Dak Prescott is again ready to literally put his best foot forward for the Dallas Cowboys. It wasn’t just what he did in the air, but also on the ground, for while it wasn’t a 100-yard rushing day or anything near it, his early decisions to take off and run extended drives and threw the defense into a state of confusion as this wasn’t the version of Prescott many teams have seen in 2021. So as he and the Dallas Cowboys ready for a pivotal matchup on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, the two-time Pro Bower has a message.
For much of the season, be it the psychology of returning from a season-ending fractured ankle suffered in 2020 and/or his battle with a calf strain midway through the 2021 season, Prescott has been exceedingly hesitant to run the ball. Don’t count on that being a thing going forward and into the playoffs, though.
If there’s green grass in front of him, he’s off to the races.
“If there’s an opportunity to run, obviously this being the back part of the season, heading into the playoffs — everything matters,” he said on Monday. “I’m playing that way. I’m preparing that way.”
That’s music to the ears of those who have long questioned Prescott’s unwillingness this season to take the yards in front of him when a play breaks down and/or there’s no one open to air the ball out to. He’s often opted to stay behind the line of scrimmage and hope for the best downfield, and while at times that’s paid off, it’s cost him and what was a sputtering Cowboys offense potential first downs as well.
Because while Prescott’s game will never be confused with that of Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray, his mobility is still something that must be accounted for by opposing defenses, as it was at Mississippi State and through the first four-plus seasons with the Cowboys — up until he suffered the aforementioned ankle injury. The only way to truly digest the before and after is to take a deeper look at the numbers, so let’s do that, shall we?
In his first 60 starts for the Cowboys, Prescott rushed for 1,314 yards and 24 rushing touchdowns, averaging six rushing touchdowns per season in his first three years in Dallas. For contrast, Prescott has just 126 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown through 14 games in 2021. Additionally, Prescott averaged 24.75 first downs on runs in Year 1 through Year 4 before tagging on another eight first downs in the first and only five games of the 2020 season. Since his return, he’s run for only six first downs from September through December, and that number could be much higher — the tape tells us.
Lastly and even more pointed are his yards per rushing attempt, a number that’s been nearly cut in half: Prescott has gone from 5.16 average rushing yards gained per attempt prior to 2021 to only 2.9 gained on average per attempt this season.
And here is the breakdown of the Cowboys record in games when Prescott scores at least one rushing touchdown:
Overall record: 19-4
*denotes injury-shortened season
Translation: He’s not been the same player on the ground.
And yes, you can also factor in injuries to the offensive line and the like, but film doesn’t lie, and there were plenty of opportunities in games for Prescott to penalize the other team’s defense for daring him to run, and he rarely called their bluff. It was something WFT did as well, because there was nothing to indicate their dice roll wouldn’t pay off, hoping for a four and a three [trey] but instead coming up snake eyes.
“That one time when he took off [against WFT in Week 16], I was like, ‘Damn that boy moving,'” said two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott. “Haven’t seen him run that fast in a minute. It shows you how good he’s feeling and I mean it’s just a testament of the work he put in in the offseason to get to where he is, and the work that he’s been putting in every week this year just to prepare for Sunday. I mean he’s been working his tail off.
“I’m there, I see a lot of it. I mean it’s showing the benefit of it.”
It’s justifiable to wonder if that block (be it mental, physical or a combination of the two) helped make it more difficult for the offense to snap out of an offensive downturn, especially when you can draw such a definitive line between his aggressiveness on the ground in Week 16 and the offense waking up in explosive fashion. So, again, while Prescott is still very much a prolific pocket passer who can extend plays with his legs to buy time for the big downfield completion (versus being a run-first QB), reminding opposing defenses that they must crash down on him when he has the chance to run — something they haven’t done often in 2021 because there was no fear of him running — creates more opportunities for broken coverages and plays down the field.
It is science, really, and not necessarily the kind used to power rockets.
Needless to say, however, you shouldn’t confuse Prescott’s rekindled willingness to tear off chunks of yards with his legs with an eagerness to take unnecessary contact. When it comes time to slide or get out of bounds, Prescott is taking the escape hatch, and that’s something that will no doubt continue to keep him on the field for what has the potential to be a deep playoff run for the Cowboys — also kicking open another door for the offense to walk through.
“If those running lanes are there, but obviously I’m still going to be smart and take the contact and those types of things,” Prescott added. “When it’s needed, when the lanes there, I’m not going to hesitate.”
It’ll all come in handy against a Cardinals defense that is one of the best in the league at pressuring the passer, also having 39 sacks this season to drive that point home, led by All-Pro game-wrecker Chandler Jones (9.5) and linebacker Markus Golden (11). There’s a chance the Cowboys see the return of All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith to help stall that attack, but it’s a no-brainer that Prescott understand how taking advantage of gaping lanes would also keep them from pinning their ears back.
Prescott wasn’t available for the 2020 matchup between the two teams, and it ended very poorly for the Cowboys in Dallas. This time around, he’s ready to shoot for payback against Kyler Murray and Co., a team that slumped mightily in December but still has the ability to make things difficult for any opponent in January.
“Yeah, it was very difficult [to watch last season] for multiple reasons,” said Prescott. “That was a week after surgery. I was on my couch, legged propped up. Probably on some med sh-t that made it hard to watch the game as well. It made it hard, just not being part of it. It made it hard, the way they came out and played in our home stadium, something that I think about.
“Yeah, excited to play this team and get this matchup healthy and be a part of it.”
And yes, you can count this next game as a litmus test for both clubs as the postseason nears.
“What a great challenge it is to be trying to trend and grow from last year’s game against a great opponent, against a playoff opponent like the Arizona Cardinals,” said Prescott. “I’m excited for the matchup. This team has our respect. We’re looking forward to go out there and give them our best shot.
“… Yeah for sure [this game is a measuring stick] — [the Cardinals are] a playoff team. This is a team we could see next month or so, you want to make sure we come out and we play our best ball. This is almost no different than a division opponent that you’re playing twice. Sure we’re not guaranteed playing them again, depending on how the tournament seeds out, but it can happen that way.
“This is a talented team, obviously they were a No. 1 seed for a large part of this year, deservingly so, just with the talent, the scheme and the coaches they have. They got our respect. But we’re going to come out there and be the enforcers and put our best football forward.”
That includes Prescott using his feet when given the chance, because it’ll make the Cowboys that much more difficult to tango with during the 2021 postseason dance.