Dak Prescott had the best debut of any rookie quarterback in Dallas Cowboys history last Sunday against the New York Giants — 25-of-45 for 227 yards.
That left most Cowboys observers optimistic about his future and the team’s short-term hopes of staying afloat while Tony Romo continues to rehab his back. But I am keenly interested in that next game, or even the next several games, as Romo may not be back until midseason. Does history provide us a window into what Prescott might be able to do?
Well, I approached this deep dive in two ways. First, I tracked the other 12 Cowboys rookies that started at least one game their rookie season. Then I tracked the other 10 quarterbacks with the top debuts in the NFL since 1999 to look for trends.
I approached this rather simply. I wanted to examine quarterbacks that not only made their debut, but continued to play beyond their debut, hopefully immediately after their debut but certainly that rookie season. Oddly enough that eliminated several Cowboys right away.
Don Meredith, Jerry Rhome, Craig Morton, Roger Staubach and Reggie Collier all started one game their rookie season, but didn’t start again that season. So I eliminated them from the sample. I had to do the same with Jason Garrett’s rookie start in 1993, since it didn’t meet the criteria.
That left me with Kevin Sweeney, Troy Aikman, Steve Walsh, Anthony Wright, Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson. I examined their stats from two different perspectives. First I reviewed the start immediately after their debut. Second, I reviewed the first seven starts in their debut season, if applicable.
So here are the totals and averages for these six quarterbacks in the starts immediately after their debut start:
Totals: 72-for-137 passing, 934 yards, 3 touchdowns, 7 interceptions
Averages: 12-for-22.8 passing, 155.6 yards, .5 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
In fairness, the totals are a bit skewed. Carter left his game after just five passes back in 2001. Wright had a horrible second start, going 5-for-20 for 35 yards with two interceptions. He had a 0.0 passer rating. The other four threw for at least 150 yards and three threw for more than 200 yards.
But here’s the hook. Combined those six starters went 1-5. But the good news is that, combined, those second-start numbers are slightly better than their debut numbers:
Totals: 75-for-146 passing, 810 yards, 5 touchdowns, 7 interceptions
Averages: 12.5-for-24.3 passing, 135 yards, .83 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions.
The hook here is their record in their debuts, in aggregate, is the same as their record in their second rookie starts — 1-5.
So what about improvement down the line? Do we see any historically? Prescott may have to start as many as seven games before Romo is ready to return, so I used that as the sample size. I looked at these six rookie quarterbacks and their first seven starts of their rookie season to see if we could track improvement.
Unfortunately that meant eliminating Sweeney. He played for the Cowboys during the 1987 strike and while he started two more games in 1988, he didn’t start enough to meet our sample. The same went for Wright, who started two more games in his second season before leaving Dallas. Plus, we had to bid Walsh adios because he started just five games in 1989. But for research’s sake, here are Walsh’s five-game numbers as a starter in 1989: 86-for-173 passing, 1,059 yards, 4 touchdowns, 5 interceptions.
That leaves Aikman, Carter and Hutchinson. So here are their numbers for their first seven starts of their rookie seasons, with totals and per-game averages:
Totals: 269-for-482 passing, 3,361 yards, 15 touchdowns, 24 interceptions
Per game average: 12.8-for-22.9 passing, 160.4 yards, .7 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
So now let’s compare our per-game averages for the first rookie start, second rookie start and the first seven starts:
First Start: 12.5-for-24.3 passing, 135 yards, .83 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions.
Second Start: 12-for-22.8 passing, 155.6 yards, .5 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
First Seven Starts: 12.8-of-22.9 passing, 160.4 yards, .7 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
The improvement is marginal at best. The completions and attempts remain steady on average. The yardage tracks improvement from first start to seven full starts. Touchdown passes remain at fewer than one per game and the interceptions are the exact same in each sample.
Oh, and the kicker? The seven-game record for Aikman, Carter and Hutchinson — 5-16.
Historically, from a Cowboys’ perspective, there is little improvement for rookie quarterbacks the further into the season they go.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that Aikman, Carter and Hutchinson quarterbacked sorry teams. None made the playoffs and the combined record for those three seasons was 11-37. Prescott is quarterbacking an infinitely more talented team on offense. That could make a difference in his overall numbers and the team’s overall success as the season continues.
But what about the non-Cowboys quarterbacks I mentioned? With the help of the Cowboys’ PR department’s post-game notes from Week 1 I was able to research the Top 11 rookie quarterback debuts since 1999 (Prescott’s debut came in at No. 7). My goal was to see whether things have changed. Remember — Aikman, Carter and Hutchinson played a time when rookie quarterbacks rarely started right out of the gate. It’s interesting to note that of the Top 11 performances on the list nine of the have come since 2010, as it seems NFL teams expect more from their rookie quarterbacks.
Our sample of nine rookies includes Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Sam Bradford, Chris Weinke, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. I eliminated the 10th player in the sample, Carson Wentz, since he, like Prescott, has just one start. I looked at the numbers three ways — the averages for the game immediately after their first start, the totals for the first seven games (per player) and the average for the first seven starts (per start):
Second start: 19-for-31.7 passing, 235.7 yards, 1 touchdown, .89 interceptions. Record: 5-4.
First seven starts: 132-for-220.8 passing, 1603.8 yards, 7.8 touchdowns, 7.8 interceptions. Record: 25-38
Averages per game (63 games): 18.8-of-31.5 passing, 229.1 yards, 1.12 touchdowns, 1.12 interceptions.
Note the record in starts immediately after their first start as a rookie. It’s over .500. The record over seven games is under .500, but the winning percentage is better than our Cowboys sample.
In fact, let’s compare the per-game averages.
Cowboys second start: 12-for-22.8 passing, 155.6 yards, .5 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
Non-Cowboys second start: 19-for-31.7 passing, 235.7 yards, 1 touchdown, .89 interceptions.
You see a noticeable uptick in passing yardage and touchdowns, along with a slight drop in interceptions.
Cowboys first seven starts: 12.8-for-22.9 passing, 160.4 yards, .7 touchdowns, 1.1 interceptions
Non-Cowboys first seven starts: 18.8-for-31.5 passing, 229.1 yards, 1.12 touchdowns, 1.12 interceptions.
Again, we see a noticeable change in passing yards and touchdowns per game.
So what does that tell me? Well these non-Cowboys quarterbacks, with the exception of Weinke, came up in an era of 7-on-7 passing leagues, summer college camps and sport specialization. These players came into college better prepared to play, which meant they came into the NFL better prepared to play. Given the refinement of their skills, the fact that their numbers are improved over the Cowboys’ rookie starters we mentioned really isn’t that much of a surprise. Plus, the NFL is throwing the ball like never before. Note the nine-pass jump in attempts from the Cowboys sample to the non-Cowboys sample.
This latter era is the era Prescott came up in and, based on my research, is the set of players he should be compared to. The averages say that Prescott’s numbers in relation to his debut should remain steady, which bodes well for Dallas.
But there are things that don’t bode well for Dallas. For instance, of those nine non-Cowboys rookies only a third had winning records after seven games — Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Ryan Tannehill. Second, most of these quarterbacks took over losing teams and the average win improvement from the previous season to the rookie year among the nine was less than two games. Third, only two — Griffin and Sanchez — took their teams to the playoffs and only Sanchez got his team to a conference title game.
So where can we expect Prescott to take the Cowboys? We've reviewed his Giants work (here), of course ... And Fish is writing about a Dez Bryant-related adjustment that can help in Sunday's noon game at Washington ... And in total, based on this research and the fact that I believe his talent should be better compared to players of his era and not former Cowboys rookies, if he hits the averages Cowboys fans will get a quarterback with solid passing numbers but a Cowboys team that will likely have a sub-.500 record when Romo returns.