FRISCO, Texas – Thirteen months ago, Dak Prescott was in the conversation to be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
In the first six games of the 2021 season, Prescott had 16 touchdown passes to just four interceptions. He averaged 302 passing yards per game. The Cowboys were 5-1. In an overtime win against the New England Patriots, he threw for more yards against a Bill Belichick-coached defense than any other quarterback with 445 yards.
In the last 14 games, Prescott has 27 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Good numbers.
He has thrown for 3,492 yards on 333-of-507 passing. Good numbers.
The Cowboys are 8-6 in those 14 games. Kind of good.
The 6-3 Cowboys need Prescott to be better than good, beginning Sunday against the 8-1 Minnesota Vikings (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), if they want to be taken seriously in the NFC.
Maybe they don’t need him to be as good as he was in the first six games last season, but he needs to be better.
“I'm my biggest critic, honestly, so if there's a ball on the ground, I feel like I need to get better. Simple as that,” Prescott said. “As far as doing more, I've got to stay within the game plan, but at the same sense, there's certain times when looking back at it, maybe I should have extended the play, not necessarily ran, but got out of the pocket and try to make something happen more than what was there. That's going to definitely come, and just practicing it makes it pay off on Sundays."
Prescott’s teammates know he will respond.
“He’s made up the right stuff, right?” All-Pro right guard Zack Martin said. “I mean we talk about it all the time. This is my opinion, if you do things the right way and prepare the right way, things are going to work out in the long run. Everyone’s got their [poor] games, their weeks, but if you prepare the right way like he does: 1) it’s contagious and 2) it usually works out in your favor.”
Wide receiver CeeDee Lamb said, “He's a leader. He's been there before. We've all played in a playoff game, granted we haven't won, but they've been first overall in the division. They've had the first-round bye. They understand what it feels like to play in a second round, so experience is everything around these type of times.
"It is November, late in the season, we're starting to get to crunch time, so everything is important. Knowledge is everything. So you listen to the guys that have the most experience and understand what it takes to come out of the situation victorious.”
Last year’s incredible start came after Prescott returned from a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle that limited him to five games in 2020. In the overtime win against the Patriots, he limped off the field with a calf strain that would cost him one game.
This year, he suffered a fractured right thumb in the season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that required surgery and knocked him out of five games.
“I took those five weeks I was out and didn’t just sit there, but made sure I got myself healthy and did as much as I could to get myself back,” Prescott said. “So yeah, I think the timing is there and is only going to improve.”
Uncharacteristic interceptions in his past two games, however, changed the tenor of those contests.
In Week 8, with 40 seconds left in the first half against the Chicago Bears, leading 28-14, Prescott’s first-down pass to Lamb was intercepted. The Bears ended the half with a field goal and made what turned a potential laugher into something more serious until the fourth quarter.
Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Prescott was intercepted in the end zone by safety Rudy Ford after forcing a pass to tight end Dalton Schultz on third down from the Packers' 11. The Cowboys went from a potential 10-0 lead with a simple throwaway to a tie score. On the next drive, he was intercepted by Ford again after a miscommunication with Lamb, and Green Bay had a 14-7 lead.
Dallas ended up beating Chicago 49-29 and lost 31-28 in overtime to Green Bay.
“I think again there's a balancing act of playing smart and aggressive football at the same time,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said. “Dak traditionally has done a lot of good things in that world and certainly something that we've got to be aware of -- check ourselves -- but Dak has done a really good job and I think he'll continue to keep progressing in the same direction.”
With Prescott out after surgery, the Cowboys went 4-1 with Cooper Rush as their starter. His numbers -- 83 of 143, 856 yards, 5 touchdowns, 3 picks -- were pedestrian, but he was efficient and made timely throws. Four times during Rush’s first four starts, the Cowboys scored touchdowns after the opponent closed to within a point, tied the score or took a lead. The only time they didn’t was in his one loss against the Philadelphia Eagles when he was done in by three interceptions.
The thought was Prescott’s return would elevate the Cowboys.
Some of the numbers have improved. The offense has produced 10 touchdowns in the past two games after scoring 12 in the first seven. Prescott has nine completions of 20 yards or more in the past three games after the Cowboys had 14 in the first six games.
Third-down conversions remain an issue. Against the Bears, the Cowboys were 9 of 11. In the games against Detroit and Green Bay, they were a combined 8 of 24. Prescott has completed an NFL-low 43.3% of his passes on third and fourth downs this season with one touchdown and three interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
And in a weird coincidence, the Cowboys' defense has had three of its four worst showings with Prescott at quarterback, but coach Mike McCarthy said he doesn’t see any correlation.
McCarthy knows Prescott’s importance to the Cowboys.
“I think his best days are ahead of him,” McCarthy said. “I’m excited to work with him every day and what he brings to the table. He’s our quarterback. I get the evaluation that we have to go through, but I have zero concerns for him.”