We've covered a lot of Dallas Cowboys topics already this offseason, and there are plenty still to come with about a month until training camp starts. Given the importance of the quarterback position, it's arguable that no question is more important than this; how will Dak Prescott perform in his second NFL season?
The term “sophomore slump” is heard too often in football. While there is evidence to support it, there are many examples of players who did not regress in their second year. In fact, many quarterbacks who started as rookies had their worst times in that first season and then steadily improved. Our own Troy Aikman is a fine example, as was Peyton Manning.
The player you've heard Dak Prescott compared to a lot in the last year is Tom Brady. Both were taken in the later rounds of the draft and found themselves starting unexpectedly due to injuries. They were also linked by Prescott breaking Brady's record for most passes thrown before getting his first career interception.
One major difference is that Brady was in his second season already with New England, but he only threw three passes a rookie as he sat behind Drew Bledsoe. Brady also got the starting job after the season had already begun in 2001, while Prescott got his midway early in the third preseason game
In 2002, Brady's first full year as the Patriots starter, he improved overall from the previous season. Touchdowns went up 18 to 28 and yards-per-game rose from 190 to 235 yds. Despite throwing close to 200 more passes in this second year, Brady's 14 interceptions were only two more than in 2001. He was also sacked 10 fewer times in 2002 despite many more pass attempts, showing his improved awareness and decision-making.
Brady's positive response to the increased workload is especially impressive considering issues with the Patriots roster. The reigning Super Bowl Champions dropped to 9-7 and missed the playoffs because of turnover throughout the team. Many quarterbacks would have gone down with the team, but Brady's famous consistency came through even this early in his career.
Of course, Dak Prescott isn't Tom Brady. There's nothing that says his career will follow the same trajectory. In fact, Prescott has already set the bar higher for his next season than Brady did.
Prescott's first year as starter dwarfs Brady's in almost every statistical category. Whether it's the 68% completions, 23-4 TD/INT ratio, or the 104.9 passer rating, Prescott's numbers were great by almost any standard.
This high bar could create a perception issue. Dak could still have a great season and yet not hit these same numbers. Teams will now be much more prepared for Prescott and the new-look Cowboys offense. This is often where the “sophomore slump” comes from.
There's reason for optimism, though. Prescott's all-time rookie season was based on efficient execution and sound judgment. These traits don't go away, as Tom Brady and other great ones have proven over their careers. If anyone has the mentality and temperament to overcome new challenges and keep rising, it's Dak Prescott.
Not only that, but Prescott's teammates aren't going anywhere. Dallas should still have a potent running attack with Ezekiel Elliott and the top offensive linemen returning. Dez Bryant is reportedly healthy and Jason Witten, Cole Beasley, and Terrance Williams are all back. He may even have a new weapon to use in rookie receiver Ryan Switzer.
At worst, the Cowboys defense should be about the same as last year. If it improves, that will only help take pressure off Prescott and the offense and decrease opportunities for mistakes. Dak proved he can keep up in a shootout and even lead the team from behind if needed, but the less times he has to do this the better it is for any quarterback.
One factor we can't ignore is a probably rise in the strength of schedule. Dallas had a fourth-place schedule in 2016 after their abysmal 4-12 season the year before. They will now have a first-place schedule and should be facing stronger competition overall. Once you get into the season, though, this doesn't always prove true.
Indeed, projecting anything is never foolproof. We're little better than weathermen sometimes, going with what we have but ultimately being at the mercy of the wind. Dak Prescott's second season will be what he, teammates, opponents, and plenty of other factors make it to be.
The good news is that whatever challenges come, Dak has already proven himself to be one of the most level-headed and determined young players we've ever seen. His leadership is obvious and ripples through the entire team. No matter what the Dallas Cowboys face in 2017, we can feel confident in who's steering the ship.