Last January in Mobile, Ala., as NFL coaching and personnel staffs conducted their annual pilgrimage to the Senior Bowl, no one could have imagined that eight months later two of the quarterbacks participating in the week of practices and Saturday’s game would be facing off in Week 8 of the season in a crucial NFC East showdown Sunday night.
It’s a mere footnote that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was voted MVP of the game as his South team defeated the North team that featured Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz
What’s most important is people who watched that week could see Wentz had something special about him, which eventually led to the Eagles trading with Cleveland to get to the second overall choice in April’s draft.
One of those teams was the Cowboys because their coaching staff handled the North squad that week.
Head coach Jason Garrett said this week, “It goes back to your love of football. Your passion for football. That is where it starts. Do they love it? Are they passionate about it? And then are they willing to do the work necessary. Clearly he was. He is a smart guy. Very bright on the field. Very bright off the field. And handled it. And just seemed to love it. Wanted to have all the answers to all the questions. Very enthusiastic meetings. Very enthusiastic at practice.”
Added offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, “He was outstanding. A lot of maturity we talk about with Dak. I’m not sure he had ever lost a game, maybe one or two. The thing that blew me away is he never had anything lower than a ‘A’ in school. He broke my record. I didn’t make it through kindergarten without getting a ‘B’. He is really sharp. He is a really talented kid. I’m not surprised he is doing so well.”
The Eagles went all in to get Wentz, but head coach Doug Pederson was also impressed with Prescott. He said, “I’m not surprised that Dak is having the success he’s having. I think he’s that type of guy. We had him here this spring in our building and I really liked him, liked everything about him as a quarterback.”
The same was true for the Cowboys, who saw many of those same attributes in Prescott as the draft approached.
“Dak’s meeting when we worked him out and when we brought him to our place was a little of the same of what we did with Carson at the Senior Bowl,” Linehan said. “We were able to kind of see those guys side by side with similar questions and both of them nailed them. You see some bright futures for these young guys.”
And a bright present, made possible by an unlikely chain of events. For the Cowboys, it was first a broken leg suffered by backup Kellen Moore in the third practice of training camp. In the third preseason game, Tony Romo broke a bone in his back, which led to Prescott showing he deserved the starting job.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles announced early the plan to have Wentz inactive for the entire season. Ahead of him on the depth chart were Sam Bradford and Chase Daniel. It was an injury in Minnesota that altered the Eagles’ plans. After Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season in a late-summer practice, general manager Rick Spielman pulled the trigger on a trade eight days before the season opener that brought Bradford to Minnesota. Instead of Daniel, the Eagles opted to open the season with Wentz despite him having played sparingly in preseason games because of injured ribs.
“I think it’s circumstantial,” Pederson said. “Obviously in our case and really in Dallas’ case, we’d obviously moved our starter Sam to Minnesota and Dallas was set for Tony to play and both of these kids would have been on the bench for however long. I think some of it is that.
“But I think some of it too is the fact that these kids, how well they prepare, how well they execute in preseason games and in practices that catches the coach’s attention, catches the coach’s eye. You get in those staff personnel meetings and you go, you know what, ‘I think we’ve got somebody special here.’ You just don’t know when that time is going to come. Obviously earlier for both of our quarterbacks in this game than probably later. They’ve both embraced it.”
They surely have with Prescott the most surprising considering he was the eighth quarterback selected in the draft, 133 selections after Wentz in the fourth round.
Until the last two games, the two quarterbacks had similar numbers. Currently, Prescott is fifth in the NFL with a 103.9 passer rating while completing 68.7 percent of his passes, 8.16 yards per attempt to go with 7 touchdown passes and just 1 interception in 182 attempts. After four games, Wentz was at 103.5 with a 67.4 completion percentage. However, he has struggled in the last two games completing just 54.0 percent with a 63.5 passer rating. Still, he is at 92.7 for the season with 8 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions, and doesn’t have a running back like Ezekiel Elliott to supplement the offense.
“It’s been a tremendous help,” Prescott said of Elliott, who is leading the league with 703 rushing yards. “You’re not asked to do too much. You just have to handle your own part. I have great players around me – the offensive line and playmakers at running back and receiver. They make my job easier. I can just go out there and have fun.”
It’s probably no coincidence that Wentz’s last two games have been played with a green rookie at right tackle – Halapoulivaati Vaitai – after Lane Johnson began serving a 10-game suspension for violating the NFL PED policy.
Elliott’s excellence has resulted in the offense avoiding difficult third-down situations. For Dallas, 23 of their third-down plays have been for 3 yards or less compared to Philadelphia’s 8 of 74. Only 28 of the Cowboys’ third downs have been for 8 yards or more, and that’s tied for the fewest in the NFL. Wentz has the eighth most with 40, leading to an overall 33.8 percent conversion rate compared to 46.6 for Dallas. On third down, Prescott’s passer rating is 96.6 and Wentz 88.5, although he was at 99.5 before the last two games. The shorter yardage has helped Prescott complete 73.1 percent of his third-down passes compared to Wentz’s 56.3 percent.
As Garrett noted, “That’s important for any quarterback. If you look around the league at statistical measures of conversion rates at third-and-short versus medium versus long, they speak for themselves. It’s easier to make shorter distances.
“You want to be really good on first and second down. You want to make those third downs manageable. You also want to make some first downs on first and second down and stay out of those third-down situations. When you do that, the pressure you put on your quarterback goes down.”
And to be sure, both teams have tried to reduce the pressure put on their rookie signal callers. The league average for pass attempts is 240.4, but Wentz has just 185 attempts and Prescott 182, an average of slightly more than 30 per game.
While the Eagles haven’t run the ball as well as Dallas, they are still ninth in the NFL in rushing attempts per game. On first down, Dallas has thrown the ball the fewest times at 35.9 percent of their plays. The Eagles are sixth lowest at 44.4 percent.
Said Pederson, “I don’t want Carson throwing the ball 35 or 40 times in a game. I’ve played the quarterback position and I know how important the run game can be. (It can be) your friend, and it just opens up so much. It opens up your drop-back game. It opens up your play-action pass game.
“So, I just think that where we are right now, yeah, we’re going to continue to pound the football and utilize our passing game where we see fit.”
Which brings us to Sunday night’s game. Dallas gets wide receiver Dez Bryant back and a win would get their record to 6-1 and drop the Eagles to 4-3. A Philadelphia victory would make them both 5-2.
Prescott tried to downplay the quarterback “matchup,” saying, “No, it’s the Cowboys versus the Eagles. Those whole statistics and stuff like that really don’t cross my mind. I’m worried about this team, the Cowboys, and how this team can finish and be remembered this season.”
Wentz said, “It’s exciting. It’s exciting for him, for me. Obviously it’s going to be played up into something. It’s cool to see another young guy like him that I’ve come to know and to see the success he’s having.”
Pederson embraces the focus both quarterbacks have brought to the game. He said, “I think it’s great for the game. I think it’s great for these two young players. This is a great opportunity for both of them. Does this one game define either one of them? No. But at the same time, it just helps each team in the whole development process.
“It’s great from an NFL standpoint because obviously these two kids are the talk of the town let’s say. It’s fun. It’s fun for a coach to watch. I think it’s fun for players to watch it. Because both teams are watching their quarterbacks. It’s exciting for the fans.”
Both quarterbacks were asked this week whether this could be the beginning of a special rivalry considering they are in the same division.
Said Prescott, “It could potentially be there. It will always be – I know to me, and hopefully to Carson – the Eagles vs. the Cowboys. (But) us being the quarterbacks, and us being the guys there, I feel like, yeah, it could be something over time.”
Wentz, while noting that he doesn’t emphasize “that stuff,” still acknowledged, “It very well could happen for a long time. It doesn’t really drive me, but it’s exciting.”
Let the excitement begin Sunday night.