The Dallas Cowboys need to find a balance.
Right now, I’m not.
The struggling Cowboys postseason want to be aggressive offensively, to control plays and game plans that complement a flamboyant defense.
But there is a cost.
Namely, the worst interception clip of quarterback Dak Prescott’s career. Prescott threw nine interceptions in eight active games. Team owner and general manager Jerry Jones confirmed Tuesday morning that he is concerned about this liability.
“Interception issues can neutralize great runs and efforts elsewhere in the game,” Jones told Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “The definition of aggression doesn’t have to include turnovers. It doesn’t have to include it. “Aggressive” no.
“I like aggression without turnovers.”
The Cowboys offense has been explosive since Prescott’s return after five weeks spent rehabbing a broken thumb in his throwing hand. Dallas is averaging 35.7 points per game, scoring a touchdown on an impressive 82% of redzone visits.
But Prescott has entered this season with a generally clean reputation for ball safety, from his 23-4 touchdown-interception ratio in his rookie year to a 37-10 mark last season. From 2016 to 2021, Prescott’s 1.7% pass interception ratio ranked 13th among 97 quarterbacks who attempted at least 100 passes. This year: 3.6% rate of him ranks third. Of the 40 quarterbacks who attempted 100 or more passes this season, only Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields and New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston fared worse.
“I’m damn sure I’m not a fan of this”, said Prescott. “It’s frustrating. It’s very, very frustrating.”
Interceptions are sometimes misleading. Prescott characterized at least two trends. First: Several have come on alternate routes to center field, quarterback and receiver interpreting the ideal depth of a route differently than defenders. Part of that will probably just get better time after time, Prescott’s injury time and wide receiver Michael Gallup’s rehabilitation from an ACL tear slowing down the chemistry buildup. The Second Trend: Prescott pitched eight of nine first-half picks. More to the point, seven landed in the second half of the second quarter. Is Prescott pressing a bit, over-prioritizing a pre-half score as the clock ticks down?
And perhaps just as important: They should press, seen how the Cowboys’ punishing running game can support production? Dallas ranks seventh in the league with 144 rushing yards per contest. Since Prescott’s return, the Cowboys have recorded 166 rushing yards per game.
Prescott maximized the waning clock at high stakes, including heading a 98-yard drive that led to a game-winning touchdown in the final minute of Sunday’s near loss to the Houston Texans. But twice that play he had pressed, first trying to “get too tight into a window” on a ball bouncing off his catcher’s hands, and then attempting to throw despite his throwing arm being hit by a rusher. The dangerous gift set up Houston 4 yards from the end zone. Coaches said Texan coach Lovie Smith employed more quarter zone coverage and “visual” defense — defenders look at the quarterback, rather than any target on the field — with varying results that muddied communication between Prescott and the its receivers.
“Unfortunate for some of them, but I have to find a way to take better care of the ball,” said Prescott. “But I’m not going to not be aggressive. I worked too hard and this team worked too hard. We’ve created too much chemistry for me not to be aggressive and not try to make the pitches that I know I can make.
The Cowboys face the Jacksonville Jaguars, Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans and Washington Commanders before what is expected to be a wild card road matchup. Hosting Philadelphia on Christmas Eve is arguably the biggest and toughest game on that list.
The Eagles defense leads the league in both takeaways and interceptions and paid off the Cowboys in the teams’ first game, a 26-17 win in Philadelphia in which the defenders intercepted the Eagles’ quarterback three times. Cowboys backup Cooper Rush.
Cowboys coaches and players expect teams to replicate the defensive strategies that have resulted in mistakes in recent weeks. Prescott’s interception tendency has become a target. He knows he has to fix it.
“Damn sure, I have to be smarter and weigh the risk versus the reward in a split second,” Prescott said. “It’s just part of my preparation. Something I promise you I will clean up.