NFL MVP – The case for Dak Prescott

Every year around this time of the NFL season, the race for MVP begins to take shape. The debate will usually include two or three legitimate candidates, and a couple of other names to make up the numbers. We all have opinions on who is the MVP, what the criteria for MVP is, and whether or not the award should be renamed to Most Valuable Quarterback. Ultimately, 50 members of the Associated Press will cast their votes, and on the eve of Super Bowl LIV, the winner will be revealed. 

Unfortunately, I am not one of the chosen few who are called upon to decide the fate of league MVP. However, if I were entrusted with a vote, my top three candidates based on the first 11 weeks of the 2019 season would be:

  1. Russell Wilson
  2. Lamar Jackson
  3. Rayne Dakota Prescott

Most NFL fans of sound mind (granted they are sometimes hard to find) are in agreement that Wilson and Jackson are frontrunners for the award, but for many, the very idea of Dak Prescott even being in the race is downright unpalatable. A quick perusal of social media tells you all you need to know. I have pondered why so many people dismiss Dak Prescott as a legitimate MVP threat out of hand, and have concluded it is down to one of the following reasons:

  1. They don’t watch the Cowboys;
  2. They watch the Cowboys, but their opinion of Dak is based on his past couple of seasons; or
  3. They hate the Cowboys.

Their dismissal will usually be followed up by a retort such as “How can he be MVP? He lost to the Jets!” or “He hasn’t played anyone!”

Firstly, Dallas lost to the Jets, not Dak. Football is a team game after all. Secondly, even if that criticism was valid, then we should hold the other two teams to the same standard. Sure, their win loss record is better, but the Ravens lost to the Browns, and the Seahawks beat the Bengals by a single point. Wilson also threw an interception in overtime against the 49ers, which by all rights should have cost the team the win. 

This is an award for who adds the most value to their team, not who has the best record. Adrian Peterson won MVP in 2012, on a 10-6 Vikings team that lost in the Wildcard game. Team record isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to this award, especially when we have enough data to evaluate the performance and value of quarterback play independently. 

If Dak Prescott marches into Foxborough on Sunday and sustains his current form, against the best defense in the NFL, even the biggest Dak naysayers will be forced to reconsider their position. It would also massively strengthen his candidacy with the voters, and improve his chances of being the first MVP from the Dallas Cowboys since Emmitt Smith won in 1993. 

What Do the Numbers Say?

All three of these players are putting up great numbers, both throwing the ball and running it. All of them are mobile, but Lamar Jackson is in a league of his own when it comes to rushing. Wilson and Prescott have comparable numbers in the passing game with Wilson separating himself with his absurd interception rate. He has lost one fumble if you want to nitpick, but it doesn’t make much difference. He’s a phenomenal quarterback. 

Data from Pro Football Reference

These numbers are definitely fun to look at, but they require a little more context. Raw numbers such as passing yards carry little value in isolation (I was just reminded that Blake Bortles had the 11th most passing yards in the NFL through his first three seasons). Is it impressive that Dak leads the NFL in passing yards? Sort of. But it is considerably less impressive when you see that Phillip Rivers and Jameis Winston round out the top three. Neither can be accused of good quarterback play this season.

What is impressive is that Dak is first in the NFL in yards per attempt (YPA), and third in adjusted net yards per pass attempt (ANY/A), which accounts for sacks and interceptions. Both metrics demonstrate high value throws, completed at a high rate. For comparison, Winston ranks 24th in ANY/A. 

Football Outsiders also has composite quarterback rankings and Prescott is sat at the top, but all three quarterbacks grade well in both DVOA and DYAR, which adjust for game situation and opponent. DYAR measures the cumulative value of a quarterback to their team, whilst DVOA measures the value of a quarterback on a per play basis.

You can read more on their metrics here.

QBR is another oft cited metric, and the MVP candidates excel here as well. Ben Baldwin (@Benbbaldwin) of the Athletic (and executive board member of Seahawks Twitter) visualises ESPN’s QBR grade on a weekly basis. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, it allows you to group quarterback into tiers easily. It’s easy to see the top players at the position, and unfortunately some of the worst. Sorry Bears fans. 

The Play Calling

Watch a Cowboys game for one quarter and you will start to see how predictable and conservative their offense can be. After Jerry Jones backed up the Brinks truck for Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore have seemed hell bent on validating the decision, forcing him the ball regardless of what situation and optimal decision making should dictate.

Fans and analysts alike were dumbstruck following the Week 10 loss to the Vikings. Prescott moved the offense down the field and Garrett/Moore proceeded to call multiple run plays (despite Elliott’s lack of success all game) putting Dallas in an obvious passing play on fourth down and 5 yards to go. The Vikings had a short area of the field to defend, making their man coverage easy and forcing Dak to try and keep the game alive by targeting Elliott in the flat.

But maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, as this was simply a glimpse into a common theme within the Cowboys offense – a complete reluctance to throw the ball inside the red zone. They rank 31st in pass plays inside the opposing team’s 20 yard line (per Sharp Football Stats).

It’s not surprising that the dedicated disciplines of run first football are above the league average in run plays on first down (55%). Warren Sharp has written at length about the inefficiency of running the football on first down, yet the Cowboys continue to do so. Here we arrive at another mantra of Prescott deniers: “He is only good because Zeke takes the pressure off him”. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. The Cowboys have been significantly more efficient throwing the ball than passing. They rank second in EPA (expected points added) per dropback, but ninth in EPA per rush:

One might conclude that the rushing effectiveness is taking the pressure off Dak which is allowing him to thrive, however per NFL Next Gen Stats, Elliot is facing stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) at the lowest rate of his career:

2019: 18.04% of carries

2018: 24.67% of carries 

2017: 35.12% of carries

2016: 28.88% of carries

Opposing defensive coordinators are scheming to take away the pass more than ever against Dak, and his numbers have only improved.

Running the ball so heavily on first down and inside the red zone, when you have a quarterback who by every possible measure (including the ‘eye test’) is playing at an elite level, is symptomatic of conservative play calling and offensive philosophy. Yet again, it is not shocking to see Dallas (and Seattle) in the bottom third of the league in fourth down aggressiveness:

The takeaway here is that Prescott is putting up MVP level numbers, in spite of the offensive play calling. It would be incredibly fun to see a coaching staff maximise the talents of Prescott and Amari Cooper, in the same way that the Ravens are maximising the talents of Lamar Jackson.

The Supporting Cast

Although this is an individual award, there should be a recognition of what the players around a prospective MVP are doing. On the defensive side of the ball, it’s clear that Lamar Jackson is in the best situation with a defense that boasts one of the best secondaries in all of football. Wilson and Prescott both play for teams that have middling defenses. It’s much harder to play quarterback well when you are consistently forced to dig your defense out of a hole:

Offensive line play is another contributing factor towards successful quarterback play. This is where Wilson has separated himself from the rest of the pack. He is doing more with less, especially when it comes to his offensive line protection. Each week, ESPN releases a pass-blocking win rate (where the block holds up for 2.5 seconds or more). Lamar Jackson and Dak Prescott both benefit from superior lines. 

2. Baltimore – 67%

7. Dallas – 61%

28. Seattle – 49%

Dallas also ranks first in adjusted sack rate, whilst Baltimore ranks 17th and Seattle 20th. The discrepancy between Baltimore’s o-line win rate and sack rate ranks can be attributed to Jackson’s style of play. His willingness to leave the pocket early increases the probability of taking sacks and increases the overall sack rate. 

Prescott has been fortunate to play the majority of his career behind one of the best units in the league, whilst Seattle seem hellbent on ending Wilson’s career prematurely by protecting him with revolving doors. We can only dream of the things Wilson might do if given time in the pocket. Overall, it seems quite clear that Lamar Jackson is in the best overall team situation by some margin. Prescott is in second place, and Wilson brings up the rear in third. Can he continue to overcome?

Russell Wilson remains my number one MVP candidate. Like Prescott, he is thriving in spite of conservative play calling and poor defensive play, but he must also endure woeful offensive line protection. His receiving options, whilst strong, are not quite at the same level of Prescott’s. I must confess, whilst writing this article I have been tempted to move Prescott up into second place, but Lamar holds firm for at least one more week. What is undeniable is that Prescott belongs in the conversation. For now, he remains third, and I will re-evaluate following the Week 12 slate of games. I will be watching them all with a keen eye! 

If you have enjoyed this, or want to tell me I am a clown, please let me know on Twitter @FF_DownUnder!