a new era at the quarterback position.

About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys