You know about the “Rookie Wall?” Surely you’ve heard of it. NFL rookies that end up starting their season playing at a high level inevitably must answer questions about it. Most tell us, “There’s no Rookie Wall.” Most of us don’t believe them. Heck, Ezekiel Elliott refused to acknowledge it last week.
So, welcome to the Rookie Wall, Dak Prescott.
Something is clearly up, and you can mask some of that when you keep winning as the Dallas Cowboys did in their past two Thursday games. But when you lose — as the Cowboys did against the Giants on Sunday night (game coverage of the 10-7 loss here) — and Prescott plays a clear role in that loss, well the Rookie Wall must be examined.
So consider the mounting evidence:
- Prescott threw for fewer than 200 yards for the third straight game (195 yards vs. Washington, 139 yards vs. Minnesota, 165 yards vs. New York Giants). Before the Washington game Prescott had not thrown for fewer than 200 yards in any of his first 10 games.
- Prescott’s touchdown-to-interception numbers in the last three games is 3-to-2. In his first 10 games it was 17-to-2.
- Prescott’s completion percentage in the past three games is 57.2 percent (46-of-79). His completion percentage in the first 10 games was 67.7 percent (214-of-316).
- Prescott has been sacked seven times in the past three games. He was sacked 14 times in his first 10 games.
- Prescott’s passer rating is 87.5 in the past three games. His passer rating in the first 10 games was 108.6.
Prescott’s numbers have clearly taken a downturn and that’s to be expected. And it’s not because he doesn’t have talent. He’s a rookie, for crying out loud. This stuff happens, and it tends to happen in December. Why? Well there are certainly some compelling reasons:
The Bowl Game Effect. If Prescott were still at Mississippi State he would be resting up for a bowl game right about now. His body and his mind know that, even if it’s just subconsciously. That two- or three-week break is for college students to take exams and see family for the holidays. There is no such thing as an exam break in the NFL. When you get used to that for three or four years, that first year when you don’t get that break can be jarring. Think of it from your perspective. Remember that first year you left college, went out into the real world to work and realized you don’t get a summer break? Same principle. Players will tell you that doesn’t matter. Don’t buy it. It does matter.
The Book on Prescott. There’s a saying I was introduced to when I first started covering the Buccaneers in Tampa — “The NFL has a way of figuring you out.” What that means is once teams have enough tape and enough scouting on a player, they can counter what makes that player successful. Prescott has now thrown more than 350 NFL passes and every NFL team has every one of them on tape. Defensive coordinators, their coaches and their quality control coaches (the NFL’s version of the college graduate assistant) pour over these tapes weeks in advance. The Redskins and Vikings clearly found some things to frustrate Prescott, starting with putting their best corner on Dez Bryant full-time in each game. The Giants did the same thing with Janoris Jenkins and he put Bryant in a vise clamp all night. Once teams see others be successful doing something, they copy it. Then it’s up to the player, in this case Prescott, to adjust and counter. That ability to adjust and counter schemes designed to take away what you do best, and be successful in the process, is what makes quarterbacks like Tom Brady champions.
The Pressure Principle. Prescott knows what’s at stake right now. He earned this job. He earned the right through his stellar play in the first 10 games to see this thing through to the playoffs and, hopefully, beyond. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pressure — not the pressure the Giants put on him Sunday but the pressure off the field. He won’t admit it — pros rarely do in the moment — but he must sense where this mounting juggernaut of a season is headed. That leads inexperienced pros to play tighter and Prescott was guilty of that on Sunday. For the first time this season I saw a quarterback who played less by instinct and more by tentativeness. He didn’t use his legs even though he had opportunities, rushing one time for 1 yard. This came after rushing for 76 yards in his previous two games. He forced passes into the wrong places. He threw two interceptions. He took three sacks. It was his worst game of the season. And much of that was on him.
Of course, it was a bad game all around for this Cowboys offense. The weather didn’t help as the temperature got down into the 30s, which makes home-field advantage throughout the playoffs important for the Cowboys to achieve. Jenkins turned Bryant into an afterthought and when Bryant finally caught a pass he fumbled it. Elliott had a fine first half but the Giants’ defense adjusted, and aside from one 17-yard run it was tough for him in the final 30 minutes. Scott Linehan’s play-calling in the second half had no rhythm to it.
For the first time this season Prescott’s play clearly affected the Cowboys in a negative way. And that begs the question, what’s next?
I reviewed five rookie quarterbacks that played substantial time in that first season. I broke up the data between their first three months and their final month, along with how far they go got in the playoffs. Here’s what I gathered:
Ben Roethlisberger, 2004: September-November, 66.5 completion percentage, 12 TDs, 6 INTs, 98.4 QB rating; December, 66.2 completion percentage, 5 TDs, 5 INTs, 97.6 QB rating. Roethlisberger led the Steelers to the AFC title game.
Matt Ryan, 2008: September-November, 60.9 completion percentage, 13 TDs, 6 INTs, 91.2 QB rating; December, 61.3 completion percentage, 3 TDs, 5 INTs, 76.1 QB rating. Ryan led the Falcons to the NFC Wild Card playoffs.
Joe Flacco, 2008: September-November, 61.3 completion percentage, 12 TDs, 9 INTs, 82.3 QB rating; December, 56.7 completion percentage, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 73.2 QB rating. Flacco took the Ravens to the AFC title game.
Andy Dalton, 2011: September-November, 60.1 completion percentage, 16 TDs, 12 INTs, 81.8 QB rating; December, 53.6 completion percentage, 4 TDs, 1 INTs, 76.9 QB rating. Dalton took the Bengals to the AFC Wild Card playoffs.
Russell Wilson, 2012: September-November, 63.6 completion percentage, 17 TDs, 8 INTs, 93.9 QB rating; December, 65.5 completion percentage, 9 TDs, 2 INTs, 115.2 QB rating. Wilson took the Seahawks to the NFC Divisional playoffs.
As you can see the drop-offs (except in the case of Wilson) aren’t stark, but they’re noticeable. A small dropoff in completion percentage or a decline in touchdown-to-interception ratio can make a huge difference in a quarterback’s play and his team’s chances down the stretch. But all five of those players played well enough to get their teams into the postseason. But none of them reached the Super Bowl.
Naturally, someone asked head coach Jason Garrett about whether he thought of putting Tony Romo in this game when it became clear Prescott was struggling. He said he never thought about it.
“We feel good about Dak Prescott playing quarterback for us right now,” he said.
Owner Jerry Jones went the same route:
And then on Monday, Garrett repeating the plan, with clarity:
"You can make it as simple or as complex as you want to make it," Garrett said. "It's pretty simple for us: Dak's going to play quarterback as we go forward."
That’s the right call at this moment. While Prescott’s numbers have turned a bit, the Cowboys are still 2-1 during this stretch and they’re still built around Elliott and this offensive line. Putting Romo back in the game means inviting all kinds of controversy back into this locker room that, at this moment, feels unnecessary.
Instead, the Cowboys are trying to consider this a "learning experience.''
Said Dak: “You never want to say it’s good to lose. I hate to lose. It’s a bad feeling. But it kind of gets you resettled, gets you back right.”
Maybe. It’s clear the Cowboys need to get Prescott trending back into a positive position passing the football. Quarterbacks don’t lead their teams to playoff victories throwing for fewer than 200 yards, as he has the past three games. The Cowboys want to run Elliott down defenses’ throats, but they need Prescott to be effective, too.
On Sunday night you saw what happens when he isn’t effective. There’s no need to hit the panic button yet. But there is need to acknowledge that Prescott is hitting that Rookie Wall and the Cowboys must help him find a way to scale it before January.