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The Drive: Crosseyed and Painless

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Prepare yourself for facts. Some of these suckers may even be factoids. Let us compare Russell Wilson to Dak Prescott, statistically.

As Deep Passers

In any given snap in which a passing play is called, a quarterback may: throw an on-time pass, throw late, throw early, throw shallow, throw deep, throw accurately, throw inaccurately, throw into coverage, throw to an open man, and of course scramble. A good quarterback throws on time and accurately to a deep (enough) target who is more or less open. That of course is not always his choice, but it’s more or less the universal definition of a good quarterback. Short passes are not very valuable. Late passes are likely to be defended. Errant passes invite a host of bad possibilities. Scrambling can redefine what is “on time,” along with helping receivers get open, but of course it is typically harder to throw deep while on the run. Etc.

My point is, if you wanted to know why the Seahawks rank sixth in passing efficiency while the Cowboys rank 26th, looking at where Prescott and Wilson target, and at what rate of completion, would be a good start. So let us:

Dak Prescott Splits

Passes thrown 21-30 Yards: 7/23, 271 Yards, 1 Touchdown, 1 Interception

Included in that 271 yards and accounting for that touchdown is this accurate pass to Amari Cooper who is tripled covered.

Passes thrown 31-40 Yards: 5/14, 253 Yards, 4 Touchdowns, 0 Interceptions

This is the range at which Prescott has been most dangerous this season.

Passes thrown 41+ Yards: 1/4, 44 Yards, 0 Touchdowns, and 0 Interceptions

Russell Wilson Splits

Passes thrown 21-30 Yards: 20/42, 561 yards, 9 Touchdowns, 1 Interception

Right away we see a pretty stark difference. Wilson attempts more of these middle-deep passes and completes them at a much higher rate.

Passes thrown 31-40 Yards: 7/13, 297 yards, 1 Touchdown, 0 Interceptions

Passes thrown 41+ Yards: 4/7, 187 yards, 4 touchdowns, 0 Interceptions

Wilson completed 50% of his deep passing attempts, which is astounding. Prescott completed 31.7%. In one season Wilson completed more passes of 41+ than Prescott has over his three year career. While Prescott attempts more short passes and completes those passes at a higher rate of efficiency, short pass attempts on average actually cost an offense value. There’s a reason we have lots of vaguely emasculating ways of describing this penchant like dink-and-dunk and captain checkdown.

The problem does not seem to be in Jason Garrett’s system either. Both Brian Schottenheimer and Garrett run a system which may wear the “Air” epithet, as both are indirect descendants of Don Coryell’s Air Coryell system, which greatly emphasizes downfield passing. Nor did the arrival of Amari Cooper change Prescott’s nature. Prescott just does not seem to be a very skilled or talented deep passer, and his reluctance is probably a result of that deficit.

In the Pocket

The NFL’s Next Gen Stats site is besieged by bugs and barely usable. Which is really too bad because some of what the site records is unique and potentially very informative. Nevertheless let us muddle through and see if we can further flesh out this statistical portrait of both passers.

Both rank within the top ten in what is called “Time to throw.” Basically this means both quarterbacks take forever to pass the ball, either because of indecisiveness, an inability of their receivers to get open, an offense dominated by slow-developing routes, a tendency to only target slow developing routes, scrambling or really just a totally unintelligible mix of all of those factors. It does not necessarily tell us much about their protection, but it does seem to indicate which quarterbacks are rhythm passers and which are not.

Rhythm guys

Derek Carr

Ben Roethlisberger

Drew Brees

Andy Dalton

Tom Brady

Philip Rivers

Andrew Luck

Matthew Stafford

Hold and Hope Guys/Scramblers

Josh Allen

Lamar Jackson

Russell Wilson

Deshaun Watson

Aaron Rodgers

Jared Goff

Sam Darnold

Patrick Mahomes

Dak Prescott

Both Wilson and Prescott get sacked a ton. When either is sacked, it’s often going to lose big-time yardage. Wilson and Prescott both ranked bottom five for most yards lost through sacks. Both fumble very frequently. Dak is in fact last in the NFL having fumbled 12 times. Wilson has ten.

A few things separate these often sacked quarterbacks. Wilson has time. Seattle ranked seventh overall in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, while Dallas didn’t finish in the top ten. And Wilson, counter-intuitively, is sacked most while his team is winning.

For obvious reasons, sack percentage tends to decrease when a quarterback is winning. This season Prescott has only been sacked on 5.2% of snaps while his team was in the lead. He has been sacked on 9.6% of all pass attempts, ranking sixth from worst in the NFL. Wilson, astoundingly, has been sacked on 16.7% of all pass plays while his team is leading. His overall rate is 10.7%. I would guess Wilson views a sack taken as a relatively minor loss compared to risking a turnover through a bad pass.

I would also guess few quarterbacks have ever matched his tendency to get sacked while leading. 129 of his 299 career sacks have occurred while the Seahawks were leading, in only 1,169 pass attempts, for a pretty wicked 10.8% career sack rate while ahead. Something to watch for if Seattle creates but fails to maintain a lead. Managing the game may be Wilson’s greatest weakness.

As Scramblers

Previously great all-time scramblers, Prescott and Wilson are now reluctant scramblers. Prescott, in particular, really stopped scrambling effectively following “a major blow to [the] head” in Week 7.

Weeks 1-7

40 attempts for 236 yards

Weeks 9-17

35 attempts for 69 yards

The Cowboys rushing offense tanked at the exact same time.

Weeks 1-7

19.49 EPA (which would prorate to third place in front of the Panthers)

Weeks 9-17

-6.74 EPA (. . . to 21st place behind the Dolphins)

Wilson has gone the opposite way.

Weeks 1-8, 17

21 runs for 75 yards

Weeks 9-16

46 runs for 301 yards

Weeks 1-8, 17

-3.63 EPA (. . . 19th place behind the Browns)

Weeks 9-16

25.41 EPA (. . . second behind the Rams)

I picked out those weeks through intuition, I should note. Facing the Chargers, Wilson seemed to scramble confidently again. In Week 17, he uh throttled down. Also these stats are not opponent adjusted, but they’re not cooked either. I simply followed my intuition and looked. I haven’t time to cook anything but food for myself and my wife. I am perhaps the foremost proponent of the idea that a scrambling quarterback improves the overall rushing attack, and so the above may be loaded with confirmation bias. Criticize away, I don’t blame you.


David Byrne in his inimitable yet often imitated way, um, rapped:

Facts are simple and facts are straight


Facts just twist the truth around

Facts are living turned inside out


Facts continue to change their shape

And I was mindful of that ... fact before writing this. That is the fact that facts are often slippery and deceitful. I try to make this column a performance. It is a crowded universe for Seahawks coverage and NFL coverage in general, and I never developed a specialty I could put on my non-existent business card. I want to make following the Seahawks a little more fun and in the time I have I do what I am capable of to achieve that.

Saturday’s game will be a performance. What specific talents and abilities prove definitive are impossible to accurately project. I belong to a generation which I think doesn’t much understand performance, and is inclined to thinking that an author writing a bad book, or a director making a bad movie, or a band making a bad song, &c. is a testament to some profound failure of character. Maybe this isn’t a generational thing but a consumer-driven culture thing, but the more you try your very best, the less inclined you are to think others failed by your estimation because of a defect in character. It is incredibly hard to do well at almost anything worth doing, not least because the competition for anything worth doing is crazy tough.

Dak Prescott is a damn good quarterback, but he may not be a very good NFL quarterback. He’s not much of a deep passer and that’s little changed in his short career. That is not to say he can’t throw deep or that he won’t throw deep effectively; or that he won’t rush effectively; or that Seattle will clearly have the better performance from their quarterback on Saturday. But in his third season and especially in the second half of that season, Prescott has been throwing short, and short of the sticks; he has cut way down on his scrambling, scrambling less effectively, and leading a much less effective rushing offense; he has bled sacks and fumbles; and that has resulted in a bad individual performance and a bad team performance for the Cowboys offense.

Russell Wilson is a damn good quarterback, and he may soon be the best quarterback in the NFL. He was a great deep passer from snap one and is now perhaps the best deep passer in the league. That is not to say he will be effective on Saturday; or that he will run effectively or at all; or that Seattle will clearly have the better performance from their quarterback. But in his seventh season and especially in the second half of that season, Wilson has been throwing deep, or at the sticks if needed; he has found a way to scramble effectively individually and in a manner which helps his overall rushing attack; he has bled sacks and fumbles; and that has resulted in a top ten performance individually and as a part of a top ten offense.

That’s goddamn hard to do. Failure is as easy as yielding to gravity. So while I’m here projecting stuff, sizing people up with numbers and rankings, I feel inclined to say: Saturday is another performance. Perhaps the first in a long run of incredible success for Prescott. Perhaps ... nah, Wilson’s gonna kill it.