Barnwell: Busting myths of Dak vs. Wentz debate

If there’s any quarterback duel in the league with a chance to live up to the legendary battles between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, it’s the one brewing in the NFC East (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC). The 2016 draft delivered new quarterbacks to the division, as Carson Wentz took the reins in Philadelphia and Dak Prescott shot out of the fourth round and into the starting lineup in Dallas.

Things have gone well since. While the two have split their series at 1-1 so far, the Eagles’ win last season came in Week 17 against a Cowboys team that had benched most of its starters in a meaningless game. Prescott dropped back just eight times before ceding the ball to Mark Sanchez and Tony Romo. It’s no matter. Like Brady and Manning, who seemed to play in the regular season every year by virtue of their teams each winning their respective divisions, we can expect to see plenty of matchups between these two in the years to come.

With two 24-year-old franchise quarterbacks in close competition, can we really pick one or the other? I’ve heard and read Dak vs. Wentz arguments all over the place during this breakout season for the Eagles passer. I don’t think I’ve found one yet with a satisfying, complete answer. They either had some shred of truth without telling the whole story or weren’t enough to justify picking one passer over the other. Criticisms of Prescott or Wentz either contained Cowboys offensive line-sized holes or also were applicable to the other guy.

We’re now 25 games into each quarterback’s NFL career, a nice, round number for us to break down and use while analyzing the common arguments for and against Prescott and Wentz. In many cases, you’ll see that the arguments simply don’t hold much merit.


Prescott has been more efficient and productive since both entered the league.

The simplest comparison is just to use all the available data and compare career stats. After their first 25 games in the NFL, Prescott has been far more efficient than Wentz as a passer:

Wentz has more passing yards than Prescott, but he has needed 150 additional attempts to generate 383 passing yards at a totally untenable 2.6 yards per attempt, and that’s without considering the 11 additional interceptions. If Wentz was relatively efficient over those 150 passes, it would be appropriate to give him credit for assuming more of the offensive workload in terms of volume, but those would be subpar numbers for a replacement-level running back, let alone a quarterback.

If we were comparing players over the course of a 10-year career, the argument could stop right here. Obviously, that’s not the case. The most recent performances of a player in the second year of his career, when he’s likely to be growing and developing, mean a whole lot more than they do for someone who has been in the league for a decade. And it’s quite clear that Wentz has improved dramatically from one year to the next. Split up his career in two halves and you can see how he has become a much more effective performer:

If we were to solely focus on the nine games from 2017, Wentz would have a 104.1 passer rating and a 70.6 Total QBR, numbers right in line with Prescott’s career totals. I think it’s disingenuous and an exercise in hindsight to suggest that Wentz was as good as Prescott in 2016, but it’s also totally fair to say that the 2017 version of Wentz has caught up to Prescott’s level.

Prescott has way more help around him than Wentz.

The classic rejoinder of Eagles fans has been to suggest that Prescott is in too good of a situation to fail. And indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a quarterback entering a better situation than the one Prescott inherited from Tony Romo in Dallas. His coach is a former quarterback. He shares a backfield with Ezekiel Elliott, who spearheads arguably the best rushing attack in football. He has a true No. 1 receiver in Dez Bryant and a Hall of Fame tight end in Jason Witten. Most important, perhaps, Prescott is protected by what is widely regarded to be the league’s best offensive line, highlighted by three perennial Pro Bowlers in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin.

As I mentioned in my column on Monday, though, I’m not sure Wentz is in much worse shape, especially this season. He had arguably the best tackle duo in football with Jason Peters on the left side and Lane Johnson on the right side, although Wentz went without Johnson for most of last season and lost Peters to a torn ACL after seven games this season. On the interior, Wentz has a hole at left guard, but Jason Kelce is among the most athletic and expensive centers in football, and Brandon Brooks was a big-ticket acquisition in 2016 free agency at right guard. With the Cowboys losing Ron Leary in free agency and Doug Free to retirement before the season began, I suspect some observers would have actually preferred Philadelphia’s line before Peters went down for the year.

Though the Cowboys do have the superior running game, I don’t see much of a reason to prefer the receiving corps. Bryant certainly has a bigger pedigree than Alshon Jeffery, but both No. 1 wideouts have slipped from their 2013-2014 peaks. Even if you figure Bryant is still better, the Eagles have another free-agent wideout in Torrey Smith, a first-round pick in the slot in Nelson Agholor, and a tight end in the prime of his career in Zach Ertz, who has the fourth-largest deal of any player at his position. Trey Burton and Brent Celek are productive second and third tight ends in the passing game, too.

Dallas has Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, and a 35-year-old Witten as complementary receivers. The case would be stronger if Wentz still had a healthy Darren Sproles to hit on screens and checkdowns, but he has probably had a better offensive line (especially in terms of pass protection, given the expense at tackle) and a far deeper receiving corps to work with for most of 2017 than Prescott. At the very least, with Peters gone for the season and Tyron Smith probably out for Sunday’s pivotal NFC East matchup between these two teams, the difference between the duo’s supporting cast isn’t significant enough to render one the better quarterback.

Wentz improved only because the Eagles upgraded his receivers.

I don’t think anyone would suggest that Wentz hasn’t improved in a vacuum. If you figure that Wentz improved dramatically once the Eagles signed Jeffery and Smith out of free agency this offseason, though, you might argue that the change in Wentz’s play is primarily a product of those wideouts and not his own personal growth. If the Eagles were still rolling out Dorial Green-Beckham and Jordan Matthews at receiver, would Wentz be as effective?

The problem with that argument is that Jeffery and Smith haven’t been dominant weapons. Smith gave Wentz the deep threat he was missing in 2016, but after some early missed opportunities, the former Ravens standout hasn’t been a focal point of the offense. During Philadelphia’s last game before the bye, Smith played only 31 of 69 snaps, with impressive rookie Mack Hollins playing 30 offensive snaps.

Jeffery has been inconsistent. He has caught just 46.5 percent of his targets, which is the second-worst catch rate in the league for a wideout with 50 targets or more, behind only Marquise Goodwin of the 49ers. Jeffery is averaging just 55.6 receiving yards per game, the worst mark he has posted since his rookie season of 2012. He just finished the first half of the season by racking up 84 yards and two touchdowns against the still-mighty Broncos defense, so perhaps there’s something looming for the second half.

Instead, the real improvements have come from Philly’s holdovers. Ertz is having a career year; after posting 816 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games last season, the Stanford product is on pace to generate 937 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Oft-belittled former first-round pick Agholor has flourished since moving to the slot, setting a career high in receiving yards seven weeks into the season. Agholor’s catch rate, yards per reception, and yards per game are all up dramatically from his previously established totals on the outside. The new wideouts are helping to take some of the attention away, of course, but they haven’t been the breakout receivers in this offense.

The game Prescott had without Tyron Smith in the lineup exposed how dependent he is on that offensive line.

Eagles fans might follow that up by pointing out how Wentz has barely skipped a beat with Halapoulivaati Vaitai replacing Peters in the starting lineup. While the Cowboys skidded to a halt as Chaz Green gave up six sacks (five to Adrian Clayborn) on Sunday, Wentz has posted a 104.5 passer rating and thrown six interceptions against one pick in two games without Peters.

For one, I don’t think any quarterback in the league would have looked very good given how poorly Green played Sunday. As a referendum on swing tackles, Green made Vaitai look like Orlando Pace in his prime. The other problem is that Wentz’s stats declined dramatically without Lane Johnson in the lineup last season, as Wentz posted a 97.5 passer rating with Johnson on the field at right tackle and a 70.2 passer rating with Johnson on the sidelines.

With either Johnson or Peters on the sideline, Wentz’s numbers have fallen from a passer rating of 97.8 to an 80.3 mark, amounting to a 21.8 percent drop. Prescott has spent the 2017 season with a new right tackle in La’el Collins, who was playing guard in 2016, but let’s just pretend he’s as good as Free and focus on Smith. With Smith in the lineup, Prescott has thrown 645 passes and posted a 101.4 passer rating. With Smith sidelined, Prescott has thrown 103 passes and posted a passer rating of … 102.9. His sack rate has jumped from 4.6 percent with Smith to 8.2 percent without, but Wentz has actually posted a higher sack rate with both of his tackles (6.2 percent) in the lineup than without (5.3 percent). I think it’s fair to say they both play better with Pro Bowl tackles in the lineup, which makes them like every other quarterback in football.

Dak adds significantly more value with his running.

Even if you figure that the quarterbacks are roughly equal at this point of their careers in terms of passing value, you can make a case that Prescott has been a uniquely valuable runner. Since joining the league, Prescott’s 89 carries have produced 519 yards and 11 touchdowns, the latter of which is more than any other quarterback over that time frame. Wentz can’t match up to those numbers, having turned his 90 carries into 361 yards and just two scores. Eleven is a lot more than two.

I’d say Prescott has been the more productive runner, but the difference isn’t quite as stark as it seems. In terms of conversions, Prescott has generated 41 first downs or touchdowns on his runs, while Wentz has mustered up 31. Wentz has six fourth-down conversions in his career, including five this season, while Prescott has only two. (In related news, Elliott has a league-high eight fourth-down conversions in the past two years.) Prescott’s touchdowns have all been from 11 yards out or less, and seven of them have come on first down.

In terms of total productivity, the running difference just doesn’t mean enough to swing things Prescott’s way. To put it in context, using ESPN’s win expectancy framework, Prescott has generated 1.66 wins through his passing and another 0.96 wins through his legs in 2017 for a total of 2.62 wins. Wentz has produced only 0.6 wins from his running, but his passing game has been worth 2.43 wins to the Eagles’ offense this season, for a total of 3.03 wins. (Prescott was worth 8.88 wins last season to Wentz’s 4.39.)

Prescott is a game manager who just needs to keep the Cowboys on schedule. He never wins games for them as a passer.

I don’t think there’s a ton of evidence for this one. To start, when we think of game managers, we think of guys who don’t take shots downfield and just throw safe passes, like pre-2017 Alex Smith. There’s virtually no difference in the depth of target between Prescott and Wentz; Prescott’s average pass as a pro has traveled 8.14 yards in the air, while Wentz’s typical throw has gone 8.13 yards in the air. Plus, 68.7 percent of Prescott’s passes have been catchable balls, with 66.0 percent caught and 2.7 percent dropped; Wentz has seen 61.8 percent of his passes caught and 4.7 percent dropped, for a catchable rate of 66.5 percent.

Wentz has been more of a screens-and-bombs quarterback in his career than Prescott has, with Prescott throwing far more of the intermediate throws that we see from traditional passers. More than 20 percent (21.2) of Wentz’s passes have been at or behind the line of scrimmage, as opposed to 17.2 percent for Prescott. At the same time, 11.2 percent of Wentz’s passes have traveled 20-plus yards in the air, with 8.8 percent of Prescott’s throws going the same way.

When these two teams have needed to come back in the fourth quarter before things get out of hand, Prescott and Wentz have produced essentially identical traditional numbers. Down by 14 points or fewer in the second half, Prescott has been good for an 82.1 passer rating on 121 pass attempts. Wentz has generated a 79.1 passer rating on 188 tries, and his Total QBR in those situations is 57.8, which is more than 20 points worse than the 79.2 mark of Prescott.

As for the idea that Prescott hasn’t come up with critical drives for the Cowboys, well, that’s just silly. Pro-Football-Reference.com credits him with five fourth-quarter comeback victories and six game-winning drives to just two for Wentz. Two of Prescott’s comeback wins weren’t especially eventful — one was a one-play drive off of an Adam Thielen muffed punt, and another came across three Dan Bailey field goals — but there were three games in 2016 in which he really carried the Cowboys over the finish line on his back:

  • Week 2, when Prescott went 5-of-6 for 54 yards to set up a game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter over Washington.

  • Week 8, when Prescott took over in the fourth quarter down 23-13 to the Eagles after Wendell Smallwood fumbled. While the first possession after the fumble produced a field goal, Prescott overcame an overturned 63-yard Elliott run to go 5-of-8 for 71 yards with a game-tying 22-yard TD pass to Bryant. Then, on the first drive of overtime, Prescott went 5-of-5 for 56 yards and threw a game-sealing touchdown to Witten without letting Wentz ever step onto the field.

  • Week 10, when Prescott went 6-of-6 for 48 yards to set up an Elliott touchdown run at the two-minute warning to give the Cowboys a 29-24 lead over the Steelers. His defense promptly blew the lead, but Prescott went 3-of-4 for 28 yards to set up a 32-yard Elliott TD run to win it.

This doesn’t even include the postseason game against the Packers, when Prescott brought back the Cowboys from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter by going 10-of-13 for 116 yards with two touchdowns and a two-point conversion over three drives, tying the game twice, only for his defense to give up a score both times. When the Cowboys have needed Prescott to throw for them to get back into and win games, Prescott has come up with big plays. He’s not just some guy profiting off Elliott’s work.

On the other hand, Wentz doesn’t have that sort of signature fourth-quarter drive you can point to, although I suspect it’s just a matter of time before the MVP candidate has a few game winners on his résumé. He has been great on third-and-long this season, but he wasn’t very effective there last season, which is unsurprising due to the small sample size of third-down plays. Even given a league-high 35.1 percent conversion rate on third-and-8 or more this season, Wentz’s Eagles have picked up third-and-8-plus 25.9 percent of the time since the start of 2016, which is 11th in the league. Prescott’s Cowboys are at a 22.5 percent conversion clip on third-and-long, which is 20th. The average team faces a little more than four third-and-long plays per game, which means we’re looking at a difference of two or three extra third-and-long conversions per season.

These arguments all either sell one player artificially short, underestimate how much the other guy has to offer in a particular category, invent a narrative without much basis in reality, or point out a relative strength that isn’t enough to pick one guy over the other on its own.

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Dak Prescott says people are already counting the Cowboys out ahead of their Week 11 matchup vs. the Eagles and that adds to the importance of the game.

So … who’s better?

Well, it’s complicated. I don’t think there’s one answer, in part because you can structure the question a number of different ways.

If you’re asking who is better right now, I’d say Wentz. He has taken a big leap forward from the start of the 2017 season and really hasn’t let up. The North Dakota State product has outproduced Prescott by total DYAR, win expectancy, passer rating and adjusted net yards per attempt, and while Prescott’s rushing ability has helped him to produce a slightly larger Total QBR in 2017, the preponderance of evidence points Wentz’s way.

If you’re asking who has had a better professional career so far, I think you have to pick Prescott. By any measure I can find, Prescott has been far more efficient and productive as both a passer and runner. Most of the numbers available suggest that Wentz has narrowly nudged ahead of Prescott in 2017, but those same numbers also say Prescott blew Wentz out of the water a year ago, which represents 64 percent of the 25-game sample. Anyone portraying Wentz’s 2016 season as something similar to his 2017 — or similar to Prescott’s 2016 or 2017 campaigns — is engaging in revisionist history.

The tough question is asking whether you’d rather have Prescott or Wentz for the decade to come. Honestly, there’s not a good answer. We don’t have enough information on either player to really get a great sense of how they’ll perform over the next decade. Dan Marino posted the best passer rating in league history for a true rookie coming out of the draft in his first 25 games (103.8), with Prescott second, but the top 10 includes guys such as Chad Pennington, Nick Foles, Daunte Culpepper and Robert Griffin III. Ken O’Brien posted a better passer rating in his first 25 games than Tom Brady put up in his.

Unless one of the two NFC East signal-callers struggles badly with injuries or really drops off from his currently established level of play, there won’t be a meaningful and significant difference between the two quarterbacks. The question of who represents the best will be more about who has had the most support around him over the previous few games. If Wentz loses Johnson, Prescott probably will look better. If Dak loses Tyron Smith or Bryant for a meaningful stretch of time, Wentz will look like the pick of the litter. When Wentz (unsustainably) performs like the greatest third-down quarterback of the past 40 years, he’s going to look like a one-man show, but when Prescott is leading all quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns over a two-year span, it’s just hard to pick against him.

If you’re making a pick between the two, chances are that it comes down to the amount of weight you place on recency. If 2017 means far more to you than 2016, you’ll take Wentz. And if you think that a player’s overall performance over a year and a half means more than a half-season of games, you’ll take Prescott. As for me? I officially think the race is too close to call. They’re both great. Maybe we’ll know more when we check back in at the 50-game mark.

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